Thursday, December 08, 2005

Last Call for the Walnut Room?

First off, Federated Stores says that the famous Walnut Room of Marshall Field's flagship store on State Street (follow link for ironic headline) will survive the store's conversion to Macy's next year. But I cannot imagine our family's December tradition of having lunch beneath the tree in the Walnut Room followed by an afternoon of shopping in this retail cathedral without the Marshall Field's name on the doors and the menus.

Wednesday was the sort of day that those of us who work at home love -- the frigid forecast was an invitation to fix a cup of hot chocolate and enjoy the 15 inches of insulation that I finally had installed on Tuesday. Alas, it was the one day when everyone (grandma, grandpa, mom, three aunts, an uncle, a cousin and her two daughters (so I guess that's three cousins)) was available for our annual Field's trip. I had a special responsibility this year. As the one who lives closest to State Street, that Great Street, I was expected to arrive early to reserve our table.

The commute downtown went well. I just missed a Brown Line train, but I scored an instant transfer to the Red Line at Belmont (I swear the coldest spot in the city is on the elevated platform waiting to transfer, with the wind cutting through your clothing and frosting your skin). In the store, a waiting elevator took me to the seventh floor where there was no one in line at the Walnut Room. In recent years they have switched to a beeper system to manage the crowds, but there is still a long line later in the day (just to get a beeper). I was so early that I feared that I would be paged before the rest of the family arrived, so I lurked nearby reading a book (Damned Lies and Statistics: Untangling Numbers from the Media, Politicians, and Activists by Joel Best) for 15 minutes. When I took a pager, I was told that it was for the 11:00 seating, the first of the day.

I had given my cell phone number to my mom the night before and assumed that she would at least have her phone on, but I was wrong. I tried to call her at 10:15, 10:30, 10:40 and 10:50. I waited near the beeper line, which began to stretch around the corner and down the hallway. By 10:55 I was getting nervous -- I might be sitting at a table for 11 by myself! Finally everyone showed up, and fortunately my pager didn't go off until 11:15 or so.

Shopping at Field's is one of those things I only do for tradition. While I once followed in my mom's footsteps as a power shopper, I have become less and less interested in "the hunt" over the past decade or so. In addition, the Walnut Room's food and service seem to be a little worse every year. And the Harry Potter-themed tree they had a few years ago was just ghastly. The merchandise has declined, too, especially for Christmas decorations. I usually get the most enjoyment out of making fun of everything. Besides, with more Christmas junk in the basement than we could ever be bothered to display already, it's hard for me to get enthusiastic about ornaments or even the ever-expanding line of Department 56 buildings (every year I am disappointed to see that they still haven't added a brothel).

This year, however, the Walnut Room was surprisingly good. Service has improved -- I said everybody was working extra hard because they were afraid of losing their jobs when Macy's takes over. The BBQ spice chicken sandwich I had was downright fabulous. I removed the too-generous onion topping, but the multi-grain bun was tasty and satisfying. The chicken itself, while a bit drier than I expected (I had misinterpreted "BBQ" to means "BBQ sauce"), was quite flavorful. Even the seasoned fries were good, not over-seasoned like Bennigan's, Friday's, et al. On the other hand, my grandparents seemed less impressed with the chicken pot pie that I've eaten there so many times over the years. Halfway through her meal, my grandma quipped, "Look, a piece of chicken!" We finished with the traditional round of cinnamon toast (a hot drink with apple cider and amaretto that comes with a souvenir Field's Santabear glass) for dessert.

We walked past the Great Tree on the way out, but we went up to the eighth floor to take pictures. This year it was decorated with Swarovski crystal ornaments, a great improvement over Harry Potter. My mom had said it was something-ski, so I took to calling it Grabowski. Imagine a tree full of Ditkas. Now that would be cool.




I have no idea what Blogger did to this photo I took with my cell phone, but if you click on it, it looks normal.








The shopping went as expected. I got to make fun of a lot of goofy stuff and didn't buy anything. The offerings in the Christmas store were odd. For starters, they had evergreen feather wreaths. The weirdest thing is that they were displayed around the waists of sewing mannequins (the kind that go from the neckline down to the hips). They looked like feather hula skirts. There were some neat but way too expensive ornaments, but my favorite was one I called "the food chain ornament:" a cat looking intently at a fish jumping out of its fishbowl. I suppose it would be okay for someone who likes cats, but I don't think goldfish lovers would appreciate it! I don't know -- a predator-prey ornament just doesn't seem to be "in the Christmas spirit."

My grandma waited forever to make her purchase, and my mom waited forever to get gift boxes at the gift wrap counter. Maybe Field's improved the service at the Walnut Room by taking people away from the other departments! While waiting for my mom to get her gift boxes (you've gotta love that Field's touch -- they gave her 15 boxes for 15 ornaments she had purchased for $3.03 each), I noticed that there was a voice mail on my phone. My wife said that our dog had eaten the apple dumpling pie she had left on the kitchen counter. On the bright side, each of us had tried a slice and decided it wasn't so great anyway. On the other hand, our dog would probably get sick later.

The rest of our day was so-so. My mom found a great gift for my brother, and I think one of my aunts bought something. I spent time looking around and soaking up the architecture of the place. Granted, Macy's won't tear down the Tiffany ceiling, but it just won't be Field's anymore. In that respect, it was a sad goodbye yesterday. I don't know if my family will be going to the Walnut Room in 2006, but I can't imagine it being Macy's Walnut Room. The quintessential Chicago temple of retailing will become just another location of the New York store. We might as well hand over Wrigley Field to the Yankees.

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