A place to recall and celebrate the wonderful stores of a Downtown Boston now alive only in our memories
Friday, 13 January 2012
Tickling Your Taste Buds in Retro Boston’s Once Great Stores
Hello and Happy New Year to all my retro Boston loving friends!
A recent article in the New York Times heralded the news that department store restaurants were coming back in-style. Great....wait....but what if you are in the shopping heart of Boston and all the BIG stores are just....Macy’s? Oh, well...not so great. Congratulations to the places like NYC that still have their own department stores to dine in.
Poor old Boston!!!
This article has brought about many questions to do with dining at and the purchasing of various speciality foods from our once thriving downtown Boston stores. I felt it was time to crank up the old retro Boston time machine and have a look back at this delightful, delicious and delectable part of our shopping past.
Many readers express parts of memories of eating this, tasting that... smelling something marvellous and mouth-watering. The truth is...any of us who shopped in downtown Boston during those wonderful heydays will recall vividly what a crucial role food played in those cherished proceedings.
So, with the help of my memories, memories of many readers and much research...I present a salute to dining and fine foods of the various stores from our retro Boston history circa the 1920’s to 1970’s.
I have limited this update to the geographical area I refer to as central downtown Boston....the once great, Downtown Crossing... as it is known today.
I shall start by saying that my readers are divided into two shopping groups. Those that dined at separate restaurants/diners/lunch counters and those that dined in a store housed facility.
The update today will focus only on the store housed facilities. The list of separate eating establishments from the 1920’s onward in central downtown Boston is massive and could be the subject of a blog all of its own!!!
The update includes our past department stores as well as the other large “chain” stores of days gone by.
The name of each store will be followed by any food related information or memories....enjoy!!!
Downtown Boston was blessed with numerous locations of this giant chain from the 1920’s to 1960’s. The standard formula set-up for these small versions of the store did include the traditional soda fountain counter that served drinks and sandwiches. The closure in the 1960’s of the smaller locations and the merger in 1970 into one department store sized location on Washington Street resulted in many food options for the shopper. The original “new” Boston Woolworth’s of 1970...the largest in the USA at the time, contained a very large lunch counter (The Coffee Shop) on the street floor with an ample section of booth seating for those who wanted more elbow room. The lower level housed the 200 seat Harvest House Restaurant with full table service as well as further lunch counter service space. Both the street floor lunch counter and Harvest House Restaurant served similar menus but the restaurant downstairs provided a much more relaxed and intimate environment to dine in. The menu ranged from simple ice cream sodas to their famous hot turkey platter. A massive two-level kitchen complex was housed in the far corner to accommodate all the various preparing, cooking and serving tasks. The street floor also contained a large deli counter and gourmet food shop. The sound of clinking cups, clattering silverware and the smell of roasting chicken were all part of the multi-sensory experience of walking into Woolworth’s street floor from 1970 to the mid-1980’s when Burger King took over the area that used to be the large lunch counter and walled it off, thus ending the grand wide-open feel of the very large street floor. The Harvest House carried on until the bitter end in the mid-1990’s. Eating in this new Woolworth’s was, as a child, a memorable experience. The menu at the Harvest House had something to appeal to every taste and the atmosphere was just a little fancy....but not too much. The same pleasantly attractive lady was the seating hostess throughout most of the early 1970’s and I always remember being in a line of patrons waiting along a velvet cordon to be seated. Another lovely touch I recall, after you finished your meal, a glass domed dessert cart was rolled by your table if you wanted something sweet. I can’t begin to say how many times my mother and I had Saturday lunch in there and how many Big W burger platters or fried clam plates we had between us....but for the money....it was a very nice lunch indeed!
Grant’s on Washington Street had the look and feel of an old-style Woolworth’s (more or less) except that it was spread out over two large floors. The rear of the street floor housed a lunch counter with seating for 60 patrons and an additional 20 booths. They served a full range of items including hearty meals and daily shopper’s specials. A large candy and confection counter featured as a centrepiece in the spacious street floor, too! Grant’s closed in the spring of 1976.
