THE LAST TEA : The closing of the Tea Room at I. Magnin Bullocks Wilshire marks the end of an era. A report on its frantic last days. A profile of a 17-year veteran. An appreciation of the Tea Room in its later years. And recipes to keep as souvenirs of a more genteel Southern California.
The ladies who lunch are shedding serious tears. Never again will they taste that heavenly Coconut Cream Pie, as soft and rounded as a cumulus cloud, as white as a snowdrift. Gone are the Monte Cristo sandwiches, the Bombay salad with honey-sweet Poppy-Seed Dressing, the Bread Pudding, the scones and tea, the discreet martinis.
It all ended April 2 when the Tea Room at I. Magnin Bullocks Wilshire closed. The store itself closed on Tuesday, 63 years and seven months after it opened. Thus ends an era of carriage-trade shopping, leisurely lunches and afternoon tea.
During the last weeks, old regulars jammed the Tea Room for final tastes, waiting as long as three hours for a table. Cutlery vanished, menus disappeared, plates were dunked into shopping bags by loyal customers desperate for memorabilia. And the food ran out early.
“I can’t believe this is happening,” Charlotte Capune of Pasadena sighs. It’s the day before the Tea Room closes for good and she hasn’t got a reservation. Capune, who walks with a cane, waits in line for the store to open, then hurries through the crowd to the elevators.
“So many memories,” she says sadly, punching the button for 5, the Tea Room floor. She is the first to arrive, but the desk is already overwhelmed with phone calls. “This is a sad day,” she says. But there’s a bright spot: Two people call to cancel and she gets a table.
Patricia Sullivan of Monrovia and her friends, Betty Scruggs and Lorraine Cameron of West Covina, have just finished a last helping of their favorite dessert, Bread Pudding. Each also has ordered a serving to go so a tower of Styrofoam boxes sits on their table. “It’s to die for,” they agree.
Three out of four women at another table order the Bullocks Wilshire light tea, a plate of finger sandwiches, toast points with cream cheese and caviar, cucumbers, tastes of two cakes, a cookie and a fruit cup. But instead of tea, they ask for Champagne to toast the end of a store they had known since childhood.
The dainty tea foods are laid out on Wedgwood Wild Strawberry plates, which the Tea Room acquired in 1984. Much older are the Syracuse China plates, each showing off a single large, shadowy white flower amid a scattering of leaves. “I’m down to about 10 of those,” says Katie Whitehead, food service director.
The last slice of Coconut Cream Pie was eaten several days ago. Instead of the usual moist flake coconut, it was topped with powdery macaroon coconut, which is all that remained in the pantry. Other desserts have become unavailable as supplies dwindled and weren’t replaced.
Whitehead’s already rounded up the Tea Room’s most precious silver--the engraved toothpick holders, sugar bowls and creamers--and stowed them safely in her office. Accessories will go to other stores owned by R.H. Macy & Co. That includes menus, if any remain. The originals are covered in a peacock and floral design that matches the wallpaper and drapes. They were snatched up so quickly by souvenir hunters that the last lunchers have to make do with Kinko copies.
Some customers are forced to eat with plastic forks and spoons and wipe their fingers on paper napkins instead of cloth--a far cry from the refined service of old. Folding chairs are pressed into service in the function room, once a photographer’s studio, that holds the overflow, and temporary waitresses who can’t explain the menu have replaced staff waitresses who have already departed. But there are still fresh flowers in bud vases. And the food, agree the regulars, is wonderful.
Whitehead has searched frantically for the recipe for orange rolls with an orange glaze. They and other specialties, such as Heavenly Lemon Pie, haven’t been served for years, but customers remember them fondly from the old days and have been asking for the recipes. Other recipes disappeared with a chef who departed several years ago.
