Tea and Sympathy

Unit 500 of the Denver Dry Lofts will be complete in sixty days and then, if you have a million-three, you can have it all: Four-thousand square feet indoors and four thousand out on a roof garden dotted with fountains and French doors. Since most of the indoor space is living room/library/dining/cooking, with just two bedrooms, you'll want to develop a host-with-the-most lifestyle, if you don't have one already. The granite countertops alone should inspire you--or your caterer--to feats of culinary grandeur.

Don't be surprised, however, if in these upscale surroundings you suddenly develop a craving for the down-home, gluey comfort foods of yesteryear: chicken-fried steak, meatloaf--even quiche. Or if an urge attacks for an ice-cream sundae with not one, not two, but exactly three-and-a-half scoops of ice cream.

That, after all, is the sort of fare that for more than fifty years was consumed by people dining in the space now occupied by you. Until 1987, what is now Unit 500 was the Tea Room, an institution located on the fifth floor of the Denver Dry Goods department store.

"We found a whole lot of menus and artifacts during the demolition phase," says Terry Collins, project manager/superintendent on this downtown renovation for three years, the last six months of which have been spent in Unit 500, "restoring all this little stuff you don't think about. Those placards high up, with cornucopias and flowers and those animals"--griffins, playing with balls--"and the arches of the ceilings, all plasterwork. The original chandeliers and sconces, we sent them out to be rewired. The French doors, the wainscoting. We didn't want any of this stuff to look brand-new, so we had to be careful with the paint and the carpentry."

Even with all this finicky work requiring his attention, Collins sometimes gets to enjoy the major perk of being a super: poking around in the guts of a building's past. The brass tags in the elevators are all original. A strange half-floor now devoted to tenant storage once might have been used for saddles. And the Tea Room itself, if you squint, still bears a few traces of its former good looks.

My reason for frequenting the Tea Room in the early Eighties was an ignoble one. Working as an oilman during an oil recession for $600 per month, I felt starved--mentally, not physically--for a good, hot lunch. For some reason that still makes no financial sense, the Denver had issued me a credit card that was good not just for clothes, but also meals at the Tea Room. Sometimes when my niggling budget overwhelmed me, I would indulge in a time-payment lunch, inviting several friends to be my guests.

I remember the Tea Room as a genteel place, with capable, elderly waitresses serving rib-sticking food disguised as dainty-lady fodder. I generally chased these dishes down with no more or less than three beers. The best part of the meal was signing the tab, with a big-spender flourish. The worst part was realizing I had taken more than a year to pay off just one lunch--and at $3.95 per blue-plate special, they weren't exactly exorbitant.

While I was in the Tea Room, I never thought about its history, or the lives of the ladies who shopped in the four floors below; I never wondered why the peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich had disappeared from the menu. In this, I was typical of many of the room's younger diners, who lunched there decked out in flea-market hats and gloves for the pure camp of it. Meanwhile, all around us, certain downtown businessmen, mother/daughter shopping SWAT teams and a tide of retirees lunched weekly, seriously, almost reverently. To them, the Tea Room was not a wacky destination full of weirdly dated atmosphere--think Graceland--but a grand tradition.

The tradition got its start in 1908, when the Denver itself was eighteen years old and had already been through two of its three remodels. "The Denver's Tea Room has a seating capacity of about 500," read a brochure from that time. "Nothing has been neglected that would help in making this an attractive, restful and wholly satisfactory place to breakfast, lunch or dine. Popular prices prevail."

The few remaining historic pictures show the Tea Room as the cavernous space I remember, able to seat 400 simultaneously at mahogany tables set with white linen and lots of heavy cutlery. Waitresses, who by the 1920s were wearing standard maids' uniforms complete with starched white pinafores, had to hustle several hundred yards between the kitchen and their tables. By 1943, a Denver ad was able to proclaim: "'Let's meet at the Denver Tea Room' has been a slogan with Colorado women for almost a century."

That the copy writer could exaggerate by 75 years was a tribute to the Tea Room's solid standing.

And even though it closed in 1987, innocent victim of a corporate sellout, people who had a connection to the place are always trying to go back.

"They come up all the time," says Collins. "Guys who worked the elevators, guys who ran the boiler room. And the week of Father's Day, for a surprise, a woman brought in her father, a guy in his nineties who'd done all the herringbone brick work. He said he was fourteen at the time, the youngest journeyman bricklayer ever. He remembered everything."

"I closed the doors on the place in 1987," recalls Fred Batchelor, the Tea Room's last executive chef. "It was very sad."

Fred Batchelor hasn't been back--yet--but he doesn't need to see the space to remember poking around the Tea Room's kitchen, struggling with a temperamental, outdated grill. (He had to tilt the flambe dishes to get them to ignite.) The recipes he encountered on his first day in 1984 had been written decades earlier and often carried admonitions such as: "ALWAYS FOLLOW THIS PROCEDURE, ALWAYS!" The ice-cream sundaes were to be made with the aforementioned three-and-a-half scoops. The tea must be Earl Grey.

