A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Our Rich History: Cincinnati’s legendary downtown department stores and the grand downtown dining experience

Part 1 of a continuing series on Cincinnati’s grand downtown department stores

By John Schlipp
Special to NKyTribune

For those old enough to remember the days of numerous vibrant downtown Cincinnati department stores, it makes many of us sad to hear the news of Macy’s closing their downtown store in 2018.

Front cover of Lost Tea Rooms of Cincinnati.

Macy’s is the descendant of Shillito’s, a grand old department store, like those fondly described in Cynthia Kuhn Beischel’s latest book entitled, Lost Tea Rooms of Downtown Cincinnati: Reflections & Recipes.

Beischel defines tea rooms as “a luncheon spot favored and attended by ladies.” Such tea rooms conveyed “a genteel quality and décor” appealing to women. Yet men were known to enjoy the “relaxed atmosphere” and “delicious food” as well. This is actually two books in one. It not only offers a trip down memory lane about regional retail history, it also presents over 100 delicious recipes of the many dishes discussed in its nostalgic narrative.

I personally related to the book’s recipe featuring Pogue’s “Chicken Velvet” soup. Perhaps German-American Cincinnatians may have described this Chicken Velvet soup as “himmlisch” (“heavenly”).

There is nothing like it in today’s more health conscious cuisines. The velvet connotation comes from the heavy use of real butter and cream, mixed with its warm comfort chicken broth and chopped chicken chunks.

Beischel interviewed more than 250 regional people who savored the memories of a time before neighborhood shopping centers and malls, when dressing up and going downtown was a special destination. Beischel reflects on the culture of ladies visiting friends and families at department store tea rooms. The author introduces Lost Tea Rooms with a Flashback essay reminiscing about the downtown Cincinnati retail environment of the 1940s through the early 1970s. As Florence Mall was one of the later regional shopping malls to arrive on the scene, many Northern Kentucky readers will remember the final days of this special dining and social experience.

Shillito’s flagship store, 7th and Race Streets, downtown Cincinnati. (Photo by Paul A. Tenkotte, 1985.)

In addition, while hot tea was the principal beverage of choice for tea room customers, other drinks included coffee, hot chocolate, iced tea, and sodas. Sodas were especially popular with children, as soft drinks were not stocked at home to the same extent as today. As a matter of fact, as a child in the 1960s, I recall our family purchasing only a 6 pack of 16 oz. glass-bottled cola or lemon-lime, which lasted for an entire week for a family of four. Milk, fruit juice, or water were served most of the week. Soda was a special treat served during weekend evenings with popcorn, pretzels, or homemade pizza mixes.

The second chapter of Lost Tea Rooms introduces readers to the history and personalities of the major tea rooms. Did you know that in addition to McAlpins,’ Shillito’s, Pogue’s, and Mabley & Carew, there were two other significant downtown tea rooms competing with the nearby department stores? These included the Woman’s Exchange, and Mullane’s.

The Woman’s Exchange of Cincinnati was the oldest regional tea room described in the book. Founded in 1883, it offered working women of Cincinnati a venue to sell homemade clothing and crafts. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Mrs. John A. Shillito and Mrs. George McAlpin were early-day managers of this benevolent enterprise. The Woman’s Exchange was highly successful not only for its “beautiful handcrafted articles,” but its “wonderfully prepared tea sandwiches, home-style meals and delicious desserts,” offered at an attractive price. The compassionate mission of the bygone tea room lives on today as The Woman’s Exchange of Cincinnati Fund, part of the Greater Cincinnati Foundation.

McAlpin’s tea room appeared to be the more popular destination, as it conjured up more memories and recipes than other shops among those interviewed for this book. McAplin’s department store dated back to 1852. Beischel reports that newspaper advertisements promoting a new tea room there appeared in 1911. Those interviewed for this book remembered that McAlpin’s tea room provided faster service than other tea rooms. Businessmen noted that “they never had to wait in line at McAlpin’s.” Women were later attracted to McAplin’s tea room when WLW radio introduced the live Good Morning Show, hosted by Bob Braun (and later Nick Clooney), both of Northern Kentucky.

Shillito’s, Cincinnati’s first department store, was founded in 1830. It appears that Shillito’s was the earliest department store in the city to offer a retail food service. Shillito’s Every-Day Cook-Book was published by Edna Neil for its store’s customers in 1905. The store advertised an early type of decaffeinated coffee served at its tea room in 1912. Beischel’s interviews revealed that many considered Shillito’s art deco Tea Room on the 6th floor as the “in” place to have lunch and a destination where “the girls” dressed up to meet others. During the tenure of Ruth Lyon’s 50-50 Club on WLW television, many of the food dishes displayed on Ruth’s show were from the Shillito’s Tea Room.

Shillito’s sandwiches were named for various Cincinnati neighborhoods. The most popular sandwiches reported were layered club sandwiches. Shillito’s offered a Queen City Club with turkey breast, baked ham, Swiss cheese, and lettuce on pumpernickel rye bread.

Pogue’s flagship store, 4th and Race Streets, downtown Cincinnati. (Photo by Paul A. Tenkotte, 1984.)

