On Saturday, a glorious day with the sun shining and the temperature soaring toward the mid-40s and the snow melting in rivulets down the sidewalks and streets (and oh my it is icy today), Doug and I went downtown to return a shirt.
I have always loved the St. Paul Macy's/Marshall Fields/Dayton's. I still call it Dayton's, out of habit, though it has been bought and sold twice since then. It's a square yellow building in the heart of downtown, an old-fashioned department store with household goods and designer clothes and Christmas ornaments and kitchen ware and high-heeled shoes and hats (wool, straw, and knitted) and lacy underwear and a whole floor of furniture (well, they used to; that's closed) and a little bookstore (ditto) and a beautiful old-fashioned ladies-who-lunch restaurant on the bottom floor, called the River Room.
We do not go shopping often, but when we do, we usually go to the St. Paul Macy's on a Saturday or Sunday morning and then have lunch at the River Room.
The St. Paul Macys is never, ever crowded. Doug, Mr. Glass-Half-Empty, has always warned me that the place doesn't do great business, and it's going to close some day. Whereas I, Ms. Glass-Half-Full, counter with oh, no it won't; what's downtown without a department store? And isn't it wonderful that it's sort of our own private store, since everyone else is at the Macys over in Roseville or Minneapolis?
Yesterday we parked in the ramp, entered the store, and my gosh, it was crowded. Not New York City crowded, not even Minneapolis crowded, but for St. Paul, it was crowded. We had to wait for a clerk so we could do the return, and we had to wait again when we bought the replacement shirt, and then we stepped onto the escalator and glided down two floors to the River Room.
It was packed! This never happens! We got a table, but we had to wait quite a while for our waitress. Usually there are six or eight tables of ladies quietly eating quiche, but this time nearly every table was full--ladies, yes, but also families, and couples, packages heaped on the floor next to them, and the three waiters were dashing around at quite a pace.
The River Room is a throwback. It's a genteel, elegant place, with long leather-bound menus and a wine list and white-cloth tables and a half-dozen or so heavy crystal chandeliers with little pink shades.
The food is expensive, but you get, first thing, popovers, hot and steamy from the oven.
Popovers, which are basically made of egg, flour, milk and air, are nothing but a hot, crusty vehicle for butter. You slather it on, or I do. It drips down my hand and even though I'm in an elegant setting, under a chandelier, I lick my fingers. Furtively. Politely. In an elegant way.
When the busy waitress finally brought us our order (and politely whisked away the shattered crusty shards of popovers), I asked her if it was the Winter Carnival that was bringing out the crowds. It was a gorgeous day for viewing the ice sculptures in Rice Park.
Sunday, February 1, 2009
"It could be the carnival," she said. "Or it could be that this is our last Saturday."
It's true. The downtown St. Paul Macys will now be open only from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday. No more River Room lunches for us on Saturdays or Sundays when we have need to buy some kitchen ware, or lacy bras, or return a shirt. And, for that matter, no more kitchen ware or shirt-returns, either. The place will be locked up tight. From tomorrow on, it will be open only for the downtown St. Paul crowd to use during their weekday lunch hour.
I looked around at the chandeliers and the white tablecloths and the little pink lampshades, and I wished I'd brought my camera.
I wrote a story once about a woman who was the hostess here. She was 82, and still working; she told me wonderful stories about what it had been like back in the day. (You can read the story here.)
She worked until she was 93, and then she retired and two weeks later she died. I always think of her when we stop at the River Room; I remember her welcoming smile and her elegance and her concern over the guests, which is what she had been taught to call the white-gloved and hatted customers, oh, 70 years before.
I think her heart would have been broken to find that her beloved Macys/Marshall Fields/Dayton's was trunctating its hours, that the ladies who lunch can no longer lunch there on the weekends.
Doug, Mr. Glass Half Empty, says this is the first step to closing the Macys entirely. "It won't be here in another couple of years," he said.
And I, Ms. Glass Half Full, sez not. Half a River Room is better than no River Room, and I'll just have to take a day off work some time so I can go downtown, and have some lunch.