In 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.
And 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.
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.
A 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
16 responses to “Department store restaurants: Marshall Field’s”
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Many wonderful memories of lunches with my Mother her friends and occasionally an invited friend of mine. Special lunches were in the Walnut Room around the majestic Christmas tree, or an Easter Bunny hopping around the room. Desert was a must a snowmans face on a marshmallow with a happy face raisin eyes and a scoop if Vanilla ice cream and a vanilla wafer to top it off. The end of a Special Day at MFCo. Found memories forever…
Loved reminiscing about Marshall Fields who had the best clothing items and the lovely perfume aisle, too.
Hello– I have a group of vintage restaurant menus and have come across one called ‘The Mission Grill’ on the front cover, with menu inside (Today’s Luncheon: Eighty Five Cents) and Marshall Field & Company on the back cover. No dates and can not find any information. Can you help? Thank you
The Mission Grill was on the 7th floor. Despite the name “Grill” which usually indicates a men-only eating place in department stores, this was open to women and fashion shows were held there at times. I find it advertised from 1927 to 1933, though that doesn’t necessarily mean those were the only years it existed.
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My great-grandmother, Anna Christina Lindahl emigrated from Sweden in 1879, where she had been a maid in a Swedish aristocrat’s home. The story in the family is the Lindahls lived in Lake Forest and took in clerks from the Chicago store for short respite/vacations from the store. The girls enjoyed beach parties and the like. But they also enjoyed great grandma’s cardamom bread. Someone from the store had grandma supply the bread to the store for its tea room. I suspect this would have been around 1900 (prior to the Lake Forest store founding). It may have been only for the Christmas holiday time. But I would like to know if this can be researched and if the family story is true. It certainly fits what I have read above about Ms Haring and Ms Tilden. Can you verify any of the story or steer me to someone who can? Thank you
I wish I could help, but I know of no resource that could supply the information you are looking for. It is certainly plausible that your great-grandmother might have supplied bread but she would have to have had access to a large baking facility to do so. Also, I would think that by 1900 the store’s food supply system would have been more formalized than it had been in the early days of the tea room.
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During the early 1950’s I was four years old. Every Christmas season we would take a trip on the El to the loop to see the windows at Marshall Fields and have lunch in the tea room. Twenty years later I was pushing our first child in his stroller to see the windows at Marshall Fields. Since then we have moved to Florida. I’m sad to know Marshall Fields is gone.
June from the NW side of Chicago
This is intriguing! Is there any way to find the exact dining recipes for the dishes served in the beautiful department store restaurants?
You might enjoy Angela McRae’s delightful book Dainty Dining which is about department store recipes. Other than that and a handful of books about individual stores, it is challenging to find recipes from department stores of old.
Ahh, the difference between “eating” and “dining”.
Sadly these days we seem to like to go to “food barns” that call themselves restaurants.
Even sadder is the loss of our own home grown Chicago icons such as Marshall Field and Company. I have always thought of Marshall Field’s as a comfortable arm chair. Since the demise of Marshall Field’s I have read many sneers from those who say “Who cares” or “Field’s is dead, get over it”. The point is we now face a gray and boring future without them. So I hope those who don’t care enjoy the homogenized future. Perhaps we can arrange for everyone to dress in gray in uniforms and outlaw art and music while we are at it?
I enjoy your idea of looking at restaurants in history. I rarely go out, partly because there is not much around here worth going out to, partly because I love cooking, sharing and eating my own. I am a professional and food writer and, generally, I do better than many average restaurant chefs at fraction of the cost, though I miss the ambiance of restaurants.
Check out my latest (Nov/08):
Tried and True Recipes from a Caterer’s Kitchen—Secrets of Making Great Foods
What a wonderful story Jan.