The Virginia Dare was a genteel shoppers' rendezvous

Jacques Kelly

February 19, 1991|By Jacques Kelly

Downtown Howard Street today bears little resemblance to the bustling commercial rialto it was in the 1950s.

On a walk through the area, where the light-rail system is under construction, I found myself recalling some of the institutions along the 300 block, between Saratoga and Mulberry streets.

In the main, the buildings are still there, but the businesses are gone from the block -- the old Oriole Cafeteria with its art deco interior; Pollack's furniture, where everything was sold on credit; Hess Shoes, once the flagship of the still vigorous chain; Minch and Eisenbrey's, a name once synonymous with good mahogany furniture; Harry Chambers' eye glasses, a great old firm whose waiting room recalled the 1920s; the Stieff piano showroom; Schleisner's women's apparel, famous for costly gloves and outfits; Fred Walker's music, where you could play as many 78-rpm records as you could carry; and a spot where the Virginia Dare once stood.

The Virginia Dare. It was always called that, with the article preceding the first name. It was a destination, an institution, and a relic.

The Virginia Dare was a candy store, bakery and restaurant. It was lined with tall, gold-trimmed wood glass cases. They seemed more like the high altar at a cathedral than a mere confectionery palace. It was a genteel shoppers' rendezvous out of a 1910 city on the Danube.

I recall the displays of cakes with delicate white and pink icing. There were trays of chocolates stacked on doilies. Even the raisin buns had a pedigree.

In the rear, was a busy restaurant. Lunch might be a veal cutlet, with a side serving of peas, clumped in a little bird's nest. I always wondered how they made those birds' nests.

At the Virginia Dare, some friends of mine once innocently opened a box of playing cards recently purchased at Hutzler's. The manager rushed over to the table and told the group to put the cards away. The 300 block of N. Howard St. and the sacred Virginia Dare were not to be confused with Las Vegas.

Many years later, I was in Vienna, Austria, a city famed for its fancy tea and coffee shops. I walked into Demel's, one of the best known, only to be disappointed and sniff, "Well, it's a smaller version of the Virginia Dare."

The store and its restaurant closed in the first half of the 1960s. There were murmurs of regret. Its passing seemed inevitable.

One August, I was on Howard Street and saw the bulldozers clearing the site. All that was left was the rubble of the vestibule.

I'd never noticed it before, but underfoot was a mosaic tile floor, with alternating light and dark blue squares. I reached down and scooped up a small chunk of masonry. That little rock is still on my desk. It weighs about the same as a pound box of Virginia Dare chocolates.

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