The New York Times

My first independent dining experience occurred when I was 10 years old. My mother gave me 50 cents, and I took the bus from our home 20 blocks south to downtown Columbus, Ohio, and had lunch in the tea room of Lazarus, the department store. I remember the meal in exquisite detail: a dainty plate of chicken dressing with giblet gravy accompanied by a glass of milk. It was perfect. Even today, slabs of perfect foie gras and glasses of 1921 Chateau d’Yquem don’t always surpass the memory I reserve for that first taste of self-determination. And I may still have a bias in favor of department-store dining. I love the Cafe SFA that opened last week on the eighth floor of Saks Fifth Avenue.

It’s a tailored, wainscoted room with sponged gold walls that wraps around the store’s west and north sides, opening up to a bird’s-eye view of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the roof-top gardens that float like a mini-Versailles around Rockefeller Center, the skaters and the Christmas tree. It’s a quiet room with a view and the cooking doesn’t detract from the experience.

By offering nearly half a dozen different salads as well as carrot dill soup with half of a shrimp and vegetable sandwich or a warm chicken, tomato and spinach sandwich, the menu is sensitive to the needs of those trying to preserve their girlish figures. The Thai chicken, crab cakes, fettuccine with ginger, broccoli and ginger, or the hefty roast-ed-duck salad and Oriental chicken salad set new epicurean standards. All seem a long way from crustless cucumber sandwiches.

Nevertheless, the spirit of ladies who dressed to shop and lunched in cloche hats and kid gloves seems to linger in the room. They might raise a penciled brow over the Cruvinet that is stocked with eight well-chosen wines, or about the lunch or tea tab that is much closer to $25 than it is to 25 cents. I thought it was reasonable rent, and the deftly run, 154-seat dining room is such a well-placed oasis that I didn’t miss chicken dressing and gravy at all.

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