The historic lunchroom at the Woman's Industrial Exchange reopened Tuesday. It is now called the Woman's Industrial Kitchen, and it's operated by Irene Smith, owner of the popular Souper Freaks food truck.

The downtown luncheon room, famous for its chicken salad, tomato aspic and starched-apron waitresses, had it rough in the past decade, closing and reopening under a string of outside operators, some of whom tried to run it like in the old days, some who didn't.


Smith has restored the lunchroom, if not literally, then in spirit.

"We begin and end every shift with a coffee toast," Smith said: "To the women who came before us!"

Smith has filled the walls of the lunchroom with photographs of women, some famous, some not, that she recently acquired at the auction of work by the noted Baltimore Sun photographer A. Aubrey Bodine. Smith ran an online campaign to raise money for acquisition of historic materials.

"I came in to see what my contribution went to," said Peter Jackson. "But then I was tempted by the opportunity to be the first customer."

Jackson, who said he had never been to the original lunchroom, had a salad and a cup of chili for lunch. "But I'm definitely looking forward to my first tomato aspic," he said.

Each of the dining tables is decorated with photographs. Some are devoted to a single Marylander such as Billie Holiday, Gertrude Stein, Emily Post or ichthyologist Eugenie Clark. Some are devoted to Maryland's signers, athletes, teachers, comedians and even journalists.

A framed 1995 photograph of five Woman's Industrial Exchange waitresses sits on one of the room's fireplace mantels. At its center is Marguerite Schertle, then 94, who Smith has come to look to as a kind of guiding light.

"Would Miss Marguerite be OK with what we're doing?" Smith says she asks herself. "If the answer is no, we don't do it."

The Woman's Industrial Kitchen's opening menu includes Miss Marguerite's chicken salad, served, as in the old days, with aspic and deviled eggs.

Also on the menu are items named after the mostly anonymous women who created them: Flo's Charm City chili, Bella's Waldorf salad, Thelma's meatloaf wrapped in bacon and a Bridge Club Sampler that gathers up Grandma Adelaide's sweet potato casserole, Amelia's broccoli and cheese casserole and Grandma Linda's macaroni and cheese.

Fans of the old lunchroom will recognize the old checkerboard tile floor. But the hospital blue paint on the walls has been replaced by a hot shade of pink that Smith says is called dragon's fruit.