The Younkers Tea Room

 It was a staple of my childhood growing in Des Moines, Iowa. The wonderous, amazing, classy Younkers Tea Room.

 Oh it was a beautiful place. It was so fancy that it was almost regal in nature. This was during the 1970’s and 80’s. I was extremely young but I remember the Tea Room like I was there just yesterday.

I am 4-years-old in this picture, which is the approximate age that I first went to the Younkers Tea Room. By the way, this picture was taken at the 1977 Iowa State Fair. I apparently wanted to be a firefighter.

 I can close my eyes and remember the place almost perfectly. There were HUGE windows everywhere. Tied back by those windows were long, almost ceiling-to-floor length purple curtains. They looked velvet and they were  a maroon color. So was the carpet, which was plush. Sunlight shone in and the rays glanced off the crystal in the chandeliers that hung throughout the massive Tea Room. Waitresses brought out glasses off water and the water was served in crystal-like goblets. The napkins were linen and heavy. The wait staff were all professional, they walked quickly, they were attentive. The chairs were a deep dark color, heavy wood. The entire place just screamed class.

Postcard (year unknown) featuring the Younkers Tea Room in Des Moines, Iowa.

  I remember going there a lot when I was a kid. And for a family that was fairly laid back, going to the Tea Room was a real affair. Grandpa put on dress slacks and a fancy coat and wore his Fedora hat. Grandma put on her best blouse and dress and dabbed at herself with the fancy smelling perfume. My Mom would dress up and so would I. We were not a church going family but when we went to the Younkers Tea Room, we were wearing the equivalent of our Sunday best.
 A brief bit of history: the Younkers Tea Room was located in the downtown Younkers Department Store. Back when downtown was king, Younkers ruled the roost, with downtown workers and residents flocking to Younkers for clothes, household goods, delicious homemade candies. It seems everything was at Younkers. 
 

A picture of life inside the Younkers Tea Room in downtown Des Moines. I am guessing this picture was taken sometime during the 1980's.

 I forgot to mention another important element of the Tea Room. Look in the picture above and you will see a small stage area with a piano on it. A lot of the time at the Tea Room, a live pianist would be on stage to provide what essentially was background music for everyone’s conversations. I can remember sitting at the Tea Room with my folks, just bored to tears with whatever they were talking about. My attention would then always fall on the pianist. It was never the same person; sometimes I saw a man, sometimes I saw a woman…but always what I ended up hearing what just beautiful, perfectly performed music. I can remember just being enthralled with watching the pianist’s hands and then listening for what would come next.

You got to the Younkers Tea Room through a vintage, wood-paneled elevator. It shook a little bit on the ride up and down.

When you exited that elevator, this is what you would see: the exterior doorway that led into the actual Tea Room. Notice the artwork above the doorway and the classic design which mixed wide curves and hard angles.

   The place was vintage and classic. By the 1970’s, when I started going there, it had already been a staple of downtown Des Moines for decades. I always enjoyed going to the Tea Room. I knew it was something special, even as a child, because any other place we would go to eat…was not like the Tea Room. Other places were rushed and hurried with food that just wasn’t as good as the Tea Room.
 Every time I went to the Tea Room, it was a good time.

 Except once.

 I was probably 16-years-old. I had spent the day hanging out with my friend Barry Blessing. I can not remember what we had been doing; it must not have been memorable. What I do remember is Barry saying “I’m hungry, let’s go get something to eat”. Now mind you, I am dressed in a Chicago Bears sweatshirt and I have a baseball cap on that says “Ford”. In short, I was truly casual in my dress, not at all classy.
 Next thing I know, Barry is parking downtown so we can go to the Younkers Tea Room.
 “Are you nuts?” I said in a near panic. “I’m not dressed for the Tea Room!”
 Barry assured me that I was fine. Barry, by the way, was dressed in Khaki pants and a golf shirt.
 We went in and sat down. Thankfully the place was not packed. I stuck out not only like a sore thumb, but like a thumb that had been repeatedly beaten by a hammer then dipped in yellow paint before being beaten again and then stuck under a spotlight. I just wanted to die. The waiters could not have been nicer. They treated me just like they always had.
 And that was the last time I was ever in the Tea Room. This was in 1989 or so.

 (Editor’s Note: Since originally publishing this blog, I was reminded by a friend of mine, Phil Dally, that WHO Radio held their Christmas Party at the Younkers Tea Room in December of 1990. Meaning THAT was the final time I was ever at the Tea Room.)

 The downtown Tea Room stayed open into the 90’s but eventually closed when Younkers determined the downtown location was not financially viable anymore.

It was once the flagship of a department store empire: the former Younkers Department Store in downtown Des Moines.

