The Woman's Industrial Exchange, famous for its tomato aspic and its no-nonsense waitresses, will reopen in November under the no-nonsense management of food truck owner Irene Smith, who says she is determined to honor the tearoom's traditions that Baltimore held so dear.
"The tomato aspic is already on the menu," said Smith, "along with chicken salad."
Smith, who has made her culinary mark with her popular food truck, the Souper Freak, plans to open the day after Thanksgiving, and she hopes to ride the retail wave through Christmas.
"It is no good to anybody if I open in February," said Smith, whose husband, Scott, owns Big Bad Wolf's House of Barbecue.
The Charles Street lunchroom, with its signature black-and-white linoleum tiles, will be called the Woman's Industrial Kitchen and it will be located, as it was for decades, on the first floor behind the Woman's Industrial Exchange shop, where women have consigned handmade items for more than 132 years, helping to support their families since the Civil War.
The nonprofit stopped operating the lunchroom in 2002, after which several outside operators came in with fresh lunch concepts that never gained widespread approval, at least not from downtown diners with sentimental attachments to the old ways. The lunchroom ceased operating entirely in October 2009.
Generations of Baltimoreans remember dining there with their mothers and grandmothers. They remember the chicken pot pie, the hot rolls, the handmade ice cream and the chocolate sauce. And they remember the lemon pie.
It was the favorite lunch spot for those on jury duty in the city and for the staff of the Enoch Pratt Free Library. For many of its fans, the Exchange was never the same after a series of renovations and the departure of longtime cook Dorothea Day Wilson.
"In 2010, we were mentioned as the most missed restaurant of the decade," said Jenny Hope, a board member for the Exchange. "People come in every day and say, 'Where's the restaurant?' We think Irene has just the right energy to get this done."
The waitresses at the old lunchroom were legends unto themselves, but Smith is confident she will able to recruit just the kind of woman she needs. "They have to be sassy and motherly," she said.
But they won't be wearing the crisp aqua and white uniforms — complete with a perfectly tied apron bow — of the past.
Working women don't dress like that, Smith said. Instead, her waitresses will wear black jeans, black T-shirts and pink-and-black aprons made by the Exchange's consignors.
"I have had a dream almost every night for the last month, and it is the waitresses from the old days coming to me and saying, 'Don't screw this up,'" Smith said.
The lunchroom will be decorated with vintage pictures of women in their kitchens, and Smith is asking those with memories or pictures of the lunchroom to share them with her by visiting the website womansindustrialexchange.org.
That's not the only thing Baltimore's grandmothers might not recognize about the place — WiFi will be available and patrons can follow the lunchroom on social media, such as Facebook and Twitter. Smith has used both to successfully promote her food truck, which will continue to make the rounds in Baltimore.
But at the end of the day, the Woman's Industrial Kitchen will be about home cooking and honoring the past.
"I want this to be a celebration of the home, where fried chicken and meatloaf at dinner meant you were loved," said Smith. "I realize the legacy of this place. I will give it my best. I came here with my grandmother. I know what this place means to Baltimore."
The lunchroom will be open weekdays from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. to start, Smith said, adding that she may open for breakfast or Sunday brunch.
Patrons will be encouraged to linger over coffee, or they can pick up dinner-to-go, she said. Desserts will be a priority.
"There is a clamor in this city for this place to succeed," said Smith. "And everybody who comes in here will want it to be right."