How about chipotle mayo on your aspic?

Trendy restaurant taking place of Exchange's former tearoom


Once unthinkable, hip modernity is arriving at a venerable downtown lunch spot: a plasma TV, a chartreuse paint scheme, chipotle mayo and self-service.

The Woman's Industrial Exchange's former tearoom, for more than a century a genteel and leisurely midday rendezvous for a petite platter of chicken salad, tomato aspic, deviled egg and lemon tart, reopens Oct. 18 as the Chef's Express.

The color scheme is "city chartreuse" and "fresh pear," with an exposed stainless-steel kitchen. The new restaurant's operators promise a plasma TV tuned to food channels.

They swear they'll have chicken salad and aspic on the menu, but early reports indicate that the menu genuflects to grilled asparagus, onion marmalade and baguettes.

The former tearoom closed in January after another food-service operator failed to please the traditional tastes of a long-established but dwindling clientele. The Exchange's consignment shop, where quilts, christening gowns, embroidered dresses for little girls and hand-knitted sweaters are sold, remained opened during most of the foodless period.

"The restaurant will mean a great deal to the Exchange's mission of helping women by bringing in the foot traffic we need," said Barbara Gamse, who manages the consignment shop.

Gamse, who ran the Maryland Historical Society's gift shop for nearly 25 years, predicts that the restaurant will be in keeping with new businesses that have opened recently along Charles Street near the Washington Monument.

"Look, you give it a shot," said Chuck Ritz, the new restaurant's chef-manager, who formerly ran the deli-gourmet section of Eddie's of Roland Park.

"The food industry is changing every day. We want to do something different, new to this area," he said.

Word of a reconstructed/deconstructed Exchange restaurant did not meet with joyous approval from at least one longtime customer.

"I'm a traditionalist. I want it just as it was," said former state Sen. Julian L. Lapides. "I'm glad to see they are reopening, but I hope they make a chicken salad like the Woman's Exchange always did."

Located in a 19th-century rowhouse at Charles and Pleasant streets, the Woman's Industrial Exchange is a private, nonprofit agency set up by Baltimore women about 125 years ago to assist in selling the handiwork of industrious women who sold their wares anonymously.

The committee that runs the Exchange put the word out this past winter that they were seeking a new restaurateur to operate the tearoom, whose kitchen and 80- to- 100-seat dining room had been upgraded in a 2003 renovation.

"We're trying to give an alternative to what's available along Charles Street right now," said John F. Blake, the new restaurant's general manager. "We are looking to give people the ability to go for a higher level of cuisine at a reasonable price. We really want to offer choice."

Blake said he was aware the place "does have a history, and we're revising - actually a rebirthing - an existing location, an historic spot."

For the past several weeks, construction crews have been painting and installing several food stations, where customers in search of a quick lunch can approach a white-coated chef and order a grilled portobello with Creole mustard on black olive bread, for example.

"I have to admit, I was scared to change it," said Travis-Lee Moore, who designed the new interior setting in the building listed on the National Register of Historic Places. "Then I jumped in with both feet. I wanted it to be comfortable and hip."

The new operators decided to eliminate more than half of the restaurant's seating capacity - reducing it to about 30. They concluded that not so many people have time for a leisurely seated luncheon.

They are also planning an "express case" for prepackaged salads, sushi, soups to go, quiche Lorraine, crab quiche and sesame noodle salad.

"I think the new look is what we need. It's been designed in terms of people's time allotment at lunch and our customers' desire for high-quality food. People just do not have an hour and a half for lunch anymore," Gamse said.

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