  The building is still downtown but it sits empty. When I go home, I usually try to drive by it and see the building that used to be the center of everything.   
 The Tea Room is still the gold standard in my mind. While it was gorgeous during the day, it was even better at night. It would be dark outside and the chandeliers were “just right”; not too bright, not too dark. There would be light piano music playing in the background and the dark tones of the carpet, drapes and woodwork just screamed class. To this day, I enjoy eating at night, in places that are lit “just right” and where the atmosphere is conducive to good discussion and some relaxation. It’s what “fine dining” should be about; an atmosphere were you can just kick back and enjoy yourself and whoever you are with.

An artist's rendering, perhaps from the 1950's, of the main lobby area of the Younkers Tea Room in downtown Des Moines, Iowa.

 If some enterprising businessman in Des Moines is giving this blog a read, think about investing in something similar to the Younkers Tea Room. It would be an extremely classy thing to do and you would have at least 1 customer for sure…and I’m betting many more.

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21 responses to “The Younkers Tea Room

  1. This is a great blog post. I’ve never been inside the Yonkers build downtown and so never even knew about The Tea Room, I’m sad to say. I do walk past the building every morning and even with the windows covered or blacked out, you can almost feel the grandeur. When I walk past I know that this is a different level of class than if I was across the street.

  2. My Grandmother took me there in the late 50’s, and 60’s.
    They had a wonderful “rarebit”. I discovered this blog while thinking of rarebit recipes and have very much enjoyed your memories and photos.
    Thank you!

  3. Thanks for this article. I have many years of memories from chilhood to my days as a Fine Jewelry manager at this store. My aunt, Edna(Eddie) Barrus even used to sing in the Tea Room during the 40’s. Her accompanist was a Drake student… Roger Williams………..

  4. Brian,

    Thanks for sharing this! I’ve reposted this on FB with a postcard showing my grandmother answer the phone and making a reservation, circa 1950. What a great place it was and thank you for bringing back the memories! Younkers would take the glass out of a corner window (5th and Walnut?) in the weeks leading up to Christmas, and Santa was available to take your Christmas list and wishes. I remember standing in a line wrapping around the block in the cold Iowa winter, passing the holiday decorated store windows, and finally getting my chance to sit on Santa’s lap. An elf topped it off with a candy cane. The original Younkers Downtown Des Moines was a class act!

  5. Brian,

    Thanks for sharing this! I’ve reposted this on FB with a postcard showing my grandmother answering the phone and making a reservation, circa 1950. What a great place it was and thank you for bringing back the memories! Younkers would take the glass out of a corner window (5th and Walnut?) in the weeks leading up to Christmas, and Santa was available to take your Christmas list and wishes. I remember standing in a line wrapping around the block in the cold Iowa winter, passing the holiday decorated store windows, and finally getting my chance to sit on Santa’s lap. An elf topped it off with a candy cane. The original Younkers Downtown Des Moines was a class act!

  6. Karina Sturdevant

    So many people have fond memories of the tea room! Thank you for sharing.

  7. Not sure if you have found out who bought it or not by now…this space was actually reocmmended to me to check out for a wedding next fall. apparently someone DID buy it and they’re planning on turning it into an event space. the rest of the building will be shopping/apartments to open at a later date. Trying to find the owners contact info so i can call them myself!

  8. Younker’s Tea Room is legendary in Des Moines. As a teen, I served on the Younkers Teen Board and we used to model Younker’s clothing during Saturday lunch hours. That would have been in the 60s. We took our son to “Breakfast with Santa” in the 80s. I have never found a rarebit burger that came close to theirs and certainly, no where else would serve it with two sticky rolls. Yum! I would also take student leaders to the Tea Room for ettiquette training. Younkers would reserve a private area for us. They were happy to load the table up with silverware to help us teach these young people how to “dine”. Finally, I used to attend “Let’s DU Lunch” a Drake sponsored lunch and learn event until the doors sadly closed. I would love to see the place open again. My new grand daughter will need a elegant place to meet Santa!

    • Joy: I was also on the Teen Board in 1962-63. It was a grand a glorious time. I visited there years ago to find out what happened to all the Teen Board photos and memorabilia and to Nadine Gunson. She was probably your director, too? They had no idea and thought all of it was thrown away.
      Great to hear that they are reopening the Tea Room in some configuration. I will be there for my 50th high school reunion (SJA) this summer. Would love to hear from you.

  9. Thank you for your nostalgic account of Younker’s Tea Room. My grandmother was an employee of the tea room as a young woman in the late 1920’s. She modeled furs and jewelry for the patrons of the tea room. I very much appreciated your descriptions. I never got to see the place but often heard stories about the tea room.

  10. I just thought I’d ask, have you read Bill Bryson’s account of growing up in 50s Des Moines, ‘The Life And Times Of The Thunderbolt Kid’? I have no idea if he’s as popular in his native land as he is in Britain.

    Though your memories come from a couple of decades later, I think you’d enjoy his description of Younkers, and in particular its tea room. The hallowed terms in which he describes its elegance and refinement, the kindness of its waiting staff etc are similar to yours!

