This almost never happens. Revivals, remakes and sequels are, by common consent, inferior products.
Every once in a while, though, something comes along — the recent staging of "South Pacific," or "Over the Rainbow" by Israel Kamakawiwo'ole — that feels perfectly contemporary, and honors the original and the memories people have for it. It's a matter of tone.
The list of successful revivals is short, but you can add the comeback of a downtown Baltimore dining institution to it. The beloved old lunchroom in the Woman's Industrial Exchange, famed for its tomato aspic, chicken salad and blue-uniformed waitresses,has been reopened by the owner of the popular Souper Freak food truck, Irene Smith, who has renamed it the Woman's Industrial Kitchen.
As an act of civic kindness, the return of the historic and beloved lunchroom would be enough. The great news is that the new lunchroom is also serving one of the best lunches in Baltimore. This is simply wonderful comfort food, inspired not by restaurant fare but by generations of home cooks. Everything from the sublimely rich vegetable casseroles to the shimmering charlotte russe cake is executed and presented not only with affection but with a great deal of culinary skill.
The iconic black-and-white tile floor remains, and the old cashier's booth has been reclaimed and re-purposed. But the new room is brighter, more cheerful and much more comfortable than the old one. Wisely, Smith has not attempted a faithful reconstruction of the old lunchroom, which, for the last few decades of its run, was charming because it was dated.
Smith has found better ways to bring the past — especially the lives of women — into the present. She has filled the walls of the lunchroom with photographs of women, some famous and some not. Each of the dining tables is decorated with photographs, too. Some are devoted to groups of singers, athletes, teachers, comedians; others to a single famous Marylander, like Billie Holiday, Gertrude Stein, Emily Post or ichthyologist Eugenie Clark.
The old blue uniforms have not returned. Smith's wait staff — recruited, she says, for their motherliness and sass — are dressed in black jeans, black T-shirts and pink-and-black aprons made by the Exchange's consigners.
Still, Smith knew that patrons of the Woman's Industrial Kitchen would come looking for that tomato aspic. She's given it pride of place, along with deviled eggs and homemade pickles, on her streamlined menu, as part of a Consigner's Sampler.
The tomato aspic is a must, not only for what it signifies but for how good it is. Yes, aspic is old-fashioned, but it was popular for a reason. Not only does a properly prepared vegetable aspic make a lovely appearance, it delivers intense flavor. The aspic here tastes like the essence of a tomato. The eggs and pickles are ideal homespun accompaniments.
The aspic returns, once more, as a side dish for Marguerite's Chicken Salad, which has been renamed in memory of Marguerite Schertle, the best-known of the legendary staff of waitresses. Schertle worked the lunchroom well into her 90s. Mixed with celery and dusted with paprika, the chicken salad tastes and looks like it was prepared in the morning from freshly roasted chicken. It's good enough to order every time you come here for lunch. But then you'd be missing out on so much else, like the tender pork loin sandwich topped with apple compote, or the tuna melt, covered in bubbly cheddar, that might persuade you it was prepared by the classic method: in a toaster oven.
The executive chef at Woman's Industrial Kitchen is Tina Perry, who gets to show off her charcuterie skills in her robust terrine-style, bacon-wrapped meatloaf, which is laid out on your plate in slices and topped with a homemade tomato-flavored gravy. Keep an eye on her blue-plate specials. Perry recently served up homemade sauerkraut with roasted root vegetables.
You will flip for side dishes like Grandma Linda's macaroni and cheese, Aunt Mildred's broccoli and cheese casserole, and Grandma Adelaide's sweet potato casserole, which can be ordered as side dishes or together as an appetizer called the Bridge Club Sampler. They're so satisfying because, it stands to reason, Linda, Mildred and Adelaide likely never made anything in their lives with skim milk or margarine.
Not everything on the menu is so rich and heavy — there's an asparagus and goat cheese salad and a few other dainty options — but at least during the winter months, the lunchroom's menu is hearty. I wouldn't recommend having lunch here if you have big dinner plans later. If you can, you'll want to devote a good old-fashioned lunch hour to the Woman's Industrial Kitchen. A chicken pot pie, for instance, is going to take some time, and the table service, while generally on the mark, can become overwhelmed by a sudden rush of incoming diners.
But consider the joys of a big, satisfying lunch finished off with a slice of bone-white charlotte russe, its crust formed by airy ladyfingers, and a nice hot cup of Zeke's coffee.
Reviving the lunchroom at the Woman's Industrial Exchange sounded like the kind of impossible task issued to heroines in fairy tales, like picking lentils out of the ashes. But Smith, who gained an ardent local following with her Souper Freak food truck, has pulled off a happy ending.