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Mild Changes are Brewing at Bullock’s Tea Room

Cultural Preservation: The new operator of Pasadena’s elegant dining institution will add trendy dishes to the traditional menu.

January 19, 1995

By CHIP JACOBS
Special to the Times

In Pasadena, where tradition still has a place amid the trendiness, the 48-year-old Bullock’s department store has long been considered the city’s grand dame of retail. With its curving, streamlined facade and elegant interior brimming with tapestries, artwork and marble, the 225,000-square-foot store remains a darling of preservationists and nostalgic customers alike.

So when word spread that its cherished Tea Room would be closed down Jan. 7 and reopened under new management, more than a few society eyebrows went up. Was Bullock’s corporate parent really going to tinker with a culinary institution patronized by generations of Southern Californians?

The answer is yes and no. Instead of the company running the eatery themselves, it’s now being leased to a Los Angeles-based concessionaire who promised to maintain the restaurant’s stately ambience while making a few menu alterations. Most of the former workers remain, though a few have moved on.

“We haven’t touched the physical structure of the place,” said Henry Yamada, chief executive officer of Yamada Enterprises. “It’s all the same. We just cleaned everything up.”

Save for new tablecloths and napkins, customers, he vowed, would find the same accommodations that made the Tea Room so quaint–a throwback to days when women wore furs, men sported fedoras and limousines would leave the moneyed class at the store’s front doors.

Yes, Yamada said, the daily fashion show would continue. Yes, people could enjoy leisure as they lunched, even playing bridge if they chose. Yes, the same peach-colored paint will stay, along with the upholstered chairs and sparkling chandeliers.

Also remaining is much of the Tea Room’s traditional fare: Cobb salads, finger sandwiches and hamburgers.

Added will be California cuisine: poached salmon salad, crispy duck ravioli and turkey burgers. Still, Yamada said with a chuckle, he isn’t sure precisely what the previous lineup was. All the old menus, plus the kitchen’s recipe book, have vanished.

“People were taking them as keepsakes,” he said.

Yamada also plans for receipts to change, hoping for a 20% increase over the $450,000 in business the restaurant did last year. The restaurant’s main room can seat more than 200.

Keeping the same cozy atmosphere–where servers long ago learned the regular’s favorite meal, table and quirk–is trademark Tea Room, according to waitress Donna Lucia, a 17-year veteran who was hired on by the new managers. Over the years, she and her colleagues have served thousands, many of them affluent Pasadena and San Marino matrons who have made the spacious restaurant a weekly routine.

“People will be glad it’s not (changing),” Lucia said. “They don’t want to lose the slow pace and elegance.”

But Ruth Balaze, who spent nearly 17 years as one of the Tea Room’s hostesses, said she was heartbroken about leaving and is furious at Bullock’s owner, the freshly merged Macy’s and Federated Department Store chains.

“I loved the place and when news came out it was closing, you’ve never seen so many tears in the house,” said Balaze, who did not apply for a job under the new management. “The customers were crying and every time they did, we did. We were into our fourth generation of customers. We’ve seen babies grow up, get married and have their own babies. It wasn’t just a job, it was a love.”

Under the lease deal, the Tea Room’s two dozen or so former employees were all laid off by Bullock’s and allowed to reapply with Yamada. As a result, many of the previous waitresses are returning, though none will get benefits, which they had received as Bullock’s employees.

The kitchen staff and busboys are new.

“There’ll be a lot of people who won’t go back,” Balaze predicted.

Opinions were mixed among customers about the management change.

Dorothy Avakian, a 76-year-old retired schoolteacher from Alhambra and a steady customer since the tearoom opened, said she is willing to give the new operators a chance. “Just so the ambience stays,” she said.

But another customer, Dorothy Dean of South Pasadena, was not so sure. “Personally, I think that since Macy’s took over Bullock’s, they have made too many drastic changes,” commented Dean, who said she has frequented the tearoom with her daughter for years.

Store officials said they have leased food operations at all of their sites to full-time restaurant operators. At the Bullock’s in South Coast Plaza in Orange County, for instance, celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck runs the eatery, while Yamada operates the chain’s Westwood spot.

“We believe the people who are the most capable are the restaurant professionals,” said Rudolph Borneo, Western division president of Macy’s West Inc./Bullock’s Inc./Federated Department Stores Inc., in a prepared statement.

Local preservationists, meanwhile, are vowing to keep a close eye on what happens to the Tea Room and the historic building housing it, said Sue Mossman, executive director of the Pasadena Heritage.

The 2,000-member nonprofit group tussled with Bullock’s in the late 1980s when it removed a New Orleans-style fountain from the store. “To a large degree, the Tea Room looks much like it did in 1947 and we’ve been told it will stay that way,” said Mossman, who hopes to get national landmark status for the building. “No building from the 1940s is as important as this one in Pasadena.”

The postmodern structure was the first department store in the Western United States designed specifically to accommodate the automobile, Mossman said.