The Tea Room
It's been well over forty-five years since Leota and I went to Neiman-Marcus the first time. As I think back on it, that visit may have been the glue that kept our friendship so strong.
We met in church though neither of us were very religious. She said it was a social outlet; I said I was there for the music. Whatever it was, we met at church. Both of us had just come through an uncomfortable divorce. Not mean or anything, just awkward. It's hard in your mid-thirties to admit you married the wrong man.
About once a month, we met for dinner at the new Black Angus. Well, it was new to our town then but may have been around a few years elsewhere. They didn't take reservations but would put your name on a "list". Leota and I decided to create a "list" name rather than use either of our names. A syllable from her last name, one from mine, a Y for class, and we became Unsley. We used it often through the next several decades.
Back to Neiman-Marcus. One evening my phone rang; it was Leota. "Have you seen the commercials on Channel Two? Neiman-Marcus. I didn't know they advertised."
I changed channels. In a few minutes there was a Neiman-Marcus commercial. Really slick. Of course, with Christmas coming and your store is one of the priciest in town, maybe you should advertise. But what had struck Leota was the tea room they referred to in the commercial. "Visit the tea room and unwind after you've visited the holiday fairyland known as Neiman-Marcus" or something like that. Did I know they had a tea room?
"You must be kidding, Leota. I've never been in a Neiman-Marcus let alone have tea there."
"Why don't we do that Saturday? You're not working and neither am I."
She called for reservations for two, Unsley, Twelve-thirty Saturday afternoon. It was the first Saturday of December so there wasn't the Christmas push yet.
We didn't live that far from Beverly Hills but gave ourselves an hour to get there. I drove; she navigated. "Oh, look, some sign maker is going to be in trouble. Look how he spelled Ro-Day-O Drive - R-o-d-e-o." She cracked me up. But she did guide me to the dedicated Neiman-Marcus parking lot with no incident.
As neither of us had ever been there, and it had a reputation, we dressed up. What did we know about how rich people dress to go shopping? Nada. Heels, hose, simple dark dresses. No hats and that should have been a dead giveaway to any Neiman-Marcus employee that we were impostors. Every woman over thirty, or looked over thirty, wore a hat. Honest to god. However, we were evidently presentable as the doorman opened the large glass and gold front door for us.
Yes. A doorman. He didn't actually bow but I had the impression he might have. "Good afternoon, Ladies. Welcome to Neiman-Marcus, Beverly Hills."
Leota asked for directions to the tea room and he pointed straight ahead. "The elevator is directly down this aisle. Enjoy lunch."
Leota and I looked around. Neiman Marcus was definitely a fairyland. As we thought back on it later it was decorated for the holidays all right - probably Hanukah more than Christmas as there was so much silver and blue. It was beautiful.
The elevator looked as though it was going to heaven. Gold columns on either side. The doors were so shiny, I could see my reflection. I pushed the call button and a plush car arrived in a matter of seconds. Of course, there was an elevator operator. He smiled broadly and asked, "Floor?"
Neither of us knew. Leota said, "Tea Room."
"Ah, Fifth Floor."
When the elevator car stopped, the operator said, "Enjoy your lunch. Welcome to Neiman-Marcus, Beverly Hills."
The tea room was to our immediate left. It was open to the main floor though there were sheer curtains hanging as a wall. Everything was pink in the tea room. A maitre 'd was behind a slim podium. He seemed to accept us as belonging there. "Reservation?"
The man was all smiles. I felt he thought he knew us; he was that cordial. His small name tag was gold and black, quite discreet, and said "Henri." Nothing else, just his name. He led us to a table by a large window draped in pink sheers. We could see the street below.
A waitress, in pink, was right behind him with two menus and water on a tray. "Would you like a few minutes to decide?" We nodded.
The menu was simple enough. We had no idea what this lunch was going to cost. Lunch at a local restaurant would cost about six dollars so we figured Neiman-Marcus would be double that. We were pleasantly surprised.
There were not a great many choices. Tea and crumpets. No fooling. The Sandwich Tea which included choice of soup or salad, a sandwich, dessert and tea. The Salad Tea which was three salads (chicken, potato, and garden) with crackers, dessert and tea. High Tea - choice of soup or salad, veal, pork, or lamb chop, potato and vegetable sides, dessert and tea. Or, just Dessert and tea.
The Sandwich Tea sounded best to us both. We were surprised at the seven dollar price. Salad tea was eight and High Tea was nine. Tea and crumpets and tea and dessert were both three fifty. Leota ordered the soup - choice of tomato bisque or lobster bisque - with her Sandwich tea. She'd never had lobster bisque. Perfect opportunity to try it. I ordered the salad - choice of cucumber or tomato - I took tomato.
The sandwiches were surprises. White bread without crusts, cut corner to corner both ways. Each sandwich was four triangles. They came, on a little tray on a pedestal, standing on edge. Surprise? Each triangle was a different filling - chicken salad, egg salad, ham salad, and creamed cheese with pimentos. Dessert was half a dozen petit fours between us. Also on a little pedestal tray. The tea was superb and was Neiman-Marcus' own blend. As we left we saw we could buy it in bulk, as well as purchase their own designer defuser.
Leota observed that perhaps this is what the inside of a harem looks like. Everything was pink. A lot of draped and swaged fabric. Beautifully framed landscapes on the few bare walls. My first thought had been bordello. Guess Leota was classier than I. In the middle of the dining area was a decorated Christmas tree. Six or seven feet tall was our guess. It was done in pink twinkle lights and lots of tinsel. Beautiful and unusual. It did have a fairyland appearance.
The waitress checked our tea pot a couple of times. She was very attentive. Perhaps we were well enough dressed even without hats. Though we didn't see any other bare heads in the tea room. She brought the check after determining we needed nothing more.
As she put the small tray with the check on the table she leaned closer to us. "We closed Mrs. Unsley's account after we learned of her passing. Henri says that if you had intended to sign for lunch today, he will gladly reopen it for you."
We looked at each other. What? Thankfully she misread our surprise. "Mrs. Unsley used to speak of her daughters-in-law often. When the reservation came in, we were so pleased. She came the first and third Saturday of every month and for you to come on the first Saturday, well, we just thought it was so wonderful of you to remember her this way."
Leota and I were beyond shock at this point. I swallowed and managed to keep my voice even. "Thank you so much for the consideration. No. We didn't intend to sign for lunch today. Please tell Henri his gesture is most appreciated."
She left the check between us. We looked at each other in amazement. What had just happened here? We each put down a ten dollar bill. That might constitute over tipping but we felt it best to pay and run. Henri thanked us for coming as we exited into the main store.
A ladies' lounge was next to the restaurant. Once inside we shook our heads. I wanted to laugh as it seemed so outrageous. Our made up name actually belonged to someone. Someone with money; someone who ate at the Tea Room at Neiman-Marcus on a regular basis. Someone who was dead. Well, that was probably a good thing. We had not indicated to anyone we were related to the late Mrs. Unsley so we didn't feel guilty. But we were still shocked.
It took us a few minutes to gain total composure. We walked through Neiman-Marcus. It was decorated like a fairyland - the entire store. Well, the three floors that we explored were. It also sported fairyland prices on beautiful merchandise.
On the way home, we did laugh. This was just too Twilight Zone to believe.
We decided we would continue to use our made up name. And we did, for the next several years. However, it was well over ten years before we visited Neiman-Marcus, Beverly Hills, again.