By Bonnie Bing
Ask many longtime Wichitans if they ever dined at the Innes Tea Room and you’ll see a big smile and hear a resounding, “Yes!” Especially if they’re female. Next you’ll hear the word “special” many times while they describe the experience.
I wholeheartedly agree with them. The first fashion show I saw was when my mom took me to the Innes Tea Room for lunch. This 10-year-old couldn’t believe the elegant surroundings, how nice the wait staff treated everyone and how delicious the food was. When the models came down the runway, I was sure I had gone straight to fashion heaven.
The blond model with chic French twist hairdo, white high heels and pale pink skirt that floated when she turned is still a vivid memory many decades later.
It’s fun hearing others talk about the place as well.
Melodee Eby remembers the Innes Tea Room so well she wishes she could go there for lunch tomorrow.
“So many times I was there, so many ‘important’ events took place there,” she said. “I have so many memories of dining there with family and friends. If I recall correctly, even the first rather ‘official’ event of my engagement to (her husband) Martin took place there.”
Jane Knight said she loved the runway fashion shows. “It was always such a special treat to go there.”
“When I was 13 my mother hosted a surprise birthday party for me at the Tea Room,” Knight said. “We walked to the front and there was a round table with six or seven of my friends. It is one of my most wonderful memories.”
Charles Frodsham wrote stories about local history for this publication from 2012 to 2014. Regardless of what subject he was researching, he kept running into mentions of the Innes Tea Room.
However, his own experience in the tea room isn’t a favorite memory. At the age of seven, Charles and his mother took the bus downtown to reach the Innes store. He was excited to go to the toy department, but his shopping was interrupted when his mother said they were meeting her friend for lunch.
He thought the food took far too long to arrive, and once the meal was over, he was ready to go back to the toy department. “But no,” he said. “At that moment it seemed like a bunch of ladies started prancing around the Tea Room tables and my mother and her luncheon companion were even paying attention to them and talking about them.” He now says he was simply too young to appreciate the 19-year-old models.
The first Tea Room opened on the second floor of the building north of the Innes store, at Broadway and Douglas. It was said to be one of, if not the finest, restaurants in Wichita. In 1927, it moved to the new Innes building.
The Tea Room took up the entire sixth floor of the Innes Department Store. It instantly became the place to see and be seen. You dressed up, you put on your hat and your gloves (if you were female) and you had lunch.
It was a popular destination for decades. In the 1950s, servers still wore black skirts, white blouses, white aprons and starched white caps. If you were there for lunch on a Tuesday or Friday, you were treated to a fashion show featuring head-to-toe ensembles — all available in the store, of course.
Jean Ann Cusick said she started going to the Innes Tea Room when she was five years old. “I absolutely adored it! I have lots of stories from when I would go with my grandmother Lewis. We would go every year to lunch and then go pick out Christmas cards that would be gold leaf monogrammed,” she said.
Box purses and dress-up dresses
In her teens, she and friends would go to the Tea Room “in our white gloves, our little box purses and our dress-up dresses.”
Marni Stevens, who grew up on a farm in Butler County, recalls going to the Innes Tea Room with her favorite aunt, Joan Smith, who she sometimes stayed overnight with in Wichita.
From the time she was 9 to 12, they went to the Tea Room three times. “And I can remember every one of them,” she said. “She was my role model and taught me all about manners.”
“When I grew older, anytime I would get a compliment on my nice table manners, my instant thought was of the Innes Tea Room,” Stevens said.
Sharon Cox, a great niece of Walter Innes Sr., doesn’t remember the store’s founder very well, but she recalls dressing up to go downtown shopping. “And since we’re dressed up we’d go, to the Tea Room for lunch,” she said. “Even though it was fascinating, it was a little intimidating, probably because I got the manners lecture on the way to town.”
The Tea Room wasn’t a place for lunch only. Dinner was served and many special occasions were celebrated in the Tea Room.
A dinner menu from April 15, 1954, offers five appetizers, from V-8 juice for a dime to oyster stew for 65 cents. Twelve entrees are listed, the most expensive being a broiled rib steak with French fries and lettuce with Thousand Island dressing, hot roll, tea or coffee for $2.25. All the other entrees were under $2.
In late 1951, the Innes store was sold to Younker Brothers, Inc., a company out of Des Moines, Iowa. Four years later the store was sold to Macy’s.
Ladies who lunched
In 1972, the Sunflower Room, a dining area in the basement of the store, was enlarged and a snack bar was installed on the first floor. The next year, the Innes Tea Room closed.
Shopping malls took shoppers and stores away from downtown. The population of “ladies who lunch” dropped drastically as the number of women working outside the home increased.
But there are still those of us who fondly remember sitting there, making sure we put our napkins in our laps and used the right forks.
Reach Bonnie Bing at email@example.com