“What I loved was the warmth and ambience,” says Diane Kaminski of South Pasadena, who often entertained friends at the Tea Room. “I remember the basket of petit muffins, the cheese biscuits and orange rolls. It was just so delicious. I remember the little marshmallow candy with a green gumdrop layer that they gave you after each meal. And I remember especially the Coconut Cream Pie. It was so light. The crust tasted homemade.”
On the Tea Room’s last day, the room shuts down at 4 p.m. The last to leave are Suzanne Forgues of Beverly Hills and her companion, Pat Curry. Forgues came to the Tea Room daily and has no idea where to go now.
But she and Curry go out with style, partying with Whitehead, the chefs, the waitresses and whoever else is still around. “I just took all the Champagne that was left, and we partied until every bottle was gone,” she says when it’s all over. Whitehead’s parting gift to each member of the remaining staff: a long-stemmed rose.
Clad in black and wearing dangling earrings given to her by an employee, Whitehead says: “I don’t think the full force of it has hit me. I feel a little sad. This was not just a place, a tearoom, but a lot of history and experiences that will be lost to future generations. I love history. I love tradition. I love roots.”
This salad with its sweet, pink-tinted poppy-seed dressing was a favorite at the I. Magnin Bullocks Wilshire Tea Room for many years.
THE BOMBAY 2 cups small shrimp 2 cups crab chunks or shredded crab meat 2 cups thinly sliced celery 1/4 cup chopped parsley 1/4 cup mayonnaise 2 teaspoons soy sauce Salt Shredded lettuce Poppy-Seed Dressing
Combine shrimp, crab, celery, parsley, mayonnaise, soy sauce and salt to taste in large bowl. Toss gently until well mixed. Serve on shredded lettuce with Poppy-Seed Dressing on side. Makes 4 servings.
Each serving contains about: 533 calories; 944 mg sodium; 100 mg cholesterol; 35 grams fat; 33 grams carbohydrates; 26 grams protein; 0.54 grams fiber.
Poppy-Seed Dressing 1/2 cup oil 1/2 cup sugar 1/4 cup white vinegar 1/4 teaspoon dry mustard 1/4 teaspoon salt 3 to 4 drops red food color 1 tablespoon poppy seeds
In blender combine oil, sugar, vinegar, mustard, salt and enough food color to make pale pink. Blend until thickened. Turn into bowl and stir in poppy seeds. Makes 1 cup.
The light tea plate included finger sandwiches filled with ham salad, tuna salad and juicy Chicken Salad.
CHICKEN SALAD 3 cups diced cooked chicken 3/4 cup chopped celery 2 teaspoons salt Dash black pepper 1 cup mayonnaise Dash lemon juice 2 teaspoons chicken-seasoned stock base Lettuce
In medium bowl combine chicken, celery, salt and pepper. Mix mayonnaise, lemon juice and chicken base, then add to chicken mixture. Toss to combine. Chill at least 1 hour. Serve in lettuce cups on bed of chopped lettuce, or use as sandwich filling. Makes 4 servings.
Each serving contains about: 308 calories; 2093 mg sodium; 52 mg cholesterol; 21 grams fat; 15 grams carbohydrates; 14 grams protein; 0.18 grams fiber.
When you ask former customers what Tea Room dish they considered terrific, Coconut Cream Pie winds up at the top of the list. Two hours may seem like an improbably long time to simmer the half and half and sugar. But if you don’t do this, you’ll have soup, not pie filling. If you want a strong coconut taste, try adding one-half teaspoon coconut extract to the recipe.
COCONUT CREAM PIE 3 cups half and half 1/2 cup sugar 6 egg yolks 1 tablespoon butter, softened 1 tablespoon cornstarch 1 tablespoon canned sweetened cream of coconut 1/4 teaspoon vanilla 1/8 teaspoon almond extract Coconut Cream Pie Crust Topping 1/4 cup flake coconut
Combine half and half and sugar in double boiler top. Cook over simmering water 2 hours, stirring often. Beat together egg yolks, butter and cornstarch. Add cream of coconut, vanilla and almond extract. Let half and half mixture come almost to boil. Stir small amount into egg yolk mixture. Slowly add egg yolk mixture to double boiler, stirring rapidly.
