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THE LAST TEA : The closing of the Tea Room at I. Magnin Bullocks Wilshire marks the end of an era. A report on its frantic last days. A profile of a 17-year veteran. An appreciation of the Tea Room in its later years. And recipes to keep as souvenirs of a more genteel Southern California.

April 15, 1993|BARBARA HANSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The ladies who lunch are shedding serious tears. Never again will they taste that heavenly Coconut Cream Pie, as soft and rounded as a cumulus cloud, as white as a snowdrift. Gone are the Monte Cristo sandwiches, the Bombay salad with honey-sweet Poppy-Seed Dressing, the Bread Pudding, the scones and tea, the discreet martinis.

It all ended April 2 when the Tea Room at I. Magnin Bullocks Wilshire closed. The store itself closed on Tuesday, 63 years and seven months after it opened. Thus ends an era of carriage-trade shopping, leisurely lunches and afternoon tea.

During the last weeks, old regulars jammed the Tea Room for final tastes, waiting as long as three hours for a table. Cutlery vanished, menus disappeared, plates were dunked into shopping bags by loyal customers desperate for memorabilia. And the food ran out early.

"I can't believe this is happening," Charlotte Capune of Pasadena sighs. It's the day before the Tea Room closes for good and she hasn't got a reservation. Capune, who walks with a cane, waits in line for the store to open, then hurries through the crowd to the elevators.

"So many memories," she says sadly, punching the button for 5, the Tea Room floor. She is the first to arrive, but the desk is already overwhelmed with phone calls. "This is a sad day," she says. But there's a bright spot: Two people call to cancel and she gets a table.

Patricia Sullivan of Monrovia and her friends, Betty Scruggs and Lorraine Cameron of West Covina, have just finished a last helping of their favorite dessert, Bread Pudding. Each also has ordered a serving to go so a tower of Styrofoam boxes sits on their table. "It's to die for," they agree.

Three out of four women at another table order the Bullocks Wilshire light tea, a plate of finger sandwiches, toast points with cream cheese and caviar, cucumbers, tastes of two cakes, a cookie and a fruit cup. But instead of tea, they ask for Champagne to toast the end of a store they had known since childhood.

The dainty tea foods are laid out on Wedgwood Wild Strawberry plates, which the Tea Room acquired in 1984. Much older are the Syracuse China plates, each showing off a single large, shadowy white flower amid a scattering of leaves. "I'm down to about 10 of those," says Katie Whitehead, food service director.

The last slice of Coconut Cream Pie was eaten several days ago. Instead of the usual moist flake coconut, it was topped with powdery macaroon coconut, which is all that remained in the pantry. Other desserts have become unavailable as supplies dwindled and weren't replaced.

Whitehead's already rounded up the Tea Room's most precious silver--the engraved toothpick holders, sugar bowls and creamers--and stowed them safely in her office. Accessories will go to other stores owned by R.H. Macy & Co. That includes menus, if any remain. The originals are covered in a peacock and floral design that matches the wallpaper and drapes. They were snatched up so quickly by souvenir hunters that the last lunchers have to make do with Kinko copies.

Some customers are forced to eat with plastic forks and spoons and wipe their fingers on paper napkins instead of cloth--a far cry from the refined service of old. Folding chairs are pressed into service in the function room, once a photographer's studio, that holds the overflow, and temporary waitresses who can't explain the menu have replaced staff waitresses who have already departed. But there are still fresh flowers in bud vases. And the food, agree the regulars, is wonderful.

Whitehead has searched frantically for the recipe for orange rolls with an orange glaze. They and other specialties, such as Heavenly Lemon Pie, haven't been served for years, but customers remember them fondly from the old days and have been asking for the recipes. Other recipes disappeared with a chef who departed several years ago.

"What I loved was the warmth and ambience," says Diane Kaminski of South Pasadena, who often entertained friends at the Tea Room. "I remember the basket of petit muffins, the cheese biscuits and orange rolls. It was just so delicious. I remember the little marshmallow candy with a green gumdrop layer that they gave you after each meal. And I remember especially the Coconut Cream Pie. It was so light. The crust tasted homemade."

On the Tea Room's last day, the room shuts down at 4 p.m. The last to leave are Suzanne Forgues of Beverly Hills and her companion, Pat Curry. Forgues came to the Tea Room daily and has no idea where to go now.

But she and Curry go out with style, partying with Whitehead, the chefs, the waitresses and whoever else is still around. "I just took all the Champagne that was left, and we partied until every bottle was gone," she says when it's all over. Whitehead's parting gift to each member of the remaining staff: a long-stemmed rose.

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