Department Store Tea Rooms
Take the elevator to the top

Until the recent tea room renaissance, there were few tea rooms left. Most people today, though, still recall department store tea rooms, with their tall ceilings, city views, fashion shows, and their food made on the premises, right down to the potato chips.

The White House, San Francisco, ca. 1920

The tea room in Raphael Weill's venerable department store was très chic. Patrons could almost believe they were in Paris.

The White House, which was one of San Francisco's "big 5" department stores in the mid 1920s, closed in the 1960s.

According to an afternoon tea menu from the Neiman-Marcus Pent House, ca. 1930s, an English Tea consisted of a plate of small sandwiches, coffee or tea, and cookies while an American Tea was "A Tall Glass of Frosted Coffee with Our Delicious Ice Cream". Interesting concept of tea?

Tea sandwiches were often served by department stores, and could be made of cucumber, chicken salad, chopped olives, chopped dates and cream cheese, or simply lettuce and mayonnaise (probably home-made before WWII).

Burdine's Hibiscus Tea Room, Miami, 1950s
In the 1920s the big attraction in Miami was to eat on Burdine's tea roof under what was said to be the largest canopy roof in a restaurant in the U.S.

After WWII, the tea room -- now indoors and fully air-conditioned -- created a snow princess ice cream dessert for girls and then, by popular demand, a clown dessert for boys (see It’s Better at Burdine’s by Roberta Morgan, Miami: The Pickering Press, 1991).

Keeping the children happy

Most department stores had children's menus. In fact department store tea rooms were pioneers in catering to children.

This menu is from Denver's Daniels & Fisher store, probably from the 1950s. Sandwich choices include peanut butter, BLT, ham salad, sliced chicken or egg, cheese, or baked ham. Hot dishes included poached egg on toast, spinach with a strip of bacon, or a fresh vegetable plate.

Other children's menu staples in the days before hamburgers became popular were creamed chicken on toast, filet of sole, fruit salad, "red cow" cocktails (milk dyed red), grilled cheese sandwiches, and baked custard.
Jan Whitaker (photo by Ellen Augarten)

Tea room memories

I find it remarkable how many women -- and men too -- say that department store tea rooms remind them of their childhood and of long-ago lunches with their mothers, grandmothers and aunts.

Even though they often felt pressed to be on their best behavior during these special meals in grand rooms filled with chandeliers and white tablecloths, their memories are fond ones.

My favorite aunt "Tata" took me to the tea room at the Stix, Baer & Fuller store in the then-new Westroads shopping center in St. Louis (now Galleria). All the food tasted special to me, even the bread and butter.

LaSalle & Koch tea room menu, Toledo, Ohio

Selected Works