A Holiday Tradition: The Walnut Room At Macy's On State Street

Shannon Blum
November 22, 2019 - 2:11 pm

CHICAGO (WBBM NEWSRADIO) – It’s the holiday season…and at Macy’s it’s the time of year to “believe in the wonder.”

And while a trip to Macy’s during the holidays comes complete with a holiday windows display, a letter to Santa station, and even Santa himself – no trip is fully complete without a visit to the Walnut Room for a meal and to gaze at the Great Tree.

Ride the escalator (or take an express elevator) up to the seventh floor and immerse yourself in Holiday Lane, where the Walnut Room resides.

But before we get into all the magic of the Walnut Room and its Great Tree, we must start at the very beginning…

The Walnut Room opened in 1907 and was the first restaurant to ever open in a department store.

“The Walnut Room actually started out as a tea room back in the late 1800’s; and then this room was actually a smoking room for gentlemen, and then it morphed into what we know of it today back in 1907 – the Walnut Room, where women and families were encouraged to stay and shop. Back in the day, it wasn’t tradition for retailers to have something to eat, so this was really the first. It was a true restaurant and Marshall Fields wanted to have this restaurant, so the women did not have to leave to go home for lunch, they could have lunch here,” said Macy’s spokesperson, Andrea Schwartz.

The Walnut Room at Macy's on State Street
WBBM Newsradio/Shannon Blum

With Circassian wood paneling imported from Russia and Austrian chandeliers, the 17,000 square foot dining room is both elegant and comfortable. And that very wood is how the restaurant got its name.

“This entire room is Walnut Circassian wood and it is the original wood that they used in 1907, along with the Austrian crystal chandeliers. They are still here, too, and they are shined, they are maintained, the wood was preserved a few years ago. So we can guarantee it is going to be around another 100 years,” Schwartz said.

And not much has changed since 1907.

“From the very beginning, it started all with Mrs. Hering who was a milliner associate. She sold hats to women and she was losing her hat business at noon, when the women had to go home, respectively, to have lunch. She was losing a lot of sales, so what she decided to do was to bring in some of her 9x13 pans of food and one of those being - it was very popular - was her chicken pot pie. So this chicken pot pie is how it all started,” she said. “Mr. Field was in back of house and saw Mrs. Hering there with some of her customers in the stock room eating chicken pot pie and he said ‘what’s going on here’ and she is the one that shared ‘I am losing my customers if I don’t bring them food.’ So then he decided to open the Walnut Room and first on the menu, and still on the menu today, is Mrs. Hering's chicken pot pie.”

Fast forward to today, the Walnut Room continues to welcome guests whether it is to take a break from shopping or for a meal before a theatre show. But the restaurant is extra special during the holidays, as it features the Great Tree.

The Great Tree stands 45-feet tall, and what some may not know, is that it actually hangs from the ceiling.

“You will see a cord above that star and that is actually what is supporting the tree. Below is the Tiffany ceiling that you see from the cosmetic department looking up, so we keep some of the weight off, because especially during the holidays, it is filled with people,” Schwartz said.

The Great Tree this year features about 2,200 ornaments and 6,700 lights.

“And of course, they are all LED and not only is the tree lit, but you will see we have some fabulous ornaments this year that light from the inside and we have just a fabulous presentation even on the ceiling with our Believe campaign logo,” she said.

The Great Tree at the Walnut Room at Macy's on State Street
WBBM Newsradio/Shannon Blum

And if you could imagine, putting up the Great Tree is a process – a whole yearlong process to be exact, from inception of what the tree is going to look like, to then creating the ornaments; by the time it is all finished, it takes about a year. And once it is ready, it takes about a week to actually put up.

“It takes a small army of folks; it takes everyone from construction workers to electricians to our visual department to tree trimmers – so it really is a full on scale with everyone that does what they are supposed to do that they are good at,” Schwartz said.

But the Great Tree is not the only thing that makes dining at the Walnut Room during the holidays magical.

“So the Walnut Room also has tradition with it besides the Great Tree. We also have the fairy princess, who comes by as you are eating and grants you your wishes with her little fairy dust. We have every piece of our popular menu available, as well as a buffet. We have done an all-you-can-eat buffet here for the last few years that has really been successful,” Schwartz said

Speaking of the Great Tree Buffet…

“It’s a $30 all-you-can-eat buffet and for kids 12 and under its $11. They also get a little Santa mug with that. But we have all of our crowd favorites – we have Mrs. Hering’s chicken pot pie, we have our baked meatloaf, we have the Wisconsin Asiago chicken dish, we also have a carving station with the best prime rib – so it a whole lot of great food,” Schwartz said.

And there are also specialty drinks!

“We have a poinsettia champagne, we have a Walnut Room Old-Fashioned, we have a Christmas cocktail, so we have something for everyone. And again with the specialty cocktails you also do get a Walnut Room mug,” she said.

Macy's on State Street
WBBM Newsradio/Shannon Blum

But what is usually not so magical is the wait, though this year Macy’s is offering a new program that will ease the process, as a typical wait during the holiday can be up to three hours.

“Back in the day, we used to have people hired to pass out Frango mints and water, as people were waiting and waiting and waiting, but now thanks to technology, we have a texting system, so you just come on up to the hostess stand, give them the number in your party, and they will text you as soon as there is a seat ready, which means you can shop, you can see Santa, you can write your letter to Santa, you can do all of those things, instead of just waiting in line,” Schwartz said.

But if you don’t like waiting in line, it is suggested to come early – or if you can, for breakfast on certain dates.

“This is the holiday at Macy’s – the Great Tree, Santa, and everything in between,” Schwartz said. “It is all about tradition…I’ve been here 22 years and I have seen it every year – the kids are dressed in their Sunday finest and they are here with their parents, with their grandparents, with their aunts – it’s just a fabulous family tradition.”