Cook and stir 5 to 10 minutes longer, until thickened. Cool in refrigerator about 1 hour. Then turn into pie crust and cover with Topping. Sprinkle with coconut. Makes 8 servings.
Each serving contains about: 630 calories; 126 mg sodium; 324 mg cholesterol; 48 grams fat; 44 grams carbohydrates; 8 grams protein; 0.16 grams fiber.
Coconut Cream Pie Crust 1 cup flour 1/8 teaspoon salt 1/3 cup shortening 2 tablespoons ice water
Mix flour and salt in bowl. Cut in shortening until dough forms crumbs size of peas. Add water gradually until dough just holds together. Roll out to fit 8-inch pie plate. Flute edge.
Bake on top shelf of oven at 350 degrees 5 minutes. Place heavy plate or pie weights on foil in crust. Bake 15 minutes longer. Crust should be pale but thoroughly cooked. Cool before adding filling.
Topping 2 cups whipping cream 1/2 cup sugar 1 teaspoon vanilla
Place cream in large bowl. Add sugar and vanilla. Whip together until thick.
There’s no doubt about it, this pudding is very rich. But it’s so wonderful you’ll want to indulge once in a while.
BREAD PUDDING 8 slices white bread 1 cup raisins 1/2 cup butter 1 quart half and half 6 eggs 1 1/2 cups sugar 1 teaspoon vanilla Orange marmalade, optional Chantilly Cream
Cut each bread slice into 4 triangles. Place triangles in 13x9-inch baking dish. Scatter raisins over bread. Dot with small pieces butter.
Bring half and half to boil. Cool slightly. Beat eggs with sugar and vanilla until light. Gradually stir half and half into egg mixture. Pour evenly over bread. Do not mix.
Bake at 325 degrees 45 minutes to 1 hour, until golden but not burned. Cool slightly. If desired, spread thin layer orange marmalade over top. Accompany with Chantilly Cream. Makes 12 servings.
Each serving contains about: 500 calories; 287 mg sodium; 185 mg cholesterol; 28 grams fat; 57 grams carbohydrates; 9 grams protein; 0.22 grams fiber.
Chantilly Cream 1 cup whipping cream 1/4 cup sugar 1/4 teaspoon vanilla 1/2 teaspoon brandy
Combine cream, sugar, vanilla and brandy in bowl and beat until mixture is thick. Cream will not become stiff. Makes 2 cups.
Instead of a meringue on top, this pie has a meringue crust. Whipped cream folded into the filling makes it delicate enough to be called heavenly.
HEAVENLY LEMON PIE 4 egg yolks 1/2 cup sugar Grated peel and juice 1 large lemon 2 cups whipping cream Meringue Crust 1 tablespoon powdered sugar
Beat egg yolks with sugar, lemon peel and juice until light. Cook and stir in double boiler over boiling water until thickened. Remove from heat and cool thoroughly. Whip 1 cup cream and fold into lemon mixture.
Turn into Meringue Crust and refrigerate at least 2 hours to set. Whip remaining cream until stiff, gradually adding powdered sugar. Just before serving, top pie with sweetened whipped cream. Makes 8 servings.
Each serving contains about: 408 calories; 67 mg sodium; 222 mg cholesterol; 26 grams fat; 41 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams protein; 0.00 grams fiber.
Meringue Crust 4 egg whites 1 cup sugar 1 teaspoon lemon juice Butter
Beat egg whites until stiff and glossy. Do not under-beat. Add sugar, 1 tablespoon at time. Add lemon juice last. Butter 9-inch pie plate generously. Spoon meringue mixture into plate and use tablespoon to push up mixture, forming sides and bottom of crust. Bake at 200 degrees 2 hours. Cool before adding filling.
It's a date
Get our L.A. Goes Out newsletter, with the week's best events, to help you explore and experience our city.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.