Thursday, June 23, 2011

An Old-Fashioned Tea Room in Atlanta

As we drove away from the Margaret Mitchell house in midtown Atlanta (see my last post), we followed a Georgia Tech bus and passed by another old building down the street, the Palmer-Phelan Apartments.

The Palmer-Phelan Apartments were built in 1907. They were built in the so-called garden apartment style which was adopted later on by many architects for apartments built in Atlanta in the 1920s.

Click on photo to enlarge

It was 2:40 pm and time for a late lunch. Since we were already in midtown and had seen a “southern landmark,” we decided to go to another one, the Mary Mac’s Tea Room, an old-fashioned southern urban lunch room close by on Ponce de Leon Avenue.

Growing up in Paris I had not heard of a “tea room” as such. My mother and I would go some Thursday afternoons, when school was out, to eat a small cake and drink a cup of tea. In Paris they were called “Salon de Thé” and would usually be next to a “patisserie” (pastry shop.) They were not large shops and were mostly for ladies. They have been famous since the 19th century and earlier as shown in Jean Béraud’s painting below of the Patisserie Gloppe on the Champs-Elysées.

Patisserie Gloppe, Jean Béraud, French 1849-1936

In London I used to go to some tea rooms where they also served meals. I enjoyed the tea rooms of the chain J. Lyons and Company which were called Lyons Corner Houses. I liked one near Victoria Station, or another one on Piccadilly or near Marble Arch. They were not too imposing for a teenager who did not speak English too well. I would have a cup of tea and a piece of pie and felt very British. But I have not seen them the last few times I visited London – they must be a thing of the past already.

Vintage postcard of Maison Lyons Corner House, London

I read that Tea Rooms were extremely popular in the US in the first half of the 20th century. Most were owned and patronized by women. In the 1920s a tea room was a fashionable place for women to meet friends. They did not only serve tea and cakes like those in Paris, but specialized in “lady’s food” such as fancy salads, dainty sandwiches and yummy desserts. These tea rooms could be located in anywhere from a small house to a large department store or hotel. They were nicely decorated and offered a “cozy” atmosphere. Here are several shown in the postcards below.

Vintage postcards of US Tea Rooms - from top left: Prince George Hotel Tea Room in New York City, Blue Parrot Tea Room in Gettysburg, PA
then below left: Grand Crystal Tea Room in Wanamaker Stores, Philadelphia, PA and Japanese Tea Room in the Congress Hotel in Chicago, IL.
Last row: Frederick and Nelson Store Tea Room in Seattle, WA and the Danish Tea Room in Portland, Maine.

In the early 1900s tea rooms were a way for women to own a business and for ladies to enjoy luncheons without being escorted by men. Women proprietors gave their eating establishments the more genteel name of “Tea Rooms” rather than restaurants. In Atlanta there were 16 or so. A famous tea room was named the “Frances Virginia Tea Room.” It was established in 1928 as a 350-seat restaurant. It closed in 1962 so I never had a chance to eat lunch there but my husband gave me the 25th anniversary edition of their cookbook.

The back cover says “Frances Virginia Wikle Whitaker founded her Tea Room in the late 1920s. It was indelibly stamped with taste and style. Ladies wore white gloves. The setting was elegant, decorous, the food sumptuous …..for almost four decades the “Frances Virginia” reigned on Peachtree Street, as prestigious as her neighbors ….That Atlanta is gone.

Inside the book is says “…In the 1920, “tea room” signified a dynamic restaurant filled with independent women, bachelors, businessmen and families, instead of the little-old-lady stereotypes we think of today.” Below is a postcard of the Frances Virginia Tea Room and a 1948 menu.

There was hardly any traffic on Ponce de Leon Avenue but we quickly found a parking place in front of Mary Mac’s Tea Room.

