Industrious Exchange

Baltimore institution changes for the better, but charmingly retains much that's familiar.

December 03, 2003|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,SUN STAFF

Folks who know and love it cherish the anachronisms of Baltimore's Woman's Industrial Exchange: The ladies' lunches, the hand-crafted baby items, the suggestions of a kinder, gentler way of life. Making the 19th-century nonprofit a vibrant part of the 21st century, however, has proven challenging. How do you freshen the fare without sacrificing the charm of the original recipe?

After closing for 11 months, the North Charles Street institution opened its doors again this week, much the better for its extensive kitchen and lunch room renovation. Yesterday, the day after its grand reopening, demand was steady for the Exchange's congenial, old-fashioned dining and one-of-a-kind merchandise.

While Mary Brown, the familiar face behind the gift shop counter, introduced customers to Christmas ornaments and accessories, new kid on the block Rozz DuPree cranked up the brand new kitchen to begin producing the signature salads and sandwiches regulars had missed. Here's a taste of what's new at 333 N. Charles St., and, maybe more important, what's still the same.

What's for lunch

The old: The Woman's Industrial Exchange Original: Chicken salad with tomato aspic and deviled eggs.

The new: The Lady Baltimore Salad: Mixed greens with warm almond crusted goat cheese (goat cheese!) and fresh strawberries. (The chicken salad is back, as is the aspic, though slightly updated.)

Dining decor

Old: Three attractive 19th-century fireplaces. Black and white square linoleum floor. Murals, hand-painted in the 1980s, of Baltimore scenes and traditional antebellum damsels. Walls and woodwork of Wedgwood blue and beige. Maroon leatherette banquette with unruly springs. Extremely noisy and large air-conditioning unit. Acoustical tile ceilings with water stain.

New: Three attractive 19th-century fireplaces. Exhibit of art photographs of Mount Vernon area. Walls and woodwork of muted gray and lavender. New tables, chairs and taupe leatherette banquette. An elevator for disabled access. Noisy air-conditioning unit replaced by hidden ventilation. New drop ceiling of spotless sheetrock.

On the tables

Old: The kind of diner-friendly dinnerware that doesn't break when trays bump it.

New: The same china, what trendies call "shabby chic."

At the tables

Old: Customers Tecla and George Chagetas of White Marsh. Tecla began patronizing the Exchange in the 1950s when she would meet working friends for lunch and do a little shopping.

New: At least one group of 20-somethings exploring the world beyond wraps and lattes, dapper businessmen in suits ... and Tecla and George Chagetas. The couple dropped in yesterday for lunch before dentist appointments. Both ordered half a tuna sandwich and soup. George asked the waitress to "run it through the garden," a traditional way to ask for lettuce and tomato.

Service technology

Old: Waitresses relayed their orders to the cook, who was located in a kitchen on a lower floor, by placing them in a pail attached to a chain. Each time someone would place a new order, a cow bell would ring. After the food was ready, a dumbwaiter system would deliver it upstairs. A waitress also hand-poured each soda from a bottle into a glass.

New: Updated kitchen on the same floor as the dining room. A machine dispenses sodas. Oher improvements: a convection oven and steam tables.

On the shelves

Old: Hand-made sock monkeys, christening gowns and baby bonnets, made by persons who were called "consigners" 100 years ago.

New: Sock monkeys (still handmade), wizard hats and midlife crisis dolls, made by persons who are now called "artisans." These days, too many customers read "consignment" as code for "used."

At the counter

Old: Cash register faced the wall; shopkeeper's back faces customer. At best, an awkward situation.

New: Improved feng shui - register faces the customer. Now the shopkeeper can keep up her end of the conversation, leading to a truly old-fashioned and pleasant exchange.

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