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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.