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

7 Comments

Filed under department stores, tea shops

7 responses to “Department store restaurants: Wanamaker’s

  1. dan

    My father was the manager of the Crystal Tea Room in the late 1930’s. He had to leave because he was drafted into WWII. He wore a morning coat at lunch time, and a tuxedo in the evening. He always joked with my mother that he got married in his work clothes. I have a tea set from there, black with white interior.

  2. I love this, thank you so much. I was a frequent eater of chicken salad at The Bird Cage.

  3. My Grandmother took me to the Crystal Tea room at John Wanamakers when I was a kid. I always remembered it fondly. We had a nice selection of finger sandwiches, delicious scones with cream and jam, and of course, hot tea served in nice big tea cups.

    • My grandmother also took my sisters and I to the Crystal Tea Room in the 1960’s, at Christmas and Easter. At Christmas time they had a giant tree, beautifully decorated and an enormous Easter Egg at Easter. For the latter, I remember you could smell the chocolate and I once asked my grandmother what they did with the egg afterwards and she told me they gave it to orphans. I never did find out what the truth was; however, these are some of my fondest childhood memories. She taught us how to be proper young ladies and I enjoyed being well dressed and dining in this beautiful room. I regret that I am unable to share this experience with my granddaughter.

  4. Dorothy Frick

    Whatever happened to the “birdcage” tea room? I can remember being taken there when I was quite young.

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