Mary McKenzie opened her tea room in Atlanta in 1945 to make money in the tough post World War II job market. Ponce de Leon Avenue then was a bustling place. There were trolley cars, fancy movie theatres and many shops. But now, 66 years later Mary Mac’s Tea Room is the only one left of the 16 tea rooms in Atlanta. Actually these were not really “tea” rooms but a nicer way of calling a “meat and three” restaurant. Mary Mac served old-fashioned comfort food cooked the southern way. John Ferrell purchased Mary Mac’s Tea Room in 1994. The cuisine though is the same traditional down-home Southern Food. It’s a busy restaurant but since we arrived at 3:00 pm we did not have to wait to be seated.

There are several dining rooms there. The Myrtle Room was being readied for a large group. The Ponce Room is small and was ready to serve dinner that evening.

We were seated in the Atlanta Room.

We placed our order, accompanied with what they call “Table wine of the South” which is “sweet tea.” In Georgia when you order tea you always get iced tea, usually sweet. If you wish hot tea, you have to specify “hot tea.”

While our food was being prepared I took some pictures. The hall wall is covered with photographs of politicians, sports figures and celebrities from President Carter to Cher, Richard Gere and the Dalai Lama.

With our iced tea they brought us a bowl of “pot likker” which is the broth left over from the long boil of collard or turnip greens. This is African in origin and is usually sided by a cornbread muffin so you can dip it into the pot likker. It was very flavorful.

Mary Mac’s advertises that “ … every morning the workers shuck bushels of corn, hand wash selected greens and snap the fresh green beans by hand. Breads and desserts are baked on the premises. “ Our plates arrived and the food looked indeed like classic old timey southern food. I had grilled catfish with sides of turnip greens, squash casserole and fried okra. My husband had the salmon croquettes with sides. Both of our plates were too much for us to eat and we took advantage of take-out containers to take home the leftover – which is something not done in France. We also took our peach cobbler dessert home.

Now with my new cookbook I may include some Ole’ South favorites to my regular French-Mediterranean cuisine.


Margaret said...

Have you ever made any of the recipes from Frances Virginia's cookbook? I'd love to know some recipes you really enjoyed from either one of these cookbooks... maybe in a future post? hint ... :)

Sally Wessely said...

I really enjoyed reading this. It is sad to think that these tea rooms are a thing of the past. Your postcards and photos made me very nostalgic for a time that has gone by.

Dutchbaby said...

I love learning how tea rooms empowered women of the past.

I adore the painting of the Patisserie Gloppe; it shows just how très élégant the room and the clientele are.

Jojo said...

It's so interesting to read your post! I take Mary Mac's for granted and reading your post makes me appreciate the place with fresh eyes. Maybe you can take your readers over to The Colonnade next. Yum!

Unknown said...

You speak of Lyon's Corner Houses. When Ann and I were 'Courting' around 1960, we used to eat in a Lyons in the Strand (just off Trafalgar Square). In the main room an elderly pianist in tails entertained us on a grand piano (on a dais) while we ate. I think they must all have closed down in the seventies.
You also mention taking uneaten food home. It was the 'done thing' in England a few years ago to ask for a 'doggie bag' to take leftover food home (although I think the dog very rarely got any), but I haven't seen this done lately. Thanks for reminding me.

Sam Hoffer / My Carolina Kitchen said...

How fun. I haven't been to a southern tea room since we left Mississippi. They are a vanishing breed. Thanks for taking us along. You've bought back wonderful childhood memories.

Ann said...

oh,what a lovely post!! It brings to mind the times I spent in Atlanta visiting relatives! My mother LOVED tea rooms..and she and I went to many!! It is a shame that there aren't many where I am in California. sounds like there aren't many left anywhere. sad to think that so many lovely customs are going by the wayside.
thank you for the wonderful trip down memory lane!! :0

Kay Dennison said...

You take me on the best adventures!!!

DB said...

It all sounds very sumptuous. In my day, in certain places, there were coffee houses that catered mainly to students and some of them were quite snooty.


Frances said...

Well, I so enjoyed being reminded of various "tea rooms" I visited many years ago.

There definitely was a quiet, unpretentious elegance about these restaurants, and I also remember live piano/organ music and fashion shows featuring, to my young eyes, very glamorous models.

I have to say that I was never much of a fan of those southern dark green leafy vegetables, but oh my...I would love some of that peach cobbler!


Jeanie said...

