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Chicago's 'spiritual experience Tradition: For many Midwesterners, the holidays would fall miserably short without a family dinner at the hallowed Walnut Room in Marshall Field's.


CHICAGO -- It didn't take long for Modesto Alcala to discover that the Toddlin' Town takes its Christmas traditions seriously.

A customer at Marshall Field's venerable Walnut Room had summoned the newly arrived department store executive to his table.

"I want the name of your company's president," he told Alcala. "I intend to write him a letter."

"Is there something wrong?" Alcala inquired.

"Yes," the man replied with great indignation. "Can't you see? Mr. Mistletoe is in the wrong spot!"

The "Mr. Mistletoe" in question was the figurine that always adorns the top of the dining room's 45-foot "Great Tree." You'd know that if you were from Chicago, of course. Almost everyone does.

Happy holidays and welcome to the world of the Walnut Room on the seventh floor of Marshall Field's on State Street. Or, as the store's staff likes to think of it, ground zero in Chicago during December.

For those who have had the misfortune to grow up someplace other than in the Second City, you just wouldn't understand. Dining in the clubbish Walnut Room at Christmas is a tradition bordering on the sacred.

Families will wait forever to get a table. The line often winds through the entire floor. This year, Field's dispensed pagers to reduce the wait, but it proved an imperfect solution: People would pick up a pager and then stand in line for several hours as they always had.

The restaurant serves 4,000 meals a day during the Christmas rush -- 10 times what it averages the rest of the year.

"This place is like a spiritual experience," says Vivian Lee, the restaurant's general manager.

How else can you explain the fanaticism? It probably isn't the cuisine. One of the restaurant's top sellers is the "Field's Special," a half-head of iceberg lettuce with slices of turkey, Swiss cheese, bacon, hard-boiled egg and black olive smothered with an artery-hardening 8 ounces of Thousand Island dressing.

When Field's chef Elizabeth Fitzgerald arrived in March from Philadelphia, she was stunned to discover this gastronomic disaster. (The kitchen staff jokingly refers to it as "the brain" because of its goopy half-orbital appearance.)

But good luck discontinuing it. It was taken off the Christmas menu years ago, but several hundred customers still order it every day.

"Its the sign of a veteran Walnut Room diner that comes here at Christmas and orders the Field's Special knowing that they can still get it," says Lee.

Then there's the Fairy Princess. A woman is hired each year to go around the room, greeting diners and sprinkling glittery fairy dust. When management decided to hire two (and thus, double the dusting), disgusted diners objected to the change.

"As kids they got dusted, so as adults, they have to get dusted, too, but only by the fairy princess," explains Alcala, who was manager of restaurant operations for Dayton Hudson Corp., Field's owner.

There is no shortage of traditions, but the origins of some are vague. The restaurant always serves eggnog made from melted eggnog ice cream and brandy. Efforts to change that formula met with disaster, naturally.

There's even someone employed in the kitchen whose primary job is to paint faces on marshmallows. They're needed to top scoops of ice cream for the 1,000 Snowman desserts the restaurant serves daily.

Field's discovered the power of collectibles long before Beanie Babies. Its annual holiday mug -- a complimentary treat for Walnut Room patrons who order eggnog or hot cider -- is collected by families as far away as Indiana and Ohio.

One year the rookie Field's purchaser ordered the mugs and forgot to have them printed with the year. Another, the store switched to plastic mugs to save money. Hoo, boy, what a ruckus.

"These are the kinds of things that can lead Chicago to riot," says Alcala, only half-jokingly.

The Grover family is typical of the Walnut Room fans. It took four cars to transport all 15 family members from the northwest Chicago suburbs of Palatine and Evanston to downtown Chicago for a recent Christmas luncheon.

Ruth Grover, 85, has been coming to the Walnut Room every year since 1919, when she was 6 years old. Her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren have accompanied her most every year of their lives, too.

"More than anything, we do it because it's a family tradition," says Judy Collingwood, 60, Grover's daughter and a retired elementary school teacher. "It helps hold us together."

That family orientation, veteran Field's staff members say, is the secret of the Walnut Room's success. It is customary to see three and four generations of a family -- such as the Grovers -- seated at one table.

Margaret Cimoli, a Field's waitress for 47 years, has gotten used to customers treating her like a member of their families. After all, she's likely been waiting on them (once a year) all their lives.

Frances Howell, a fellow Walnut Room waitress, says the restaurant serves as a central meeting place for families who might not otherwise have occasion to reunite during the holidays.

"I think we bring families together," she says.

If these traditions sound archaic, they are. Once, every major city had a department store that served formal meals: Field's is one of the few that still does.

It was probably the first to get into the restaurant business. In 1890, a Field's millinery clerk offered her chicken potpie so her lady customers wouldn't have to return home at noon. That led to a small tearoom. The restaurant was a hit and eventually expanded and was renamed.

But the economics of department stores have changed. No longer does a Field family member run the business. It's been part of the Minnesota-based Dayton Hudson since 1990. Discount retailers such as Wal-Mart and Target have lured away many of the customers department stores once attracted. Field's now offers suburban locations and even a glossier downtown store -- the nearby Water Tower Place.

That doesn't seem to have deterred Chicagoans at Christmas. Readers of the Chicago Tribune recently voted the Walnut Room as one of the top 10 destinations they take out-of-town guests.

If you're one of those visitors and you want to fit in, here's how: Ask for a table closest to the tree, order a round of eggnog and a slice of Frango Mint pie (Frango Mints are a delicacy still made on the 13th floor, but that's another story) and beckon the Fairy Princess to come on over.

"I hope we never lose all this," says Collingwood, a grandmother of four who has missed just one holiday meal at Field's in her six decades. "If we didn't come here, it wouldn't be Christmas."

Pub Date: 12/20/98

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