The final lunch patrons arrived hungry, in search of those elusive yeasty rolls, the waitresses attired in aprons with big bows and of course, the tomato aspic they'd known since the days when Charles Street had two-way traffic.
They were emphatic that Charles and Pleasant streets' bastion of old-style cooking needs to reopen. Roslyn DuPree, the restaurateur who had operated the Woman's Industrial Exchange's tea room since late 2003, withdrew this week after noting declining patronage. Friday was her last day. Until a replacement is found, the restaurant will be closed.
Judy Ross, who lives in Elkridge, arrived for lunch and lingered over her meal at the 3 p.m. closing time. She and her dining companion, Ronald Hopper of Charles Village, ordered the signature dish, chicken salad and the squiggly red squares made of V8 juice and gelatin.
Many patrons lamented noticeable decline in the way they thought the food tasted.
"My mother used to come here," she said. "It's such a lovely place, but I was disappointed with the food, with the exception of the cream of crab soup, which was delightful."
Most of those who sat down at the plain and neat tables yesterday didn't want to forgo a visit to a place where many had been assembling for decades. They wanted to see the marble fireplace mantles, a black-and-white linoleum floor and a ceiling full of 50-odd-year-old light fixtures.
Some said a more critical body of food critics has rarely been assembled. And for all the food fretting, except for a few uneaten french fries, most plates were cleaned, accompanied by sincere regret.
The fare, in the words of one regular customer, "Just didn't taste the same," a reference to the elusive taste of an old Baltimore style of cooking where there is absolutely no place for goat cheese or food trends imported from west of Frederick.
One table of four Enoch Pratt Free Library employees who work a block away arrived shortly before noon.
"The place merges the history of urban female employment with an atmosphere of nostalgia," said Summer Rosswog, Pratt's volunteer services coordinator. "It needs to come back."
They said it was library tradition that newly hired staff members were taken here by their managers.
"A trip to the Exchange immersed them in the culture of Baltimore," said Stuart Ragland, who works in Pratt's Internet services.
Teresa Duggan, who ordered a crab cake, assessed it in three words: "Not the best."
At another table, a husband and wife from Roland Park, ordered the chicken salad, roll and aspic. They found its preparation not up to memory's par.
Leigh Hammond, a retired banker, praised the $2 million renovation of the 19th-century Exchange building. "It is a shame. I love this place. I'm from Oregon and coming to the Exchange is as exotic as going to Peru."
The restaurant space is owned by a nonprofit agency set up by Baltimore women about 120 years ago to assist in selling the handwork of industrious people who wanted to sell their wares anonymously.
As of Monday, members of the Exchange's board will begin searching for a new restaurant operator.
"The Woman's Exchange is not a theme restaurant. We don't have a neon sign and phony anything," said Helen Weiss, the president of the volunteer board that runs the Exchange. "I'm going to do my damnedest to keep it going."