I do love a tea shop and it was wonderful to hear about this wonderful Southern one! But even more interesting was your fascinating history! I think I always thught tea shops were everywhere always, particularly in Europe! And it makes perfect sense that there was a place ladies could go without their men. As always, your vintage postcard collection adds such depth and dimension to an already wonderful post!

Vicki Lane said...

Ahh, the memories! In my youth there was The Cricket Tea Room in Tampa -- I have their cookbook.

Coincidentally, my upcoming blog past is on 'the house wine of the South.'

French Girl in Seattle said...

Thank you for a nostalgic and informative post. I have just blogged about our London stay and feel bad because I did not make the time to "have tea" the proper way while in England. Next time... Veronique aka French Girl in Seattle

claude said...

Très curieux ces immenses saons de thé où l'on ne mange pas que des petits gâteaux. Je n'ai jamais fréquenté de tels établissement quand je vais aux States. A chaque fois on se contente de déjeuner à Salina ou Salinas dans l'Utah au MOM's CAFE et boire une bière au NO NAME SALOON de Park City.
Je vois que tu t'intéresses aux oeuvres de Jean Béraud, C'est un peintre très mal connu, j'adore ce qu'il faisait. Ces peintures sont d'une finess et et d'une justesse extraordinaires. A bientôt !

Pat said...

Oh how our generation miss Lyons Corner Houses. These days tea at the Ritz is often a special treat for girls when they have finished exams. My grand-daughter and friends were taken for a treat and Margaret Thatcher was there and came up and chatted to them - which made their day.
I always think we should emulate America and have doggy bags. Whilst on holiday I secretly wrapped a piece of delicious duck and took it home. My husband was shocked but later helped me to eat it:)

Shammickite said...

Oh, yes! I remember Lyons Corner House too, always went there when I was in London, beforee I lived here in Canada!
Mary Mac's Tea House sounds marvellous, I'd love to visit and enjoy some authentic southern cooking! I'll put it on my list of places to go if I am ever in Atlanta, which, I am sad to say, is not likely to happen in the near future.
I used to go to a bakery and tea shop in Barnstaple with my mother when I was young. I still remember the cups of steaming hot tea served in a big teapot.... enough for a couple of cups of tea each, and eating meringues stuck together with fresh cream.... mmmmmm so yummy!

Pondside said...

Tea Rooms are still very popular up here, and Victoria has several. One usually needs a reservation.
Pot likker doesn't really appeal to me, and I'm wondering if it is seasoned at all, or is just flavoured by the greens.
Such an interesting post. I always want to visit the places you feature.

Marja said...

That's indeed a lot on your plate but it looks great.Nice to get a glimpse of Atlanta as one of my best friends here in Christchurch is from Atlanta.
I enjoyed your informative post about tearooms.

OldLady Of The Hills said...

This is certainly a charming place, isn't it? And the food looks yummmmy! That meny reminded me of Musso's Menu---so very many choices...! I love that you fill out your own food wishes for your meal....Sounds like fun!

I was thinking about Scrafft's in New York City when you were writing about Tea Rooms---it was a chain of Restaurant-Like Tea Rooms OR Tea-Room like Restaurants, depending on your point iof view---and the food was really delicious...! Creamed Chicken on Toast! Hot Fudge Sundae's!....We went there quite often when I was a child and it had the feling of a "Tea Room".....
They are gone now, sad to so much else that was really wonderful!
I'm glad Mary Mac's is still there, holding up the Southern Tradition!

Jacoba said...

Thanks for stopping by at my blog!
I read your profile first and love the description 'eclectic blog'. There is something special about the word eclectic. I heard this being used for the first time in a garden, a lady saying 'you have made an eclectic composition of your plants'.
Very interesting posts on Atlanta, which I visited way back when. Such a wonderful atmosphere overthere.
I loved your description of the tearooms, one can almost visualize your visits to all these places.
Have a happy day!

Val said...

ilove the idea of a tea room. wish there was one locally. thank you for this fascinating post

Anonymous said...

Wonderful pictures! You have a great blog going. I enjoy it very much!

Kay said...

