Francis Joseph Clifford, 83, Virginia Dare proprietor

November 02, 1998|By Heather Dewar | Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

Francis Joseph Clifford, the gracious proprietor of the equally gracious Virginia Dare Co., a downtown dining spot for genteel Baltimoreans from the 1920s to the 1960s, died Thursday of Alzheimer's disease.

The longtime Roland Park resident was 83. He had lived at College Manor Nursing Home in Lutherville for five years.

The Clifford family's emporium, which was founded by Mr. Clifford's father and uncle as a turn-of-the-century candy company and expanded into a prime Howard Street location in 1924, was a classic example of a now-vanished phenomenon: the tea room, where downtown shoppers, mostly female, lunched on delicate dishes among gilded mirrors and white linen.

The rise of suburban malls spelled the demise of America's tea rooms. "I don't think anyone has the leisure for them anymore," said a daughter, Patricia Clifford of Baltimore.

The site of the Virginia Dare is now a parking lot, but the place lives vividly in many Baltimoreans' memories: soda fountain on the left, candy counter piled high with butter-creams and marzipan on the right, chandelier-bedecked dining room in the back.

"It was rather genteel, maybe even stuffy, but it certainly was respectable," Patricia Clifford said. "You would be very comfortable taking your mother there."

Mr. Clifford, who became president of the company in 1948, was at the tea room almost every day. At 6 feet 2 inches, with thick black hair and a mustache, dressed in a suit and bow tie, "he was the epitome of tall, dark and handsome," said Patricia Clifford. But he was shy and didn't mingle much with customers, occasionally saying a brief hello before retreating to the kitchen or adjacent candy shop, his daughter said.

Born in Baltimore in 1915 and raised on 30th Street in what is now Charles Village, Mr. Clifford dropped out of an Eastern Shore boarding school and went into the family business.

In 1940, the Virginia Dare served 50-cent dinners of crab cakes and chicken a la king, and "chocolate eclairs to die for," Patricia Clifford said. Its handmade chocolates were a Valentine's Day standard.

"I have a memory of going in and buying a 3-pound box of chocolates and signing a chit for it, eating myself sick," said a son, Francis Gerard Clifford of Los Angeles. "It took me 20 years to eat candy again."

Mr. Clifford sold the candy company and its downtown site in 1965 and the tea room closed, just as Howard Street's department stores and specialty shops were beginning to shift operations to Towson.

"Downtown changed and the business dropped off," Patricia Clifford said.

After the sale of the company, Mr. Clifford invested in real estate and owned several racehorses, often taking his younger children to watch a favorite named Shaman race at tracks in Delaware and New Jersey. The horses never brought in a bundle, but they paid for themselves, said another son, Brett Clifford of Baltimore.

Private services for Mr. Clifford were scheduled for today.

Mr. Clifford was married twice; both wives predeceased him.

He is survived by another daughter, Courtenay Clifford Hadfield of Newport, R.I.; a sister, Virginia Dare Clifford Bell of Baltimore; and eight grandchildren.

Pub Date: 11/02/98

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