Wookiee Hut Cuisine presents:
L. S. Ayres Tearoom
Indianapolis State Museum, White River State Park, Indianapolis, IN
Review by Diana, SuSu, MaceVindaloo, RuntEkwesh, Wraith6, Rosie

Back in the day, people would look forward to lunch at department store tearooms. Originally created to keep shoppers from leaving the store, they became institutions throughout the midwest. The"lunch and breakfast crowd" were typically businessmen who worked downtown. They usually had the same lunch or breakfast every day, knew the names of the waitresses, and dressed in suits and fedoras. The afternoon crowd were predominantly women and children, who would stop for a tea or snack after school or in the midst of shopping. It was the place where children learned manners and women could show off their "high fashion" purchases. It was said that the men might know the waitresses, and the women would know the events: Wednesdays might be a store-sponsored fashion show, or demonstrations of new products; Thursdays might feature an "exotic" new food that the midwestern hausfraus would go all a-titter to try.

In the 1990s, departments stores all over the country realized they couldn't compete with malls and mega discount stores; also, fashions were more affected by television than they were by the models walking around a tearoom with the snazziest outfit for the season. So like other home-grown department stores throughout the USA closed. But someone had the foresight to request that the tearoom of the Indianapolis-based L. S. Ayres store be commemorated. The Indiana State Museum is concerned with presenting and preserving aspects of Indiana history, and many of the quaint displays are cute in their hum-drum-ness. But the L.S. Ayres Tearoom is an example of an inspired success.

The room is constructed and decorated in a style that reminded some of us of rooms built in the Victorian epoch, but simplified and gentrified for American standards. It oozed gentility, actually. Nothing edgy about it, and almost austere in its simplicity. Everything about the original tearoom was reproduced here: the parquet flooring, the flower-strewn carpet, the modified winslow-esque chairs, roomy square tables which would be connected in a line to accommodate larger groups, to the view outside the window — the building across the street from the original tearoom is illustrate and lit behind the glass windows to simulate the afternoon sunlight. (In reality, the kitchen is located directly behind that mural. But you might believe you're actually in the department store of yore for a brief moment!)

Groups come here — many are older people who remember this place with great nostalgia, having "gone out" for the first time in this place — and others are family groups who hope to instill some of the "old-fashioned" values in their children. The waitstaff is very patient and personable. They are friendly and helpful, asking your preferences and steering you away from items you probably won't like. The menu does preserve some iconic tearoom dishes. L.S. Ayres Tearoom was known for its chicken velvet soup — a cream soup with no vegetables visible and chopped whitemeat chicken. Surprisingly, it's not as heavy as you might imagine, and tasty without being too salty like many canned cream soups are. You can get a cup or a bowl, or have soup with half a sandwich.

The tearoom is only open for lunch, since that is the tradition of such places. The menu features lighter fare like quiche or salads, but also dinner-like comfort foods for which the midwest was known. This includes a hamloaf with mustard cream gravy; chicken pot pie, which uses the same base as the chicken velvet soup; chicken salad served in a hollowed-out half a pineapple (ooh, so exotic!); cobb salad; tuscan salad which seemed not at all Italian, with raspberry vinaigrette which actually tasted like raspberries; pan-cooked fish fillet served with a large blob of mashed potatoes and "mixed vegetables" which was a mix of very expertly cooked string beans, squash, carrots, cauliflower. For dessert, there are the cakes and pies associated with America: banana creme, chocolate cake, apple pie à la mode, and something called a pecan ball: vanilla ice cream rolled in chopped sugared pecans and dolloped with hot fudge. Apparently, a "persian ball" replaces the pecans with pistachios.

America was a simpler, more ignorant nation, and many people liked it that way, at least in their dreams. The L.S. Ayres Tearoom does its part to preserve that sort of nostalgia, for better or for worse. At least the food is cooked nicely and the waiters really do look after you. There are not real surprises, other than this piece of Americana has been so closely protected and reproduced in the belly of a museum!

Admission to the museum is not required for entry to the L.S. Ayres Tearoom, but a reservation is recommended. Seating is limited to 65, and it doesn't take many groups before the place is full. They are open only from 11am to 2:30PM, and it fills up fast. We got there at 11am, managed to wrangle a small table, then watched as the place filled up with church and community groups. One group came dressed in purple, wearing red hats; the only person in that group without a red hat was a redhead! Also, we noticed that if you have a member of the family with special needs, this is an ideal place to come to dine out. As we said, the waitstaff are patient, knowledgeable, and kind in that homey old-fashioned way.

The store's North Pole and kiddie train ride was just down the hall from the original tea room during the holiday season. We don't know if those are preserved, but there is a "VILP under 10" dipbox, where good kids who behaved during their meal could take a lucky dip into a box full of wrapped gifts. That's still there, and we wonder if we can get a 10 year old to come with us to see what the gifts are??

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