Essays

The Luxury Mall of the Future Has a Gourmet Food Court

The foodies have invaded the food court, and a trip to the mall will never be the same.

The tony mall that we frequent in the greater New York City suburbs has been undergoing an 18-month renovation, and it’s been fascinating to watch which elements are being completely transformed, and which are just getting a nice buff and shine (the mall never closed, so we could track the construction and its progress rather easily).

American malls have always struggled to be taken seriously as luxury shopping experiences. In the glittering cities of Asia, the concept of having a truly luxurious experience at a mall is not in any way a foreign concept. But in the US, and arguably in the rest of the West, the height of luxury is experienced on the street – at chic boutiques, tony brand-owned retail stores, and a handful of iconic grande dame department stores – not at the mall. Perish the thought! So we watched this transformation – as well as others at large department stores – with a great deal of curiosity. What should remain, and what must be discarded, for malls in America to have a viable future as purveyors of luxury goods?

Well, here are some items that were tossed out and replaced in the renovation we witnessed: all of the furniture in the common areas; all of the plants; every floor covering, whether tile or carpet; and the analog mall directories. These moves took the color scheme from a warm pink and beige to an icy silver and white – the clear intent was to make it look more modern, with many more reflective or transparent surfaces.

A sampling of the areas and items that were left as-is, or just fluffed up a bit include: the decorative fountains; the statuary; the parking garage; the mall help desk. We assume there’s only so much one can do with a parking garage (although if they had asked us, we would have suggested that they expand the valet parking options).

But the biggest transformation by far, signaling what might actually be a game-changer at luxury malls, and at retail in general? The food court.

This is not your grandfather’s food court. It’s also not your mom’s, or the one you grew up with, or even the one you’ve grown accustomed to in the past decade. This is a whole different thing altogether. The slideshow below will give you a sense of what we’re talking about.

By way of background, the lack of a food court at the mall had been an irritant for us for months – it was basically impossible to find a decent meal at this place for a very long time. The new, heavily-hyped food court was supposed to open in the fourth quarter of last year – in time for holiday shopping. That deadline came and went, and our annoyance grew. Finally, it opened, just a couple of weeks ago. We visited it for the first time last week, and even though we are tough to impress, we admit it: we were blown away.

What’s so special? Here’s some of what we loved:

–Varied, interesting and healthy food choices. The new offerings rival what you would find on a city block in a major urban area: gourmet coffee, insanely good bar-be-que, a “toast” bar with avocado, sweet potato, and other yummy options. In the past, we were stuck with pizza, mediocre salads, and fro-yo.

–Lots of natural light, and cool industrial lighting fixtures. This particular food court is at the top of the mall, and the new design makes maximum use of the skylights. On cloudy days or at night, your eye is still drawn upward, to light fixtures that are interesting, whimsical and edgy. Not Brooklyn-cool, but not bad.

–An outdoor terrace. You can now hang out on an elegant sofa or at a table on a breezy stone terrace, have a drink and chill with your friends. At the mall. Are you kidding me?

–A fireplace. Like the lobby of many a luxury hotel, the new mall food court has a glassed-in fireplace that can be seen and enjoyed from either the outdoor terrace or from indoor seats. That is just really cool.

–Electronics-friendly – there’s free Wi-Fi, and there are charging stations everywhere. Like at the airport. Except here, there is no PA system incessantly interrupting your train of thought.

–Work-friendly – there are work stations adjacent to the food court where your partner who hates to shop can happily hang out for an hour or so, with a desk, a lamp, and the aforementioned plug-in stations and Wi-Fi. Can you imagine? No more whining about why you’re taking so long. This could save some marriages that we know.

–Kid-friendly – there’s a large enclosed “Play” area where young kids and their caregivers can frolic; for older kids and teens (and no doubt, some of their parents), there’s a screening area set up with an enormous video screen, ideal for watching sports, movies, or other entertainment.

If you’re like many of us at Dandelion Chandelier, you grew up hanging out at the mall, first with your parents, then with your posse in high school, and perhaps later with your own kids. There’s no question that certain purchases make more sense online. And we’re urban creatures who adore the great shopping streets of the world: Madison Avenue, Bond Street, via Montenapoleone, Avenue Montaigne, Bahnhofstrasse, Rodeo Drive, and Ginza. Consider us flâneurs forever when we’re in the city.

But for many of us, there’s just something about the mall that’s really special: it’s a convenient and safe place for a treasure-hunt; for people-watching; for killing time; for getting stuff done; for re-making ourselves, or our homes; for discovery, exploration, reflection and inspiration.

And now the food is like, really good. We were starting to worry that malls would soon become relics of a distant past. And that would make us sad. But now we can see that they may be able to hold their old place in the new world: as a safe third space, neither work nor home, where many different kinds of people can find relaxation and fun.

Come to think of it, food may be the salvation of brick-and-mortar retail, hotels, museums, and all kinds of physical spaces that would otherwise struggle to attract major foot traffic. A great meal is a communal act that’s impossible to replicate online.

Foodies to the rescue! In the meantime, well done, Simon Property Group (the owner of our particular local luxury mall). We’ll definitely be back for that bar-be-que.