A year after a gala reopening and an expensive building renovation, the tearoom at the Woman's Industrial Exchange will serve a last lunch today while the board that runs the historic Charles Street institution searches for a new restaurant operator.
The lunchroom, at Charles and Pleasant streets within sight of the Washington Monument, has been a bastion of old Baltimore cooking since the 19th century. It was locally renowned for its dainty chicken salad and tomato aspic platters served weekdays only, but business had been poor recently.
"It's a real tragedy for the city, very sad news," said former state Sen. Julian L. Lapides, an attorney who had lunch there several weeks ago. "The roll was not fresh and as good as it had been. The Exchange needs to bring back all the comfort foods it once had. I miss the floating island and lemon tarts and all the homemade desserts. I miss the old waitresses, too."
The 20-member board of directors, which runs the exchange, is seeking restaurateurs to take over the food service and lease the kitchen and dining area, which seats about 100.
Bit of old Baltimore
"It's a little bit of old Baltimore," said Helen Weiss, the new president of the 20-member all-volunteer board that runs the institution founded after the Civil War to enable impoverished, genteel women to sell their handmade goods anonymously.
"I personally see the Exchange as the poor man's Marconi's," Weiss said, referring to the white tablecloth West Saratoga Street restaurant also founded decades ago. "The Exchange is anachronistic and that's very Baltimore. We are going to make it."
The Exchange's sales room, where clothes and toys made by limited-income consignors are sold, will remain open throughout the restaurant's hiatus.
In an announcement yesterday, the Women's Exchange said it "regrets that it will close the restaurant temporarily as of Monday, January 24 until we can find a new operator. We also regret losing our current operator, Roslyn DuPree and wish her the best in future endeavors."
Workers from Goodwill
DuPree, 47, leased the restaurant and began operations there in December 2003 after operating a coffee shop in the Rotunda shopping center in North Baltimore and working at Hampden's Cafe Hon. She said she felt she had complied with the Exchange's mission of helping those in need.
DuPree said she hired workers trained at Goodwill Industries as service staff. In the past year, she employed 25 people, many of whom left the Exchange and went on to other jobs, she said.
"The Exchange was a steppingstone for them to learn the ropes of the industry," DuPree said.
"I thought this was the mission of the Exchange and I thought I had done a good job."
Business drops off
DuPree said that patronage had begun to dwindle in February.
"The expectations of the old-time customers were not there. You can't rekindle the yester-years," DuPree said.
"I worked very hard. I was proud of my accomplishments and was sad to see it not succeed."
For many years, the Exchange board hired its own wait staff - many veterans of now-gone department store tea rooms - and cook. The menu featured homemade chicken dishes - including a well-received chicken soup and crab cake - often accompanied by the tomato aspic. Main dishes were accompanied by homemade rolls.
"The board of the Exchange has to run the restaurant itself," Lapides said. "Good local food will draw people. It's a case of if they serve it, they will come."
DuPree, who ran the restaurant for the past 14 months, said it was impossible to continue making all baked goods on the spot and some ready-made items, such as desserts that she purchased from food purveyors, were "really quite excellent."
Weiss said that while the tea room had been operating only for lunch recently, there were no prohibitions on a new operator keeping it open in the evening and on weekends.
"Charles Street is on the rebound in terms of restaurants, and we hope to reopen with a new operator," Weiss said. "The bread and butter of our business is the people who work downtown."
Not all its customers faulted the restaurant.
"The premises had been sharpened up," said longtime customer Howard Simpson, who lives in Roland Park. "I had a cup of soup and a salad, and it seemed about the same as always."
When the 19th-century Exchange building reopened in late 2003 after a $2 million renovation that included rehabbing seven apartments, modernizing bathrooms and adding an elevator, the changes eliminated a dumbwaiter and added a microwave to the stainless steel kitchen.
"We have to find the right person to embrace old Baltimore," Weiss said. "We have good traffic. I am confident we can do it again."