Immerse yourself in Indianapolis’ culinary history while shopping in the capital city this holiday season by lunching at one of the city’s most iconic restaurants: the L.S. Ayres Tea Room.
But L.S. Ayres in downtown Indy is long gone, you say? The retail store is, but the restaurant and the memories live on at the Indiana State Museum.
For those too young to remember: L.S. Ayres was a higher-end department store with multiple locations in Indiana. Its flagship store, sort of the “Marshall Fields of Indiana,” was at the corner of Washington and Meridian streets in the heart of downtown Indianapolis. The tea room at ISM is a re-creation of a popular ladies-who-lunch spot that had been around since 1905.
For decades, the Ayres Tea Room was much more than just a place to pause and grab a bite while on a shopping expedition. Parents specifically brought their children there when they wanted them to practice proper dining etiquette. Families celebrated special events like birthdays there. The tea room even hosted style shows, where models showcased the fashions of the day (by popular designers like Bill Blass) that epitomized “That Ayres Look.”
But all that ended Dec. 31, 1990, when the tea room closed. Ayres had been sold to a department store holding company in 1986, and, in 1992, the downtown Ayres store closed.
Fans of the tea room’s signature dishes — like the legendary Chicken Velvet Soup and Chicken Salad — thankfully were able to satisfy their cravings for their faves when the Indiana State Museum reopened the Ayres Tea Room during holiday-only lunches at its former location in the old Indianapolis City Hall building in 1991. It was so popular that the tea room was added to the building plans of the museum’s new location at White River State Park
The new tea room, which, along with the museum, opened in 2002, was architecturally inspired by the original, featuring reproductions of its stately columns, luxe window treatments, wallpaper, carpet and chandeliers. If the tables and chairs look familiar it’s because they are actually from the original restaurant.
Though the tea room is now run by Kahn’s Catering, the menu and recipes are authentic to the L.S. Ayres Tea Room of the past with favorites like the aforementioned soup and salad, Chicken Pot Pie, and Club Sandwich, made with classic Pullman bread. Youngsters today can enjoy treats like the Clown Cone (made with vanilla bean ice cream, chocolate candies, whipped cream and sugar cone) and Snow Princess (featuring vanilla bean ice cream, meringue and whipped cream) just as their grandparents and parents once did. Plus, the iconic Treasure Chest, which rewarded well-mannered tots with a post-lunch gift in years gone by, is again well-stocked with treasures.
For several years, the reimagined restaurant was open for lunch all year round but, nowadays, it is only open to the public during the holiday season. This year, the tea room will be open Nov. 24–Dec. 31 with four daily seating times: 11 and 11:15 a.m. and 12:30 and 12:45 p.m. It will be closed on Christmas day. Lunch is served as a buffet which includes dessert and beverages. Cost for adults (age 13 and up) is $31.50 per person and $16.75 for children (ages 3–12). (Buffet pricing includes tax and gratuity.) Children younger than age 3 eat for free. Reservations are strongly recommended. Call 317-232-1637.
L.S. AYRES TEA ROOM
Indiana State Museum
650 W. Washington St.
If you want to recreate your favorite tea room dishes at home — or need a gift for that special someone — pick up a copy of the “L.S. Ayres Tea Room Recipes & Recollections” cookbook for $21.95 at the Indiana State Museum gift shop or at shop.indianahistory.org. See our contest page for details on how to win a copy! You’ll find recipes for Ayres classics like this one:
L.S. Ayers Tea Room Chicken Velvet Soup
¾ cup butter
¾ cup all-purpose flour
1 cup warm milk
2 cups hot chicken stock
1 cup warm cream
4 cups chicken stock
1½ cups chopped, cooked chicken
¼ T. salt
Dash of pepper
Melt butter in a saucepan and blend in flour. Add warm milk, 2 cups chicken stock and warm cream, stirring constantly, and bring to a boil. Turn down to let simmer. Add remaining chicken stock and cooked chicken. Season with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil again and then serve.