Once a mainstay of downtown’s dining scene, tea rooms were uniquely feminine spaces designed to escape the ebb of daily life, with a culture and cuisine all their own. When Cynthia Kuhn Beischel set out to write a book about tea rooms of yore, the project became an odyssey into archives, oral history, and department stores that had long gone dark. Lost Tea Rooms of Downtown Cincinnati renders in remarkable detail the table settings, manners, menus, and dress of a more civilized era.
Beischel began by soliciting memories from fellow alumni of Miss Doherty’s College Preparatory School, one of three schools that merged into present-day Seven Hills. She put up fliers and placed ads in the Community Press newspapers. One interview led to another, and soon she had hundreds of firsthand accounts from customers, waitresses, cooks, and chefs for whom the tea rooms were a part of life. “It was like opening a door into their mind and seeing everything—the color of the walls, where the chairs were set,” she says.
Nick Clooney, who in 1967 took over from Bob Braun as host of WLW’s Good Morning Show, which broadcast a live radio show from McAlpin’s Tea Room daily, also proved to be an excellent source. Fashion shows were common and Clooney told Beischel he found himself in the puzzling role of runway emcee…on the radio. Shillito’s Tea Room had its own megawatt reach. Its kitchen supplied most of the food shown on Ruth Lyons’s TV talk show 50-50 Club.
From the 1930s and on into the ’70s, downtown was the shopping destination for this part of the Midwest. Sidewalks were thick with sharply dressed shoppers on a day out. And all of those shoppers needed to eat.
Mabley and Carew’s had a large dining room at its original store on the corner of Fifth and Vine, the facade of which lit up Fountain Square with an impressive 7,000 light bulbs. Later, after the store’s second iteration as the Carew Tower’s main tenant, it moved to the northwest corner of Fifth and Vine, opening the sumptuous Fountain Tea Room on the sixth level. McAlpin’s Tea Room was on the fifth floor of the West Fourth Street department store, and Pogue’s, at Fourth and Race, had its sixth floor Camargo Room. But the place for the in crowd, Beischel writes, was Shillito’s Tea Room in the Art Deco temple to consumerism at Seventh and Race. A cosmopolitan nexus of its time, it filled a grand, two-level space, with high windows looming above banquettes. Other tea rooms had a more compact, street-level, elegance. Mullane’s, the small candy company that grew into a tea room and confectionery in the Carew Tower had entrances on both Vine Street and the inner arcade. The Woman’s Exchange on West Fourth Street offered retail therapy with a consignment shop featuring hand-stitched decorative goods.
The objective was, of course, to see and be seen. And eat. Lost Tea Rooms is filled with photos of quivering aspics and ambrosias, trays of dainty finger sandwiches, and hearty regional comfort dishes. There’s Shillito’s pot pie and the Lazarus “hidden” sandwich (hidden beneath a mound of lettuce), four-inch slabs of cheesecake, and protein-dense salads that kept the ladies-who-lunched fueled for more shopping.
Among the novelties, you’ll find recipes to reinvigorate your present-day rotation. Beischel loves the tomato soup from Virginia Bakery and often makes their bran muffins topped with “Schnecken Goo.” People worried less about what went into their food back then, she notes, and more about how it tasted. The recipes memorialize a rich history—think Civil War biscuits and Depression-era puddings—while recalling a time when middle class cooking was obsessed with gastronomical aspirations (see: Tuna Florentine, salmon croquettes, and Shillito’s white chocolate cake with Italian meringue-style icing). Indeed, no tea room visit was complete without dessert. These Midwestern shoppers knew their way around an aspic. And how to live.