This wonderful 5&10 style store had a unique layout due to its L-shaped design that featured store fronts on both Washington and Bromfield Streets. The Washington Street side of the building was lower down due to the incline slope that occurs as you walk down from Tremont Street to Washington Street. The lunch counter (The Pilgrim Room) was located in the Bromfield Street side of the building on the street floor and contained a healthy counter area and some booth seating. Like Grant’s, Neisner’s served both hot and cold meals....but mainly was a great spot to stop and enjoy a cool drink after shopping. They had large signs over the counter displaying various treats for you to enjoy and they prided themselves on serving a knock-out Raspberry Lime Ricky. During its long history in Boston, Neisner’s had a large candy selection and did maintain a deli during some of those years. Our shopping trips, from the 1960’s until they shut in the late 1970’s , always included a final stop for a drink at the counter and quick look round the various levels of this classic store. I will always recall entering on the Bromfield Street side and looking down at the lunch counter area. You entered on a small landing and had to go down about ten steps on either side to reach the street floor below....a great architectural feature to help lessen the changes in level from one side of the store to the other.
The Boston branch of this large chain store was located on Washington Street at Temple Place. During the time period of the 1920’s until it shut in the late 1980’s, Kresge’s maintained a lunch counter, deli and snack bar. These were prominent features of the street floor and created wonderful smells that filled the entire store. I vividly recall the rotisserie oven with hams and chickens spinning round as we wandered all over the colorful street floor. The lunch counter was always busy and very noisy...needless to say....mother never wanted to stop and sit.
Gilchrist’s was already a well established Boston legend in the area of selling goods by the late 1920’s and the introduction of baking golden almond macaroons on the street floor would become its most legendary act and remain a Boston enigma to this very day. The macaroon phenomenon with its secret formula was born in the late 1920’s and became a Boston passion soon after. It’s no wonder that Gilchrist’s soon opened its Marble Spa Restaurant in the early 1930’s....one good thing certainly deserves another! Visiting Gilchrist’s street floor bakery just off Winter Street became a must for celebrities who were performing in plays or doing movie promotional tours...Filene’s had the basement, Gilchrist’s had the macaroon! The bakery and Marble Spa were next to one another at the rear of the street floor. One felt the Marble Spa was subterranean since it was located in the far rear and the incline slope from Tremont Street to Washington Street created the illusion of it being in the basement. The Marble Spa was a delightful spot to eat a full meal or have a simple snack. It was crowned with a polished, curvy marble counter....thus its name. You could sit at the classic counter or sit at private booths...a true retro Boston stunner! The bakery also sold many other yummy treats including candy for you to enjoy...but the smell of those macaroons baking was priceless and just a little bit of heaven on earth! Gilchrist’s street floor was alive with the gentle aroma of flowery female perfumes and those golden macaroons baking. What a delightful and truly wild sensory combination! This Boston romance lasted until December of 1976 when the specially designed ovens were finally switched off....and the secret recipe....poof....remains a sweet mystery!
The beloved Jordan Marsh Company was fierce, vast and mighty in Boston retailing by the 1920’s but rather slow in developing a lasting food niche. It all began around the same time as the macaroon craze began across the street in Gilchrist’s. Who knows who did what first but competition is a powerful ingredient and Jordan Marsh opened its Spanish Shop for Candy. The first location was up on the fourth floor of the main store and featured a selection of sweets...made with distinction but not by Jordan Marsh, or so it would seem. The Spanish Shop was bumped from place to place over the next few years and finally wound up....surprise....on the street floor of the main building. During the 1940’s, The Spanish Shop became a tea room with light lunches, beverages and sweet treats while the candy and speciality foods were moved to the annex building on the third floor. The tea room with its Spanish theme lasted through the 1940’s and was phased out during the extensive rebuilding program of the 1950’s. The candy and food department made its way down to the street floor of the ever expanding annex building and by the 1960’s...a blueberry muffin was born! Finally, Jordan Marsh hit a winner in the food line...it took years but a lasting food tribute came into being and thrilled Bostonians completely. Entering the famous annex building was a thrill for me as a child in the late 60’s and 1970’s. The crowds, the music...and the wonderful smells coming from the food department on that classic street floor were so mouth-watering! The relocation (and subsequent demolition of the annex) of the candy, bakery and food department to the basement of the “new “main store building was very sad. I do recall it had tables and the smell of coffee brewing but it was not the same feel at all....tucked away in the basement. But the blueberry muffins lived on in that way until the 1990’s when the smells faded away as Macy’s took hold.
