The Tea Room at the Woman's Industrial Exchange is plain. Its food is plain. Its service is plain.
Plain good, that is.
The Tea Room, behind the gift shop filled with homemade cookies, crocheted baby sweaters and magnificent quilts, is an unobtrusive spot for lunch -- breakfast, too -- with efficient service and flavorful food at reasonable prices.
There are no pretensions here. You are seated quickly at a plainly set table, waited upon quickly, expected to order quickly and served likewise. The menu is two sheets of blue paper in a clear plastic protector -- many of which have seen better days. The offerings are simple: homemade soups; salads that include Jell-O, peaches with cottage cheese, tomato aspic; sandwiches; platters; and homemade desserts with butterscotch tarts and charlotte russe among them.
One doesn't have to go much farther than the special -- " 1/2 egg salad sandwich with cup chicken soup, slaw. $3.25" -- to know that this is truly a tearoom, a place that harkens back to a kinder and gentler time.
The Woman's Industrial Exchange, formed just after the Civil War, was incorporated in 1882 for the "purpose of endeavoring by sympathy and practical aid to encourage and help needy women to help themselves by procuring for them and establishing a sales room for the sale of Women's Work," according to the small blue brochure that accompanies the menu.
The exchange moved to the building at the corner of Charles and Pleasant streets in 1887 and has been selling handwork and serving meals there ever since.
On a recent weekday, the lunch time clientele represented all sorts of downtown diners -- businessmen, elderly ladies, young couples and groups of women undoubtedly taking breaks from work that wasn't considered "woman's" when the exchange came to be.
My lunch companion and I began with soup. She ordered a cup of lima bean ($1) and I had chicken noodle (85 cents). Both were quite good. Mine had plenty of chicken and tiny noodles in a rich broth.
Even though I had started with chicken, I could not resist what the menu touts as "Baltimore's Best Chicken Salad" ($4.25). I was not disappointed. My sandwich, served with a handful of potato chips, was thick with the salad and the salad was thick with pieces of real chicken; the celery and mayonnaise were clearly subservient.
The chicken salad is also served as a salad with a deviled egg and tomato aspic for $5.25
My friend ordered the "Save A Heart" Salad ($4.50), which was more like a cold plate lunch. It included several slices of white meat of chicken, whole wheat bread, cottage cheese and applesauce. She liked it a lot; I thought it a bit skimpy.
But that, of course, left plenty of room for dessert; we were not about to pass it up. She ordered a slice of lemon pie ($1.25), which seemed to be the piece de resistance that day; we saw others all around us ordering it. The filling, which she described as "very lemony," oozed out over the crust. This was no mass-produced pie.
I had a lemon tart ($1.25). The thin, crisp pastry was filled with a lovely, lemony mixture and topped with just a bit of whipped cream. It was a nice treat. (The lemon tarts sold in the gift shop have a thick meringue topping and cost $2.25).
Our bill, which we paid to a gracious lady sitting behind a small table with a cash drawer, was just under $16. It included one iced tea and two coffees as well as the three courses we had each enjoyed. A note about the coffee: I had ordered mine early and was served a "hoddel" -- a small plastic pot holding perhaps two cups (75 cents). My friend, who ordered her coffee with dessert, was served a cup (60 cents). We guessed one is not meant to linger over coffee here.
What the Tea Room lacks in sophistication, it makes up for in local color. And if some of the portions are a bit small, there is more than enough flavor in the surroundings to satisfy the biggest appetite.
*** The Woman's Industrial
Exchange Tea Room
333 N. Charles St.
Hours: breakfast, 7 to 11 a.m.; lunch, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Reservations: None accepted.
Credit cards: None accepted.
Handicapped access: Limited access.
Smoking: Designated smoking and non-smoking sections.