A Feast Day, Then A Day Of Elegant Feasting In Downtown

December 08, 2007|By JACQUES KELLY

Today, Dec. 8, is the Roman Catholic feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary. As a schoolboy, I had the day off and it was traditionally spent along a routine established by my mother. After attendance at a Mass, we didn't return home. We had two routes.

My mother, ever practical, scheduled all sorts of medical and dental appointments that day. She also bribed us by saying that the Medical Arts Building in the Mount Vernon neighborhood was more than halfway downtown. So, if all went well, we could compress religious observance, medical appointments and a Christmas outing. Also, because we'd be dressed more formally than usual (church attire) we could have lunch at a better address.

If Mom was in the mood and had the money, we'd have lunch at the Hotel Belvedere's Coffee Shop, which was then in the basement. I recall it being filled with business people, and the food was excellent. Our behavior had to be beyond criticism. Lunch might be chicken a la king or Welsh rarebit.

The Howard Street department stores were a compelling draw. We used the day to preview the Christmas goods and make our preferences known. Television commercials were only beginning to brainwash children in 1960. Baltimore's merchants were very much up to the task with their breathtaking display windows and dreamy toy departments. Forget the carols and the music. The din in the old Hochschild Kohn sixth floor - produced by multiple sets of electric trains in a very live acoustic space (wooden floors and hard plaster walls) - was amazing.

I tend to associate Dec. 8 with the red velvet rope at the Virginia Dare restaurant on Howard Street. A hostess ruled this cord. The place was always packed - and for good reason. It was a destination, an institution and a relic.

If you were a little out of the holiday spirit, the Virginia Dare (the article was always used for this place) had what it took to alter your mood. It was a candy store, bakery and restaurant outfitted with tall, gold-trimmed wood glass-doored cases in the grand baroque style. The fixtures 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.

The cakes had delicate white and pink icing. There were trays of chocolates stacked on doilies. Even the raisin buns had a pedigree. The countertops also had imported German novelties, little china snow babies and tiny Christmas trees.

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 bird's nests.

Many years later, I was in Vienna, Austria, a city with a reputation for its tea and coffee shops. I walked into Demel's, one of the best-known, only to be disappointed. I sniffed, "It's a dumpier version of the Virginia Dare."


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