Remembering the department store tea room

An elegant fixture turned into a distant memory
Remembering the department store tea room
Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society

I hate going to the mall or driving all over town to find something I need (or think I need). If I can, I buy it online.

But when I was a little kid, shopping was an adventure. Accompanying my mother into the heart of the city was a journey into the mysterious adult world of hustle and bustle. It was extraordinary from the start, since I wore my best clothes even though it wasn’t Sunday. It was an essential ingredient in the anticipation of Christmas that never came fast enough, the end of summer that came too quickly, and the thrill of squandering the $10 fortune that my aunt gave me each birthday. Whenever my mother and I went shopping, inevitably it meant lunch at a tea room in a big department store, a blithe bonus.

The roots of the American tea room are in its British counterpart, a place where women could enjoy the national beverage and light meals in a safe and sedate setting. Prior to World War I, a lady dining in a public restaurant unescorted by a gentleman was nothing short of scandalous. Marshall Field’s hit upon the idea of opening a cafe in its store that catered exclusively to its female clientele. The Chicago mercantile giant is gone now, taken over by Macy’s, but its famous Walnut Room at the flagship location on State Street survives, though it faces an uncertain future. For the most part, tea rooms have disappeared, just like local department stores.

In their heyday, tea rooms were celebrated for their homey chicken pot pies, frilly club sandwiches and plump tomatoes stuffed with chicken salad. The big stores always had their own bakeries, furnishing hot rolls, gooey coffee cakes and decadent desserts. One of my favorite destinations in Indianapolis was L.S. Ayres. Its children’s menu was cut out in the shape of a train. I always ordered the Engineer’s Special– creamed chicken served in a ceramic locomotive with duchess potatoes and peas–and washed it down with pink lemonade before my trip to the treasure chest to collect my free toy.

The Square in Madison was home to two department stores, Manchester’s and Baron’s, and both had tea rooms. I don’t remember much about Baron Brothers (Rare Steakhouse occupies its ground floor today). By the time I moved here in the late 1950s, it appeared defeated, desperately trying to lure back customers from the new shopping centers with S&H Green Stamps. On the other hand, at Harry S. Manchester Inc. located just down the street, the future looked bright. Up-to-date decor and an unrivaled view of the Capitol helped make its Madison Room the No. 1 women’s luncheon destination in town. My mother would often go there for the frequent fashion shows–with my older sister, but not with me. By then I had outgrown eating at tea rooms and soon it seemed everyone else had as well.

Dan Curd is a contributing writer to Madison Magazine. His Relish column appears monthly.