Ladies’ room

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Are you a lady? Do you know any? Do you like to play dress-up? The Purple Door is the place for you: an old-fashioned tea room, awash in florals, where one can sip, knees together, and enjoy a ladies' afternoon out.

The sunny room, a teacup's throw from the People Mover yet tranquil as a garden, is intended by owner Christine Biegas as a haven from the tensions of everyday life. Guests are pampered, their tea poured out for them. Everything is arranged to please the eye and soothe the senses.

Biegas, a kind and gracious hostess, has avoided the cloying kitschiness of B&Bs. You'll find no teddy bears in ruffled dresses here. The furniture is mostly from her parents' home; some oak chairs were made by her father's father. Crystal and china are from her own eclectic collection, and there's no attempt to make everything match. Near the door some pairs of lovely white gloves are on display. Lilac-colored doilies, flowered carpet and tablecloths, a giant floral centerpiece — it's hard not to end up in a discussion of gardening. The diaphanous lavender canopy and the purple walls may seem a bit much, but relax. Biegas says, "People come in uptight, almost hostile; by the time they leave they have come down to the level of smiling. We haven't had anyone leave unhappy."

Those uptight patrons come from the nearby Compuware and Penobscot buildings and the courthouse. A less edgy portion of the clientele are members of the Red Hat Society — an international movement of ladies of a certain age who glory in a bit of outrageousness. Their signature apparel is a red hat with a purple dress; a bevy may show up at the Purple Door dressed for a 1910 outing to the opera, feather boas and all.

I visited on a Sunday afternoon with a friend and her 92-year-old mother, Vivian Townsend, and I hope Vivian won't mind my violating Emily Post's dictum that "a lady's name appears in the newspaper only three times: when she is born, when she is married and when she dies." Vivian was especially pampered, as Biegas bestowed on her a sweet teapot brooch in a hexagonal violet box, for no reason other than graciousness.

Biegas offers an array of teas, many of them organic, some imported from England. Each guest gets her own pot, which, if the weather warrants, will wear a cozy. Herbals, oolong, Soochow — when you make your reservations, ask what's available for that day.

The four-course menu changes daily and is catered by Three Detroit Divas. It runs the gamut from traditional — cucumber sandwiches — through what was a la mode 30 years ago — quiche — to dishes of today. Thankfully, there are no throwbacks to ladies' lunches of the 1950s — chicken à la king.

A recent lunch — sorry, luncheon — began with autumn vegetable soup, a purée of squash and yams with tender whole pieces of broccoli and beans, subtly spiced. We moved on to a green salad chock-full of strawberries, blueberries and mandarin oranges, followed by a plate of seven tapas-sized entrées.

This was not a ladylike amount of food. By the time we'd finished our two desserts, we knew we wouldn't be cooking for the gentlemen in our lives that night.

All the dishes were fine, with the exception of a pedestrian turkey wrap (too modern?). The vegetable quiche included sun-dried tomatoes; the curried egg salad was chopped fine and didn't skimp on the curry. Fresh asparagus was wrapped in mesquite-smoked turkey, and pasta shells were stuffed with feta, herbs and tomato sauce. My favorite was a generous serving of chicken pasta salad with walnuts and cranberries.

Dessert was a delicious fudge whiskey torte that reminded me of my Alabama grandmother's Christmastime specialty, bourbon balls. To clear the palate, it was followed by a frothy lemon double cream over lemon pound cake.

The tearoom is near the Broadway People Mover stop and a block east of Woodward. It's above the Biegas Gallery, which displays a mixture of fine art upstairs and craft items below, mostly from Michigan artists. The restaurant is open noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday; reservations must be made 24 hours in advance. Christine Biegas will also serve breakfast — quiche, muffins, fruit and tea — by arrangement.

Sharing the building is the PuppetART theater, which gives shows every Saturday at 2 p.m. and inspires a suggestion: Many little girls go through a pink-dress ladylike stage (which they thankfully outgrow). An outing to the theater and the tearoom would be an occasion to practice manners.

Mostly, though, you'll be looking toward the other end of the age spectrum. The Purple Door is for anyone who has a mother or a mother-in-law.

Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

About The Author

Jane Slaughter

When she's not reviewing restaurants, Jane Slaughter also writes about labor affairs, having co-founding the labor magazine Labor Notes. Her writing has also appeared in The Nation, The Progressive, Monthly Review, and In These Times.
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