Among serious eaters, tea rooms are often objects of scorn, characterized as odd little places that serve ladies’ lunches of soup, sandwich, and Jell-O mold in genteel surroundings. This prejudice is regrettable, because many tea rooms are genuinely pleasant, a welcome respite from theme-restaurant recreations of boxcars, stockyards, Gilded-Age bordellos, and the Star Chamber. Besides, at night we serious eaters tend to eat a little too seriously. At lunch, less baked la-sagna and more Jell-O mold couldn’t hurt.
So, with minds free of prejudice, we set out to judge three Dallas tea rooms on their merits.
S&S Tea Room. The grand dame of the genre in Dallas: For decades, the S&S has served well-dressed shoppers at Highland Park Village, and it is the place most locals think of first when you say “tea room.”
The entrance is hidden in a corner of the shopping center, behind some shrubbery and a little patio where food is served in warm months. The restaurant itself comes as a revelation: On the outside it appears to be small and cute; inside, it’s expansive and clubby, with three dining rooms and some fine wood paneling.
The luncheon menu offers a nice variety of salads and light entrees. On one visit the soup-salad-sandwich combination included a thick, grainy potato soup (they called it hot vichyssoise), chicken salad on crustless white bread, and, of course, red Jell-O. Another time, we tried the seafood special, a generous mound of tender boiled shrimp in a tasty pale-orange gloop on deep-fried toast points; it was served with a red-and-green Jell-O mold with a drizzle of something pink on top. Though a bit mysterious, all ingredients seemed fresh and carefully selected-good tea room fare.
Hearty eaters will wonder when the main course is coming, however. If you can’t live with such extreme moderation, take advantage of the S&S’s excellent selection of breads. A roving waitress carries a tray heaped high with delicious bite-sized cinnamon rolls, orange-flavored muffins, and other goodies hot from the oven. On one visit, a gentleman at the next table took seven cinnamon rolls to add bulk to his soup and sandwich; I didn’t want to be a pig, so I only took six.
Service is cordial and well-paced, and prices are reasonable. (25 Highland Park Village. 521-9614. Lunch: Mon 11:30-2:30; Dinner: Tues-Sat 5-9; Sun Brunch: 10:30-2:30. MC, V. $$)
Crackers. The clientele of this restaurant, a converted old house, is drawn from the antique shops of McKinney, Routh, and Fairmount streets and the expensive little boutiques in the Quadrangle. The decor is austere but elegant: gray walls, contemporary graphics illuminated by track lighting, fresh foliage in glass cruets on the tables. (The hardwood floors creak a bit, and at quiet hours it can be disconcerting to hear the silverware jiggling on the glass tabletops in rhythm with your steps.) The seating is on bentwood chairs which are charming to look at and hell to sit on.
All the food looks beautiful: Salad greens are fresh and bright, foods are arranged nicely on plates, and the kitchen staff obviously gives thought to the play of colors. Unfortunately, the mouth gets less attention than the eye. Our bloody Mary looked lovely, but turned out to be anemic and nearly devoid of seasoning. The onion soup had too little onion and a sediment of grated parmesan at the bottom of the cup. The cream of mushroom soup, on the other hand, was excellent: Big pieces of fresh mushroom floated on top, and the broth, made with heavy cream, was flavored with black and cayenne pepper and lemon juice. If only it hadn’t been served lukewarm.
The salads are excellent. The small dinner salad, served with entrees, is made with four kinds of lettuce, sliced carrot, cherry tomato, chopped egg, and good dressings. An outstanding chicken salad, in a generous portion, is served in a beautiful nest of Boston lettuce. Other entrees fare less well. The quiche Lorraine was dry and grainy; the filet of sole heavy and oily. All in all, the kitchen can’t keep up with the decor. (2621 McKinney. 827-1660. Lunch: Mon-Fri 11-2:30, Sat 11-3; Dinner: Mon-Thur 5-10, Fri & Sat 9-11, Sun 5-10; Sun Brunch: 11-5. $$)
The Zodiac Room. The name was Stanley Marcus’ idea, but the interior designer apparently didn’t get the message; the Zodiac Room looks like a window-dresser’s idea of a country estate in the moonlight. Most of the tables are set in the “garden,” an expanse of grass-green carpet set off by a high wrought-iron fence. The corner of a make-believe mansion juts out into the “garden.” Inside, the lights are warmer and the ambience that of an elegant residential dining room. As an afterthought, there are signs of the zodiac on the walls.
For many years the Zodiac was a lunch-time institution. From 1955 to 1968, it was run by Helen Corbitt, whose reputation grew with the restaurant’s. She stayed on as a consultant until her death last year, and the restaurant continued to win praise into the Seventies. But judging from our recent visits, Helen Corbitt is sorely missed.
We’ve had the seafood crepes with “Sauce Supreme,” evidently a euphemism for library paste; the alleged quiche Lorraine, closer to a grilled ham-and-Swiss without bread; the Sea’n’Garden Salad, which consisted of four overcooked shrimps and half an underripe winter avocado with some good rémou-lade-no bargain at $5.50. We passed up the buffet because the entrees looked so unappetizing: roast beef and chicken in sullen gray gravies.
All was not bad, however. The Zodiac’s famed popovers were excellent, light and hot; it would have been nice if they’d offered more than one to a customer, though. All diners may help themselves to the buffet-table soups, and both the chicken and beef broths have been delicious. Desserts are still fine. Our pecan ball, for example, came with lots of good toasted nuts and one of the smoothest, butteriest hot-fudge sauces around. And there were lots of pretty salads and Jeil-O molds.
The Zodiac also offers children’s plates. The lady-in-training can prepare for adulthood with the Raggedy Ann Salad Plate, which is, according to the menu, “assembled with fruits to make a real and tasty Raggedy Ann. Served with Tiny Peanut Butter Sandwiches.”
(Sixth floor, Neiman-Marcus, 1618 Main Street. 741-6911. Lunch: Mon-Sat 11-2:30; lea 3-5 except Thurs; Dinner Thurs 5:30-7:30 (last reservation at 7). Neiman-Marcus charge card only. $$.)