    If you haven’t checked it out, I’d highly recommend it.

  11. Hi Brian, I’m so glad you posted this! While working on my family history, I searched the web for pictures of the Tea Room because my Great Uncle Frank Tarwainas was a chef there for 42 years! – and I found this. He retired in1962. I have never lived in Des Moines – I was there once for Frank’s funeral. I was a young child and all I remember was driving past miles and miles of corn fields! Reading that the Tea Room was no longer there made me sad – also surprised because I made a spontaneous stop on my way from NE to Bettendorf, Iowa about 2004, for the sole purpose of seeing where Uncle Frank worked….I must’ve visited shortly before it closed. So glad I was able to see it! Beautiful!

  12. Wow! What a place! Thanks for posting this article.
    I never visited the Tea Room or even the downtown store but have heard of them. I enjoyed receiving a glimpse of their grandeur and am sad to have missed out on enjoying them.

  13. I remember the christmas window at the se corner of 7th and walnut.I think it was 1943-45. It had Santa Clause in a bathtub with the elves scrubing his back.I have tried to find a pic of this but so far no luck. I loved the tea room and the elegants of that store.

  14. My girlfriends and I who went to Lincoln High on the south side used to catch the bus after (sometimes before) school and go to Younkers Tea Room for their Rarebit Burger and Fries. Such a treat in such an elegant restaurant. I’ll have those memories forever as truly loved to go there.

  15. During the Christmas Holiday there was always the most gorgeous Christmas tree, fully decorated standing in the middle of the room. Servers would come around to the tables where children were sitting and offer each one a wrapped gift.
    The Chicken Salad and home made sticky rolls were the best ever.
    What a treat to be taken there for lunch. Glorious memories.
    On some days there would be models walking on the stage when the piano was being played. The models were all local talent and would walk around the room stopping to answer questions about what they were wearing that day.

  16. George N. Peak

    Lots of memories here. Both from childhood and later as an employee in the late ’70s. Remember one Inventory when we had finished in the “Luggage Dept.” and were sent to “Sewing Notions” to count spools of thread,etc. … “Satisfaction Always” is the slogan that reverberates in my head.

  17. .
    A poignant post …for someone who has memories of the Tea Room as you (and I) do.

    Especially poignant given the event of last night. So sad.

    …tom…

    • My Dad was the manager of the Woolworth’s just down the street from Younker’s when I applied for the Teen Board in 1962. When I was chosen as one of two girls to represent St. Joseph Academy, my father was almost as proud of me as I was of myself. I loved that store and to be part of it on the inside was simply amazing. The Teen Board girls, two from each high school, became Younker’s girls. We worked on Saturdays and modeled the latest junior fashions in the tea room at lunch. My grandmother had been a model in New York and would often come to the tea room to watch me and give me serious advice about the value of a college education. When we weren’t modeling, the tea room was alluring for the Rarebit Burger and shoestring fries. I was able to add to my hours as a part-time employee over the summer and worked in nearly every department, including hats! When I left for college my mother and I went to the luggage department where I talked her into buying a full set of RED American Tourister luggage. I remember her charge card, a small metal thing with her name embossed on the front, Mrs. H.O Ravely. I was sometimes allowed to “borrow” it (after she would call the store to tell them I had her permission to use it), to buy Villager pleated skirts with matching sweaters, a prom or homecoming dress with matching dyed shoes and purse, or blouses that cost $5.99. I loved the first floor with the perfume and cosmetics counters. I would often visit the men’s perfume counter to smell Canoe or English Leather because my boyfriend wore them. I still own a green leather manicure set my mother bought me at the small leather goods counter to take to college along with a white Younker’s box with a pair of leather opera gloves. It was a grand a glorious building where I first learned to appreciate architecture. As I look through the photos of the tea room and the store in the glory days of downtown retail, I am sad to realize it is forever lost. My memories of Younker’s, however, are clear and profoundly affectionate for all that store meant to me. I am fortunate to have lived in an era when when going downtown to shop was magnificent and special.
      I visited Des Moines last year for my 50th high school reunion. I stayed downtown near Younker’s and I spent an hour just walking around and remembering. I am very glad I did.

  18. What precious photos! I have such fond memories of riding the elevators with a real live elevator operator back in the 60’s and 70’s. I often see that elevator in my dreams at night. What a treasure to see an actual photo of it! They just don’t make them like that anymore. And the Tea Room was always such an elegant treat! Please continue to share any other photos or memories, especially now that it has burned. What I wouldn’t give to see a photo of the first floor with it’s tall ceilings and columns. It was such a grand piece of architecture!

  19. As many of my contemporaries, I have very fond memories of Younkers and the Tea Room. I served on Younkers Teen Board and was one of the local models passing through the Tea Room on Saturdays. Thank you for sharing the photos and memories.

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