Tag Archives: department stores

Department store restaurants: Marshall Field’s

mfwalnutroom092271In 1890 Harry Gordon Selfridge, manager of Field’s in Chicago, took the then-unusual step of persuading a middle-class woman to help with a new project at the store. Her name was Sarah Haring (pictured) and she was the wife of a businessman and a mother. In the parlance of the day, she was needed to recruit “gentlewomen” (= middle-class WASPs) who had “experienced reverses” (= were unexpectedly poor), and knew how to cook “dainty dishes” (= middle-class food) which they were willing to prepare and deliver to the store each day.

sarahharing1894And so — despite Marshall Field’s personal dislike of restaurants in dry goods stores — the Selfridge-Haring-gentlewomen team created the first tea room at Marshall Field’s. It began with a limited menu, 15 tables, and 8 waitresses. Sarah Haring’s recruits acquitted themselves well. One, Harriet Tilden Brainard, who initially supplied gingerbread, would go on to build a successful catering business, The Home Delicacies Association. Undoubtedly it was Harriet who introduced one of the tea room’s most popular dishes, Cleveland Creamed Chicken. Meanwhile, Sarah would continue as manager of the store’s tea rooms until 1910, when she opened a restaurant of her own, patenting a restaurant dishwasher in her spare time.

The store’s first tea room met with success. When Field’s Wabash Street annex opened in 1893, an expansion timed to the World’s Columbian Exposition, the tea room moved into that space, seating 300 and taking up the entire 4th floor.mfmenu229

More tea rooms were added, including the Walnut Room which opened on the 7th floor of the new State Street building in 1907 (pictured, 1909). By this time the store’s restaurants could accommodate 2,500 people. Considering that the holiday season could attract as many as 200,000 shoppers daily, they were all needed. By the 1920s there were seven restaurants altogether: the Narcissus Fountain Room, the North Grill Room, the South Grill (aka Circassian Walnut Room), the Wabash Avenue Tea Room, the Colonial Quick Service Tea Room, the Wedgwood Room, and the Men’s “Grill” in the Store for Men.

mfmensgrill228A graduate of Chicago’s School of Domestic Arts and Sciences named Beatrice Hudson opened the all-male sanctum Men’s Grill (pictured) about 1914 and was responsible for developing a famed corned beef hash which stayed on the menu for 50+ years. Later she would own several restaurants in Los Angeles, coming out of retirement at age 76 to manage the Hollywood Brown Derby and again in her 80s to run The Old World Restaurant in Westwood.

The Depression evidently took a toll on the store’s restaurants because by 1941 only four remained. According to an advertisement customers could enjoy their North Shore Codfish Cakes, Canadian Cheese Soup, French Bread, and Chicken Pie in either the “Stately Walnut Room, picturesque Narcissus Fountain Room, rose-carpeted English Room, [or] serve-yourself Crystal Buffet.” For many years no liquor was served in Field’s restaurants – except for the Men’s Grill. Liquor or no, by 1952 the store’s restaurants sometimes fed as many as 25,000 people a day.

In later years many customers preferred to grab a quick snack and the store obliged. In the 1980s the 7th floor housed three cafeterias, a self-service pizza/pasta/salad bar, and a take-out sandwich stand. The full-service Walnut Room, however, continued, and was especially popular with Chicagoans for whom dining there was a family holiday tradition.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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Department store restaurants: Wanamaker’s

Until very recently I thought John Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia had the first in-store restaurant in the U.S. Several scholars have insisted this is true, with the exception of a Macy’s historian who claimed R. H. Macy was first, in May 1878. Wanamaker’s, I’ve discovered, did not install eating facilities until September of 1879 when it enticed a local caterer, Alice Weldon, to run her restaurant inside The Grand Depot, as the store was known then. Weldon, a confectioner born in Ireland, operated a popular oyster-plus-ice-cream café near the store (it sounds like an odd combination but such places were once common). Every day all the shoppers would vacate the store to go eat at Alice’s, so Wanamaker reasoned he had to have her on his side. For about six years she ran the forerunner of The Dairy, an eatery the store created in 1883, one year after installing a soda fountain (another department store first claimed by Wanamaker’s).