Filene’s maintained a unique and highly popular eatery of various themes during almost its entire run as a Boston magnet for shoppers once it moved into the elegant 1912 Burnham building. The eighth floor was the spot and the restaurant had it all...and many exciting extras as well. At various times over the many years, the restaurant hosted singers, theatre productions, magicians, orchestras, choirs and even Santa Clause...just to name a few attractions that graced the place. Yes, food items such as candy and quick lunch snacks (hot dogs, fresh pretzels, etc.) could be had elsewhere throughout the store including the basement but the restaurant on the eighth floor was the real treasure! The high ceiling and spacious seating areas allowed for leisure meals with no clamour in a pleasant atmosphere. The restaurant had a major facelift in the late 1950’s and then again in the 1970’s when it became known as, The Greenery. A pleasing greenhouse theme with ivy and lattices prevailed and this is the way I recall it from the late 1970’s until I last visited in about 1990. Also an English style pub was featured as a separate venue serving up its own menu during the 1970’s and into the 80’s. So much variety!! Freshly baked items could be purchased just outside the main entrance to the restaurant in a large glass display counter and added to the “festive flare” of the eighth floor. The menu was full of variety and one could have lunch, dinner or a light snack depending on your desires. The main feature of Filene’s restaurant was its famous....chicken pot pies. This delicate little pie became legendary by the 1950’s and remained a staple of the restaurant for years to come. The coveted recipe is contained, thanks to Filene’s of the 1950’s, in this update.
Raymond’s in its original location on the corner of Franklin and Washington Streets was housed in hodgepodge of antique buildings. The food shop....Unkle Eph’s....of course, was located on the street floor in its own store front on Washington Street. The food shop contained a variety of speciality foods, baked goods and a deli counter. In 1966, during the start of the realignment of Franklin Street, the entire store moved up Washington Street to the former Citymart (RH White’s former building) and inherited a large, fully fitted restaurant facility. The store carried on providing meals in the restaurant and also in a small snack bar...I heard rumours that the snack bar was in the shape of a barrel. This carried on until Raymond’s went out of business in the early 1970’s and the classic, old building was flattened in 1973.
White’s had a long history of serving food in its well established flagship store on Washington and Bedford Streets. The restaurant (tea room) on mezzanine (second floor) was known as, The Elbow Room. A well-rounded menu was served for lunch and early dinners to lucky shoppers who decided on stopping by. A hallmark of White’s was its homemade candy and this was made daily in the large basement candy kitchen and could be viewed by plate glass observation windows by shoppers who wanted “sweet insights” into the mystery of why White’s candy was some of the best in Boston...at least until 1957 when the owners closed the flagship store. Citymart came along in 1962 and lasted until 1966 and they maintained the tradition of serving food in The Elbow Room and in a snack bar located on the street floor. The art of candy making never did return to the basement after White’s left...a long tradition that was sadly dying out in Boston.
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Boston born, Brookline raised Retro Boston Cultural Historian and very eager to get as many memories, photos and newspaper adverts of the once grand stores of the Downtown Boston we all knew and loved. Also I am very busy researching Boston area churches of the past that have since closed or merged into others. All who remember are welcome to contact me with their thoughts, memories and photos to add to any of my blogs.
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