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. [see 1925 menu, Abraham & Straus, Brooklyn NY] 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 in Chicago (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