The better known restaurant in the Philadelphia store was the Grand Crystal Tea Room which opened on the 8th floor of the new Wanamaker’s completed in 1911. Immense and filled with chandeliers, it was modeled on the tea room in the Philadelphia mansion of Robert Morris, a financier of the American Revolution. Also on the 8th floor, speedily reached by 24 direct-service elevators, were a number of private dining rooms, a men-only tea room, and the store’s ultra-modern kitchens. The Grand Crystal Tea Room survived the demise of Wanamaker’s and the tenure of its successor but finally closed in 1995 and is now a private banquet hall.

The New York City Wanamaker’s, opened in 1896 in the old A. T. Stewart store and closed in 1954, was also well supplied with esteemed eating places. A 1900 menu shows a full complement of delectable lunch choices, including blue points, cream of new asparagus soup, and lamb with mint sauce. The store’s tea room advertised ca. 1908 that its tea was “specially imported,” and prided itself on its “quaint service.” In 1940 the store operated three eating places on the 9th floor: the main restaurant, Green Shutters; a more casual Side Walk Café; and a Men’s Grill decorated with antique French tapestries.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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Lunching in the Bird Cage

Lord & Taylor’s Bird Cage restaurant and tea room was opened in the late 1930s. It continued on the fifth floor of the Fifth Avenue New York City store until the 1980s when it was updated and renamed Café American Style. Accommodating only about one hundred persons, the Bird Cage was considerably smaller than the main restaurant in Altman’s which held over two hundred, as well as Abraham & Straus’s in Brooklyn which held over four hundred. Until the mid-1970s the Bird Cage was outfitted with armchairs with trays connected to them. In the early years each tray was supplied with a complimentary cigarette. Diners selected sandwiches, salads, and desserts from rolling carts modeled on Italian racing cars. As Lord & Taylor branches were opened after World War II in locations such as Westchester (shown here, 1948), Millburn NJ, Hartford CT, and Washington DC, they too were furnished with their own Bird Cages.

For many years the Bird Cage staff at the Fifth Avenue store provided refreshments to shoppers who arrived before the store opened each morning. Lord & Taylor president Dorothy Shaver initiated the custom and insisted that the coffee, juice (in summer), or bouillon (when temperatures were frigid) be served in china, not paper, cups.

birdcagemilkbarny1950Other well-loved eateries in the Manhattan store were the men’s Soup Bar on the tenth floor and the children’s Milk Bar (shown, 1950). Scotch broth and deep-dish apple cobbler with rum sauce were specialties at the Soup Bar.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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Department store restaurants

In small cities – and some large ones too – restaurants in department stores were frequently the best places to eat. Often they did their own baking and made desserts from scratch. It was not unusual for them to whip up mayonnaise and produce their own potato chips. Their kitchens were often directed and entirely staffed by women professionally trained in restaurant management. They invariably favored home-style methods of cooking. Dishes popular through the decades included chicken pot pies, tomatoes stuffed with chicken salad, club sandwiches, and frozen fruit salads. The dessert sections of their menus were lengthy — layer cakes, eclairs, and chiffon pies were always to be had. If the diner wanted more sweets at meal’s end, she could always pick up a box of bon bons or chocolate pralines made in the store’s candy kitchen. In the 1950s and 1960s menus cropped up with diet specials such as vegetable plates and cottage cheese salads.

To list the most famous department store restaurants and tea rooms (as they were often called) would be an impossible task, but among those that leap to mind are: Marshall Field’s (which ran 11 restaurants simultaneously at one point and might serve as many as 10,000 meals on an especially busy Saturday before Christmas); Wanamaker’s Grand Crystal Tea Room; Lord & Taylor’s Bird Cage in New York City (liverwurst and lettuce on rye); Altman’s Charleston Garden (“no tipping please”); Rich’s Magnolia Room; Higbee’s Silver Grille; and G. Fox’s Connecticut Room (which served Guernsey milk fresh from the store’s Auerfarm dairy).

By the late 1960s, modernity made department store restaurants obsolete. The times had changed and so had the pace of life. Women no longer had time to linger. Men who had once enjoyed eating in department store “grill” rooms reserved especially for them also moved on to quicker venues. Stores closed or revamped their large, elegant tea rooms, switching to speedier Bite Bars and Cafeterias. An era had ended.

© Jan Whitaker, 2008

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