The first tea room in American opened at Marshall Field's in Chicago in 1890, although Wannamaker's in Philadelphia insists its Crystal Tea Room was first. In the 19th century, ladies shopping downtown returned home for lunch; having lunch at a downtown restaurant unescorted by a gentleman was not considered ladylike. But after a Marshall Field's clerk shared her lunch (a chicken pot pie) with a tired shopper, Field's hit on the idea of opening a department store tea room so that women shoppers would not feel the need to make two trips to complete their shopping.
In the first half of the twentieth century, department store restaurants were some of the best places in town to eat. They often did their own baking and made desserts from scratch. They whipped up mayonnaise and produced their own potato chips. Dishes popular through the decades included chicken pot pies, tomatoes stuffed with chicken salad, club sandwiches and frozen fruit salads.
Most tea rooms had children's menus; department store restaurants were pioneers in catering to children. And it was as children, accompanied by their mothers, that most St. Louis baby boomers first visited the tea rooms at Famous-Barr, Stix Baer & Fuller and Scruggs Vandervoort Barney.
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Vandervoort's started out as a dry goods store
in 1850. In 1907 the store moved into the Syndicate Trust building
at Tenth and Olive, where it became Vandervoort's flagship store in
downtown St. Louis — with their Tea Room on the seventh floor.
Vandervoort opened its first branch store in
Clayton in 1951 at the corner of Hanley and Forsyth; its tea room
was dubbed Forsyth Corner.
Vandervoort's Crestwood Plaza branch opened in 1958. Its Crestwood Tea Room was strikingly elegant, with its field-green rug, white louver-lighted wall and three Victorian chandeliers. The chairs were done in walnut, with eggshell vinyl upholstery. Specially designed dishes matched the mint green, eggshell, blush pink and white decor.
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Stix, Baer and Fuller,
originally called the Grand-Leader, was a St. Louis institution for
almost a century. Founded in 1892 by Charles Stix, brothers Julius
Baer and Sigmond Baer, and Aaron Fuller, they moved their
Grand-Leader department store to the corner of Broadway and
Washington Avenue in 1897. The building came to include 3 broad
staircases, 6 passenger elevators, reception rooms for "tired women
and children," and a soda fountain in the basement. With the tagline
"The Fastest Growing Store in America" the building did in fact
become too small, housing the department store only until 1906, when
it moved to Sixth and Washington Avenue.
The new Grand-Leader building had eight floors and 60 separate departments. The store was hailed as modern and progressive in its design. Department stores in the 20th century were attempting to establish themselves as civic institutions rather that profit driven businesses. To accomplish this and to lure in their mostly female clientele, the store incorporated free public telephone service, waiting and writing rooms, as well as manicurists, hairdressers, bathrooms on almost every floor and even "hospital rooms" staffed with physicians and nurses.
A restaurant that could accommodate 750
comfortably was strategically placed on the top floor to get patrons
to circulate through the floors. A massive soda fountain was
installed in the center of the main floor that could seat 100 people
around a 21 foot tall mirrored column topped with statuary, a proven
method to get women to meet and socialize in the store. By the mid
1930s, Stix, Baer & Fuller offered multiple luncheon
By the late 1940s, Stix, Baer & Fuller's sixth floor was home to the highly regarded Missouri Room.
In addition to the Missouri Room, the Stix downtown store also offered the more casual SBF Fountain, which featured soups, salads and sandwiches.
In 1955, Stix expanded into the suburbs,
opening multiple branch stores — Westroads (1955), River Roads
(1961), Crestwood Plaza (1967), Jamestown Mall (1973), Chesterfield Mall
(1976), Northwest Plaza (1978) and St. Clair Square (1979).
The branch stores all had tea rooms. The Garden Room was on the second floor at Westroads. It was known for its Encore salad — a chef salad with cheese, turkey, bacon and Thousand Island dressing. On the side was an alligator roll — a roll with a crackled top crust resembling alligator skin.
