William Todd needed a competent restaurant manager to serve meals in a new restaurant by "week or month, not charging more than $7 per week." During the winter of 1902, Todd and his business partner J. Scott Parrish built the Chesterfield Apartments, the city's first high-rise residential building, at 900 W. Franklin St.
The seven-story Georgian Revival building introduced Richmonders to luxury apartment living. The Chesterfield's milk and butter came from Miniborya, Parrish's estate, today site of the Meadowbrook Apartments.
A brochure for the apartments boasted of "comfort relieved of care," a formal dining room and, in the basement, a more relaxed, wood-paneled "rathskeller" with a billiard room across the hall — a haven for drinkers and cigar smokers.
Todd intended to "look over" Mary Jarvis, strongly recommended by Richmonder Harriet W. Randolph, for the position of manager. Jarvis was the perfect manager of the dining room at Waynesboro's Brunswick Inn, Randolph wrote, presiding over "delightful cooking and desserts."
On Dec. 17, 1902, Todd asked Jarvis whether she'd "care to take the Café off our hands in the Chesterfield and run it yourself; we furnishing all silver, china etc. you to be limited in price to $7.00 per week and board ..." In return for managing the building, Jarvis would have a free apartment and "a certain salary." The recommendations Todd collected during January 1903 described Jarvis as "a woman of refinement and education and quite able … to fill the position of your entire operation," and one said, "I always think a woman is a more coordinated caterer than a man." In February, Parrish met and hired her.
Jarvis organized her staff in the spring of 1903, and the apartments opened that November. A headwaiter was "too great an expense for a dining room where meals are served for seven dollars a week," she wrote Todd. However, he felt Jarvis spent too much in the purchase of "certain wholesale items" at retail prices.
Still, Parrish invited Jarvis to Miniborya. "Things are going well," he wrote to Todd.
Not for long. On Feb. 13, 1904, Jarvis submitted her resignation effective April 1, stating, "This is not sudden resolve, but one that I have been considering since December 1st."
Todd tried diplomacy, writing to Jarvis in the "friendliest spirit possible." They'd do anything to retain her except lose money every month, he said. Jarvis rebutted, "I claim an equal right to decide whether it is to my interest to lower the standard of the table in the slightest particulars or to acknowledge that after years of experience and intelligent interest given to the subject I am not a more competent manager than you or Mr. Parrish." She reluctantly stayed until May 1.
On April 15, 1904, Todd explained to Jarvis' replacement, a Mrs. Ramsey, "We render café bills [to residents] once every two weeks, and pay all colored help twice a month and our white servants once a month." Most employees also received meals.
An April 1904 memorandum itemized the restaurant's monthly salaries: J.C. Coleman, headwaiter, $35 (approximately $800 today); the 11 waiters, $20 ($457); chief cook Henry Mason, $45 ($1,000); and his assistant Washington Dean, $20.
Over the years, the restaurant operated under different management, most of whom stayed longer than Jarvis. The beloved Martha A. Willingham, known as "Miz Willy," ran the building from the late 1940s into the 1960s; punctilious Glenn Hesby managed the restaurant with his wife from 1943 to 1985. The tearoom persisted against an era of informality and processed foods. When it opened for lunch during the 1970s, a line of well-dressed older men and women who'd lived and dined at the Chesterfield for decades were typical customers. They hurried to take their regular seats, a staffer recalled.
Amid white tablecloths, crystal chandeliers and formal service, the tearoom was a "home-cooking holdout in a fast food age" and a "hideout of elegance," according to a 1977 Richmond Times-Dispatch story.
Then, a full-course dinner with homemade rolls and desserts cost $2.65. Dishes included braised calf's liver; fresh panned trout; turnip greens; salads of peach, cottage cheese and Red Roquefort dressing; and a peach shortcake dessert.
When the tearoom closed in October 1988, it had been the city's oldest continuously operating dining establishment. In 1993, it was replaced by Chuggers, a college hangout, and today, Cous Cous has taken over the space, where you can still order tea.