This was so much fun to look at. There are a few tea rooms coming up in Hawaii. I think it's mostly for women too. It sounds like such a lovely haven to go to.

Pierre BOYER said...

Nice post...
Greetings from France,


Carole Burant said...

I absolutely adore tea rooms and wish we had more around here. There is only one that I know of in my vicinity and that's at the train museum! There are a lot more south of here nearer Toronto and Niagara Falls. My favourite one is in Niagara Falls and it's called Queen Charlotte...they serve desserts, small meals and tea/coffee:-) The one you went to sounds and looks lovely and the food really does look delicious. I've never had any of the Southern foods...collared greens, okra, etc, all sound alien to me! lol I've never even had cornbread, it's not something you even see in restaurants around here. I've so been enjoying your posts about your trip:-) xoxo

Ginnie said...

In all my Atlanta years, Vagabonde, I was at Mary Mac's once...but did not see everything you saw. I was with friends and back then, my camera was not one of them. :) I love that I get to see it now through your eyes.

This is Belgium said...

Happy to discover this place. will probably pass by Atlanta in the not too distant future. Hope to have opportunity to try it out.

Your reaction on my blog about the way the European ladies dress, is so to the point .. I enjoyed reading your thoughts

Elaine said...

Very interesting! I love the old post cards, and the menu from the Frances Virginia is fascinating. The prices are much different than we see today! It must have been delightful to stop by one of those elegant tea rooms.

Mary said...

Oh yes, I well remember the Lyons Corner Houses in England - we had one in a market town nearby and it was such a treat to visit for a 'fancy cake' and a cup of tea. Sadly they do seem to have disappeared. In our town we had Callard's - it was a bakery on the ground floor and a tea room upstairs - very dark wood furnishings and of course white table cloths. Another one was on the sea front..........sadly it's now an amusement arcade, very tacky and noisy! The Tudor Rose Cafe is still on the harbor - it was a very elegant tea room but is now more a restaurant and touristy!

Here in Raleigh tea rooms seem to open and close in a heartbeat. Unfortunately the ladies who love tea and want to open quaint little places where we can gather and enjoy, seem to battle with local business licensing requirements when it comes to the necessities required for commercial kitchens etc. All so ridiculous.

Oh for the good old days where getting a cuppa was simple, and enjoyable!

Lovely post, thanks for sharing.


P.S. I NEVER drink iced tea, even though I've been in the south 34 years!!! Just love my freshly brewed, steaming hot cuppa!

Vagabonde said...

Margaret, Retired English Teacher, Dutchbaby, Jojo, Mike and Ann, Sam @My Carolina Kitchen, Ann, Kay Dennison, Frances, Jeanie, Vicki Lane, French Girl in Seattle, Pat, Shammickite, Pondside, Marja, Lady of the Hills, Val, Kay, PEA, Ginnie, This is Belgium, Elaine and Mary - I am happy that you liked Mary Mac’s Tea Room but what would make be happier would be to meet you all there. While there and taking photographs I thought about y’all and how much fun it was going to be to share all this with you. Thanks for coming.

DB, Les Trois Jardins, Livlovelife – Hello and welcome to my blog. I hope you will come back whenever you have a few minutes.

Claude, Pierre Boyer - Merci pour vos commentaires sympathiques. J’aimerais bien boire un verre de thé glacé avec vous chez Mary Mac’s Tea Room.

Ruth said...

Mary Mac's looks very beautiful. Drinking tea in a place like that, or eating a meal, is such a pleasure. I love the Salon de Thé places in Paris. . . Angelina, Laduree. I do not enjoy tea as much as coffee, but when it is served in such warmth and attention, with beautiful china, I love the event of it. Beautiful post, wonderfully inviting photos. I am so drawn to anything regarding food and drink, and I can't resist a beautiful restaurant. I think heaven is a beautiful restaurant (even a hole-in-the-wall can be beautiful).

Tammy said...

Just finished reading my copy of the Francis Virginia cookbook. So lovely to read ab those times. Do you happen to know where FV or Mm are buried? That's another hobby of mine, sourcing out resting places of favorite authors gone by.

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