The woman had bright white hair, a bright purple coat and bright red lipstick stretched into a happy grin.
She arrived at the Woman's Industrial Exchange with three friends, all of a certain age, all wearing similarly thrilled expressions. This was clearly a happy homecoming for the old gang, and memories of the old days animated their lunchtime chatter.
Even back then, the WIE was a majestic Baltimore institution, with a history stretching back to 1880. Maybe when these women were younger, they would eat at the Exchange and watch white-haired women reminisce about their youthful outings.
The WIE reopened Dec. 1 after an 18-month renovation that spruced up the place and added new bathrooms but didn't alter its essential "WIE-ness." The cafeterialike spaciousness, the black and white linoleum-square flooring, the marble fireplace, the wainscoting, the concrete columns, even the faintly musty smell all remain exactly as they should be.
The menu still has the famous chicken salad, deviled eggs and tomato aspic, now made with recipes by the new operator, Rozz DuPree.
Though a few modern items have been added, like a hummus sandwich and a salad with goat cheese, the bulk of the menu is a tribute to a time gone by, and ladies and gentlemen of all ages can be confident that nothing at the WIE will be too spicy, too crunchy, too innovative.
For generations, the WIE has been the go-to place for a grilled cheese, an egg salad sandwich or a salad of strawberry gelatin with cottage cheese.
The chicken salad, of course, is WIE's claim to fame, and it is a marvel of simplicity, nothing more than shredded white meat, mayo, tiny bits of celery and a light hand with the salt and pepper.
The chicken salad can be eaten as part of a sandwich, or as the centerpiece of the "Woman's Industrial Exchange Original," which also has deviled eggs that taste faintly of sweet pickle, and cubes of tomato aspic, basically spicy tomato juice that has been solidified with gelatin. All are arranged on a beautiful bed of carefully chosen greens and served with a choice of salad dressings.
The crab cake is another marvel. While another famous Baltimore crab cake, the Faidley's version sold at Lexington Market, is a heady mix of mustards and lump meat, the WIE offers a milder taste and smoother texture in a cake that is consistently crabby, with a crunchy exterior. As a sandwich, the crab cake arrives on a toasted bulky roll, with a thin slice of tomato and more carefully chosen greens, nestled on the plate with a garlicky pickle and a handful of chips. As a platter, it comes with fries and slaw.
Even a ham and cheese sandwich is just right, with thin slices of meat and a slab of cheddar on white bread. Perhaps the spiciest offerings are the soups, which change daily and included a salty, hearty wild rice and a more-broth-than-bean lentil soup the day I was there.
Desserts, which are baked on the premises, are as old-fashioned as the rest of the menu, and include an Apple Brown Betty, a warm glob of comfort food served with two scoops of vanilla ice cream, and a Charlotte Russe, layers of poundcake, ice cream, hot fudge and whipped cream.
The WIE is part of a nonprofit national agency that was founded after the Civil War to give needy women jobs and a place to sell handmade items. According to a blurb on the menu, the Baltimore WIE is the third-oldest surviving WIE in the country and the only one in its original building, which still has an extensive gift shop of handcrafted items at rock-bottom prices. Sixty-five percent of the proceeds go to the men and women who created the items.
The WIE's motto is "to help those who help themselves." I'm all for that, especially if I can do it while helping myself to that divine chicken salad and Charlotte Russe.
I'm sure the four ladies sharing an afternoon of memories at the table by the fireplace would agree.
Woman's Industrial Exchange
Where: 333 N. Charles St.
Open: Lunch, Monday through Friday
Credit cards: MC, V
Prices: Appetizers $2.95-$8.95, entrees $3.95 $12.95
Food: *** 1/2
Service: *** 1/2
Outstanding: ****; Good: ***; Fair or uneven: **; Poor: *