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An Afternoon With Mr. Tea

April 15, 1993|MARGY ROCHLIN

The tearoom experience at I. Magnin Bullocks Wilshire was shared by several generations. This story, first printed in The Times in 1990, shows how, even in recent years, the Tea Room was adored as a wild trip into the past, a visit into a world that had largely disappeared from Southern California daily life.

Humberto Lara is the tuxedoed maitre d' at the I. Magnin Bullocks Wilshire Tea Room. He's a sweet-smiling man who wears an oversized cummerbund that bisects his torso like a scarlet tread mark. His hairdo owes everything to strenuous back-combing and teasing--his pouf is foot-high, with beefy Tom Jones sideburns.

Waiting excitedly for you at the entrance, Lara is the first indication that something really wonderful is going on here on the fifth floor of this Wilshire Boulevard emporium. Even if you're just a civilian, he shows you to your table by gliding with all the exaggerated flourish and grace of a drum major. But it's the treatment he bestows upon the regulars that I am secretly envious of. You know you've reached special customer status when this Hermes with the twin diamond pinky rings chummily links arms with you and escorts you into this eccentric little universe.

The Tea Room opened in 1929, and one quick scan will tell you that the place is a slice of upper-crust society that evolved until the '50s, then stubbornly refused to budge any further. It's more than just throwback elegance that your tea is served in delicate Wedgwood bone china and that each check comes with a complimentary mint gumdrop so large you could use it as a car-coat button.

What gives me a thrill is being allowed to sit amid diners who are faithful to rules of etiquette that I will never quite master. They all know enough to wear hats, for example, and not just plumed, ladylike cloches either. In this full-on salute to the Wonderful World of Millinery, you'll see leopard pillboxes, beige pith helmets and crushed velvet Stetsons.

If, when I eat at the Tea Room, I don't always find the food to my liking, it's because my taste buds are set at the wrong frequency. What's being served here is comfort food for bluebloods, which means no seasoning and recipes that were the rage back during the post-World War II era of domesticity.

A typical appetizer is the house signature salad--shredded iceberg with a few daring bits of romaine, topped with strands of deep-fried won ton and a tart, sugary concoction that our waiter cheerily told us was the Tea Room's "own very special vinaigrette." It's just one in a series of salads offered that are plain but adequate, once you figure a way around the weird, sweet dressings. The Bombay, for example, is a combination of unadorned crab and shrimp packed into a white plastic clam half-shell. ("Not bad," said my luncheon companion, completely ignoring the tub of strawberry-hued poppy-seed dressing, and squeezing lemon onto it.)

The finger sandwiches have six soft fillings, any of which I would have been delighted to have found in my elementary school lunch bag--things like rough-chopped egg salad with flecks of pimiento and parsley, and two triangles of date bread clamped over a layer of sweet cream cheese that tasted like cake frosting. One stuffing resembled wet, finely minced erasers but turned out to be deviled ham, something I had somehow missed during my childhood.

Not content to rest on its laurels, the Tea Room has made some tentative attempts to move into the 21st Century, to incorporate foreign culture foods in the menu. Still, be forewarned that any ethnic dish is going to be reinterpreted for an aggressively American palate. I would never have guessed that the primary ingredient in the chicken tostada, which arrived in a deep-fried flour tortilla bowl, would turn out to be Spanish rice.

I will discontinue this discussion of the food, because it's just a prop anyway, something to make it look as if you're not a voyeur. The genteel Hancock Park set has established the Tea Room as the arena upon which to stage its noontime clothing competition. My personal favorites are the overeager contenders who show up in a mind-bending combination of feather boas, gold spangles and full-length gowns. But I try to be equally attentive to those who are more tastefully outfitted. Here it's considered nothing less than rude to not critically assess the appearance of each sweeping entrance.

The daily fashion show doesn't exactly discourage this kind of undisguised ogling: Beginning at noon, a couple of leggy 106-pound models will take a quick spin on the pink, frilly runway, then drift from table to table striking up all types of conversations about their designer outfits. When I complimented one on her black silk gown with the antique lace cut-outs, she surprised me by giving me an incredulous look and snorting: "Are you serious? This looks like something Stevie Nicks would wear. . . ."

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