When the River Roads store opened in 1961, a separate adjacent building housed the Pavilion Restaurant, open seven days a week for lunch and dinner. Two live trees, eight feet and twelve feet tall, were featured in the glass-walled center section. A pool, with a sculptured marble fountain, added to the garden atmosphere. The main dining room was French Provincial in feeling, with antiqued walnut chairs and star-flecked, deep blue carpeting. An informal patio area had a flagstone floor and wrought iron furniture in pale blue. Lighting was rheostat controlled and could be focused on models when a fashion show was in progress.
The more upscale Pavilion concept was not carried over to the Crestwood store, or to the four branch stores that followed. Subsequent Stix, Baer and Fuller tea rooms were all Garden Rooms.
In 1966, Stix was purchased by Associated Dry Goods. Unable to compete against Famous-Barr, Associated Dry Goods sold the 13-store division in 1984 to Dillard's, which re-branded the stores to the Dillard's name.
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In 1913, by way of the
William Barr Dry Goods Company and the Famous Clothing Company,
the Famous-Barr Company found itself occupying the lower
floors of the enormous Railway Exchange Building in downtown St.
Louis. And as early as 1913, Farmous-Barr had a tea room.
The Tea Room, located on the sixth floor, was
open from 9:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. It was a venue to celebrate special
occasions and holidays. In 1915, Famous started entertaining their
women customers during lunch with its Luncheon and Fashion Revue.
From 1915 to 1920, afternoon tea was offered in the Tea Room, with
an assortment of sandwiches, ice cream for dessert, and coffee or
While Stix, Baer and Fuller expanded into the suburbs, Famous-Barr exploded, starting with its Clayton store in 1948. Tea rooms followed in lockstep; Clayton had its Wedgewood Room, Southtown (1951) its Mississippi Room and Northland (1955) its Jade Room. In 1954, the downtown store opened its sixth floor St. Louis Room.
When Famous-Barr opened its West County store in 1969, it featured the upscale Mauretania Room. The 120-seat restaurant was elegantly furnished and decorated with hand carved walnut paneling, moldings and cornices from the Cunard Line's R.M.S. Mauretania. The paneling, purchased by Famous-Barr in England, accented sparkling chandeliers and gold-silk moiré fabric walls.
But more distinctive than Famous-Barr's tea rooms themselves were two items on their menus — their French onion soup and their John White burger.
There's ongoing debate as to who gets credit for Famous-Barr's iconic French onion soup. Chef Manfred Zettl often gets the nod, but he became Famous-Barr's Executive Chef in 1963, while French onion soup can be found on tea room menus as early as 1954. Thomas Ferrario was Executive Chef throughout the 1950s and Erich Dahl was Director of Food and Beverage. Both had a hand in creating the soup which Manfred Zettl perfected. The soup was thick and rich, and came from the kitchen in a McCoy pottery brown drip soup bowl bubbling with melted Gruyere cheese atop two slices of French baguette. The cheese was so thick and stringy when spooned, it was a challenge to get it into your mouth.
Chef Erich Dahl created Famous-Barr's John White burger. Dahl tells the story of a cook at the Clayton store name John White. In those days, there were new menus every day, with menu items named for employees. White wanted something named for him too. The result was the John White burger. Eventually, the burger was offered at all Famous-Barr restaurants. It stayed on the menu until White died and his heirs sued over use of his name.
The secret to the burger was the onions. According to Dahl, they were sliced thinly, then cooked in ˝ inch of hot oil or shortening and removed when they were brown. If they were cooked too long, they became bitter. The burgers were grilled or broiled hamburger patties, made from ground beef that was 85 percent lean. They were assembled on a toasted bun, with the onions and a rarebit sauce thick enough to stay on the burgers. The sauce included American cheese, dry mustard and Worcestershire sauce.
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Modernity eventually made department store tea rooms obsolete. The times changed and so did the pace of life. Women no longer had time to linger. It was no longer glamorous to park inside a stuffy tearoom next to the lingerie department. Stores closed or revamped their large, elegant tea rooms, switching to speedier bite bars, cafeterias and food courts. People still got hungry when they shopped, but now they had other options. An era had ended.
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