Batchelor had arrived in Denver in the early Eighties, fresh from various culinary courses and Italian restaurants in and around Buffalo, New York. "I wanted so much to see what was going on on the other side of the country," he recalls. "I figured they ate food in Denver, too, and I would be all right."

He was, but he was also busy--working two jobs to pay his tuition at the University of Denver hotel-management school. Eventually he dropped out of college and rose through the ranks at the Normandy French Restaurant, all the while working 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. as the Tea Room saucier.

"There were thirty waitstaff, eight cooks and fifteen utility people, busboys and such, and they had all been there forever," he recalls. "In the three years I was there I can only think of two people who left. One guy had been there thirty-three years, one waitress twenty-five."

But this old boy's (and girl's) network embraced Batchelor almost immediately, recommending him for the executive-chef position even as the food-service manager was conducting a nationwide search. Once Batchelor got the job, the pressure was on--not just to handle the crowds (lunches routinely involved three shifts of 400 customers, with a line waiting out the door)--but to keep everything the same, the way those crowds wanted it.

"Oh, yes," he remembers, "the little cut-out chicken pastry HAD to go on top of the chicken à la king--it had been that way forever. We did navy bean soup every Tuesday, lemon meringue pie every Friday. The pecan chicken salad...the blue-plate special, always served on actual blue plates. In the afternoons we served an array of tea sandwiches, crusts cut off, with cucumbers or watercress, which is what the ladies liked."

Although he eventually sectioned off a portion of the room into a thirty-seat cafe where he could serve more adventurous meals, Batchelor adapted to the Tea Room traditions with good grace. "Well," he says modestly, "they said, 'Fred, this is how we do it,' and I listened."

Soon the routine was as comforting as the menu. In the mornings, Bachelor traveled up and down the length of the kitchen, tasting more than twenty staple dishes with a long-handled ice tea spoon. In the afternoons, he ran three miles to work off the stress of keeping the Tea Room's standards high.

But there were rewards. Every Valentine's Day, the entire staff received cards from one of the utility workers, who, like many of the room's workers, had Down's syndrome. "And they were the most dependable employees I'd ever had," he says.

"Oh, and the ladies," Batchelor adds, remembering the legion of older women who ran his chicken salads and bread puddings out to the customers. "They were in their sixties, at least, and the greatest bunch of ladies, serious professionals. The people I've worked with since, it's an I thing, it's a Me thing, but those old women really worked together as a group. I miss the way they took care of the customers, and I miss the way they took care of me."

In the Tea Room's last month, the place was full of "women in white gloves who flew in from Kansas to show their daughters where they used to shop and eat with Mom," Batchelor remembers. "The TV cameras were rolling almost every day, and we got up to 1500 at lunch."

After that the May Company, which bought out the Denver, Tea Room and all, offered Batchelor his choice of similar jobs in Pittsburgh--"No thanks," he thought--or California. And Martin Marietta came through with another attractive deal. But Batchelor had gotten used to cooking for his "senior clientele," and instead decided to sign on with the Springwood Retirement Community in Arvada, where he has been, with one small break, ever since.

"The whole idea of a retirement community, where you serve meals with dignity and try to take care of the people who made the world all right for you, was new then," he says. "I thought of it as a challenge."

From the moment he walked in, though, Springwood residents swore they knew him from the Tea Room. And if his face wasn't quite familiar, the chicken a la king persuaded them.

Now they're all eagerly awaiting Batchelor's report of the Tea Room's transformation into Unit 500, a loft selling for a million-three.

"I can scarcely imagine it," he says. "All that space. Whoever buys it, they ought to have fifty kids."

All that space--and all those memories.
I can almost taste them. Now so can you.

Historic Chicken a la King
2 sticks butter
1-1/2 cups flour
8 cups (about) chicken stock (canned is okay)
1 cup half-and-half
1 pound cooked, skinned chicken meat, diced
1 large red bell pepper, cut into 1/4-inch strips
1 large green bell pepper, cut into 1/4-inch strips
1/2 pound sliced mushrooms, sauteed in butter
salt and white pepper to taste
baked puff pastry shells
extra pastry dough
chicken-shaped cookie cutter

Melt butter in large saucepan. Whisk in flour, cooking over moderate heat a few minutes. Gradually add chicken stock, whisking. Cook over moderate heat, whisking, until thickened. Whisk in half-and-half. Cook over low heat about 25 minutes. Add more chicken stock, depending on desired consistency. Add remaining ingredients--except for cookie cutter and extra dough. Cook over low heat about twenty minutes. Serve in pastry shells, with the chicken cut-out on top. Serves eight.


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