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A Lifetime of Lunches

April 15, 1993|BARBARA HANSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When you talk to Louise De Vries about Bullocks Wilshire, expect to see tears. De Vries was food and beverage director at the department store's Tea Room during its heyday--from 1971 to 1988, when fancy wedding receptions, Champagne and caviar parties and royal visits were regular happenings.

"It's heartbreaking," she says of the closure. "I thought it would remain, like London's Fortnum & Mason or Harrods. Our times are changing, unfortunately."

De Vries paid a sentimental visit during the final sale. "I almost walked out," she says. "It was like going into a morgue, a funeral, a wake. Everybody in the Tea Room started crying when they saw me. We were like family. I think that is why we were so productive. We had a wonderful operation."

De Vries thinks the decline started toward the end of the '80s. Until then, shoppers thought nothing of driving from as far as San Diego to view the top-scale merchandise. "We were known not only from coast to coast but in many European countries," De Vries says proudly.

It was she who introduced the English-style bread pudding that Tea Room customers adored, created the 5-inch-tall Tower Sandwich that symbolized the store building and trained head baker Julio Salinas, who remained on duty to the end.

In her day, the line of people waiting for tables reached from the Tea Room to the elevators. As they waited, they could study the tempting wares of the candy shop that De Vries set up. Only the finest confections were sold, and customers would pay as much as $100 for the Easter baskets, ordering not just one but half a dozen.

In 1983, well-heeled Angelenos packed the Tea Room for a Champagne and caviar tasting that cost $125 a head. Regulars were so attached to the look of the room that changes had to be made carefully. The original carpet, patterned with lush blooming roses, was replaced in 1984. The new carpet had the same design but was not pure wool like the original. "That would have cost a fortune," De Vries says.

Now living in Sherman Oaks, De Vries was born in Nashville, Tenn. She and her first husband ran a restaurant there known for barbecue, homemade pies and homemade doughnuts. "It was always my desire to strive to be the best," she says. Her first job in California was as purchasing agent for the Ambassador Hotel. Just before joining Bullocks, she was director of purchasing for the International House of Pancakes' Copper Penny chain. And she's still in the business. De Vries and her present husband, Hugh, are wholesale distributors of fine foods.

De Vries acknowledges that the food business is "tough" but lauds Bullocks Wilshire as her "choice job." It certainly was a creative one. De Vries reworked the menu to keep it current, introducing a warm duck salad when California cuisine swept the state.

As new dishes were added, others had to go. De Vries' own favorite, the oyster omelet called Hangtown Fry, was one of the casualties. The popular Crab Tetrazzini disappeared about 10 years ago. But the salad that she prized, the Bombay (recipe on H10), lasted until the Tea Room closed.

De Vries managed to find a notebook that included the recipe for Crab Tetrazzini. But she had to reconstruct the famous sticky orange rolls from memory. "That one was handed down for years," she says. Eventually, it was lost in transit.

De Vries is afraid that department stores and tearooms "could be a thing of the past." The closing of I. Magnin Bullocks Wilshire Tuesday left her "sad, very, very sad. I hope they make a museum out of it," she says, "and that it doesn't just stand there and deteriorate."

CRAB TETRAZZINI 4 ounces spaghetti 1/4 cup hot whipping cream 3 egg yolks, lightly beaten 2 cups hot Bechamel Sauce 2 tablespoons butter 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan or Swiss cheese 1/2 teaspoon lemon juice 3/4 pound crab meat 2 large mushrooms, sliced 2 1/2 teaspoons chopped black olives 3/4 teaspoon finely chopped parsley 1 1/2 teaspoons Sherry 1/2 teaspoon onion juice or 1/2 teaspoon onion salt Salt Additional grated Parmesan cheese Paprika

Cook spaghetti according to package directions. Drain and keep warm. Gradually beat hot cream into egg yolks, then gradually add hot Bechamel Sauce, beating well. Turn into saucepan and cook and stir until boiling. Add butter and 2 tablespoons cheese. Combine lemon juice with crab. Add mushrooms, olives, parsley, Sherry and onion juice and season to taste with salt. Add crab mixture to bechamel and combine.

Place spaghetti in generously buttered 2-quart baking dish. Add crab mixture, making sure spaghetti is completely covered. Sprinkle generously with Parmesan cheese. Dust with paprika to taste. Bake at 350 degrees until bubbly and heated through, about 20 minutes. Makes 6 servings.

Bechamel Sauce 1/4 cup butter 1/4 cup flour 1 1/2 cups well-seasoned chicken stock 1 cup milk Salt White pepper

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