Mullane’s started as a small candy business in 1848, and eventually developed into a soda shop. In 1933, Mullane’s introduced its Tea Room and New Confectionary in the Carew Tower. “Meet me at Mullane’s” became a common saying by the younger set as it offered a more casual environment, ice cream, and extended evening hours to accommodate diners and after-theatre goers.

Mabley & Carew may not be as familiar to many younger readers, as it was one of the first Cincinnati retailers to go out of business. Its origins dated to 1877. Mabley’s featured one of the more spectacular tea rooms, the Fountain Room, introduced in 1962. 

Established in 1863, Pogue’s was known as the crème de la crème of Cincinnati retailers. However, its roots were of an “industrious and frugal” immigrant family who offered quality merchandise and outstanding customer service. Beischel reports that “as late as the 1960s, the store provided an escort service, whereby a store representative met customers at the door, took their coats and then, offering his arm, walked them to the different departments, showing merchandise of interest and handling the purchases with the salesclerks.”

In the Pogue’s stylish and sophisticated tradition, their new and unique food services introduced in 1964 were exceptional. First, the Ice Cream Bridge opened, spanning the second-floor connector of the beautiful Carew Arcade, featuring its Rookwood Pottery floral tiles. Shortly, a Soup Bar and a Men’s Grill were introduced on the sixth floor, while the renowned Camargo Room (including tea room) opened nearby, offering fashionable foods and drinks including beers, ales, wines, and champagnes. Some old timers interviewed for the book remembered the Camargo Room as “a place to go not just for luncheon but often as the spot just to sit, have some tea, see who was there and be seen.”

The people interviewed for Lost Tea Rooms pointed out that chicken salad was popular at Pogue’s, the Woman’s Exchange, and Shillito’s. It was served either on a bed of lettuce or as a sandwich. It was reported that even men liked the chicken salad at the Woman’s Exchange, where white-meat chicken salad was served with freshly baked small pecan rolls or butter bits. Perhaps the popular smoked chicken salads of the Gruff in Covington or of Silverglades in Cincinnati would be comparable today. While not a tea room, many people interviewed fondly recalled the Netherland Hotel Salad (Pogue’s Camargo Room made their own version too). Joyce Rosencrans, former food editor for the Cincinnati Post, noted that this salad recipe was requested most often to columnist Fern Storer between 1951 through 1976. It featured julienned lettuce, chicken, ham, tomatoes, boiled eggs, and chopped pickle, topped with a mayonnaise dressing including olive oil, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, chives, and hard-boiled egg

McAlpin’s placemat for Bob Braun’s Good Morning Show.

Chicken and Fish highlight the chapter on main dishes in Lost Tea Rooms. Popular chicken recipes shared include Shillito’s Chicken Pot Pie, and Chicken a la King. As the tea rooms catered to Lenten customers, McAlpin’s Friday fish appeared to be the winner in the main dish category. Their breaded Icelandic cod was so popular that a hostess is quoted that “one Friday we served 1,150 people in three hours’ time, and most of them ordered the fish. I needed eighteen waitresses on Friday during Lent.”

Besides Cincinnati specific landmarks or retail store names, McAlpin’s tea room also offered special seasonal holiday menus for children, which are colorfully displayed in the middle of Beischel’s book. These miniature menu themes included Tom Turkey for Thanksgiving, Mack Alpin rabbit for Easter, a jack-o-lantern with a pointed witch’s hat for Halloween, and Santa Claus for Christmas.

Those interviewed for Lost Tea Rooms often conveyed that dining at these tea rooms was a relaxing retail experience, unlike the current fast food pace of mall food courts. Maybe full-service department stores could learn a lesson from the past on how to compete with today’s online retail world.

Lost Tea Rooms of Downtown Cincinnati: Reflections & Recipes by Cynthia Kuhn Beischel is published by American Palate: a division of The History Press (2016). In addition to over 100 recipes, it features images of tea rooms, menus, and prepared dishes. The 208 pages also offer an index, detailed bibliography, and even a five-page listing of people interviewed for the background reflections and recipes. It was these folks who assisted the author to develop the distinct flavor of the times and tea rooms with their reminiscing stories.

John Schlipp is an Associate Professor and Intellectual Property Librarian at NKU’s Steely Library. He also directs the Intellectual Property Awareness Center (IPAC) at NKU, assisting everyone from inventors to musicians in becoming aware of their intellectual property.

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  1. Veda Woolum says:

    Wasn’t there a retail dept store that was high customer buying a Jennings and a Gettings across from Pogues?

  2. Don Maddox says:

    They were next to Pogues.

  3. Bill Myers says:

    Slight name clarification . . . Those two higher end Fourth Street stores were: Jenny and Gidding’s (which later merged to become Gidding-jenny. Remember the earlier slogan “Sincerely, Jenny” in their advertising? And the longstanding clock on the sidewalk outside of McAlpin’s (south side of Fourth Street between Vine and Race)?

    Bill Myers

  4. Bill Myers says:

    The original Gidding’s and Jenny merged to become: Gidding-Jenny (omitting the S in Gidding’s}.

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