DECEMBER IS a death march for the taste buds. Between the bake sales, the cocktail parties, the "catered receptions" straight from the chain deli, the even more problematic potlucks and your great-uncle's clotted custard recipe, you might as well have your palate painted with sugar glaze and butter fat. (There are times I've absolutely embraced the infamous fruitcake for its relative citrus value, though it's always been an unsatisfactory relationship.)
And then there's the shopping mall foodcourt, a collection of odoriferously clashing fast food outlets so called because buying the food so often requires a suspension of judgment. Forced as we are to these consumer centers, many of us succumb to the apparent convenience of quick, "cheap" fare (though have you seen what they get for bad sushi or cardboard pizza?).
Okay, okay, I'm exaggerating. There are some tolerable food courts. But a fast food eatery, no matter how cheerfully staffed or how miraculously palatable, cannot offer that most essential element of a restaurant experience: a respite. Welcome. Hospitality. Communication. In my experience, there is more restorative power in just the verbal exchange of a drink order with the bartender -- a breed that shows to even more exemplary advantage under holiday stress -- than in the consumption of an entire platter of underseasoned, slap-happy sliced, miniature-portioned sushi.
In other words, even the most hectic shopping trip can be improved by taking the time to sit down, in an enclosed restaurant space, and restore your nutritional, spiritual and physical balance before returning to the store wars. And since it's highly likely that you are going to face this dilemma at least once in the next several weeks, we have a few tips and cautionary tales that will help you make good use of the shopping mall restaurant.
First off, timing is everything. Clyde's of Georgetown (202/333-9180), which opens onto both M Street and Georgetown Mall, has long been a sanctuary for in-town shopping victims. (I have a sentimental attachment to it: Some Christmases ago, in full retreat from a beautifully Dickensian but woefully discordant chorale crunching carols on the mall floor, I begged somewhat theatrical succor from the Clyde's bartender and in the process acquired the sympathetic assistance of another patron, who not only helped haul packages but ended up having to front me the money for the hefty parking till.)
In any case, the Clyde's staff has plenty of experience with holiday horrors, and they advise patrons to get in by about 11:30 or wait until about 3; a really late lunch might hold you through the dinner hour crush, too.
Second, read the fine print. This is no time to be standing around idle, and more and more veteran shoppers have learned to seek out restaurants that supply you with beepers (or, even better, those new vibrators that shimmy and light up like a cross between a "Star Trek" communications device and a Magic Fingers bed) and send you back into mall traffic. That way you can be "in line" for a table and still get 20 minutes' shopping done.
However, you need to ask the staff just how far the beeper's signal reaches before you go trekking into far galleries. In White Flint, for example, both the Cheesecake Factory (301/770-0999) and the new P.F. Chang's China Bistro (301/230-6933) hand out beepers. Chang's staffers warn that their alarms are only good for the immediate area -- the bar, the nearby lobby, etc.
Cheesecake's staffers say theirs have limited ranges, too, but it's not as limited as all that. Manager Brian Radliff of Dave & Buster's (301/230-5151) on the third floor says he has to watch out for two problems with Cheesecake beeper holders who come to wait there -- that they get so excited when the alarm finally goes off that they take off with a beer glass in hand and he has to run them down; or they've forgotten which restaurant's beeper they're wearing and come to the D&B desk to be seated.
If you do take a beeper and take off, you should also ask how long a grace period you have to get back to the seating desk. Those who ask that you remain in the immediate vicinity may have a shorter fill time than others. Clyde's of Reston (703/787-6601) beepers have a range that allows shoppers to wander the entire Town Center, but they ask that you try to answer the summons in 10 minutes. (If you're late getting back, and your table has been given away, they'll seat you at the next available table, but of course you may have to wait a few minutes more.) Beepers at Legal Seafood in Tysons Galleria (703/827-8900) also reach throughout its mall, and pretty much the same guidelines apply; the staff holds on for about 15 minutes, and then slips you one notch down the list.
Third, consider which mall has the most options for shopping and dining. Montgomery Mall is widely publicized for its stores -- and its cutthroat, competitive parking -- but the only full-service bar and restaurant where you can withdraw from the madding crowd is Slade's (301/469-0690). (There is a California Pizza Kitchen, but it looks like just another storefront, not to mention the stream of people walking through from the parking garage.)
Tysons Galleria, on the other hand, not only has a gazillion stores but it has four restaurants -- Legal Seafood, the Daily Grill (703/288-5100), another P.F. Chang's (703/734-8996) and Maggiano's Little Italy (703/356-9000) -- and general manager Sean Fleming of Legal Seafood says the once legendary traffic seems to have slowed considerably, making dining faster and more pleasant. At least so far. (Legal's beepers also reach the length of the mall, another draw.)
Fourth, don't expect to have as much personal space as in ordinary times. Piling up your shopping bags on an extra chair at the bar is not only rude, it's possibly dangerous. I've seen whole glasses of wine swept off counters into bags full of gifts. Radliff always urges patrons who are packing lots of shopping bags to lock them in their car trunks, partly to avoid falling prey to quick-fingered and clever shoplifters and partly for safety -- presents' and patrons'. He's already seen one case where a couple of kids who were racing through the aisles stumbled over their mother's purse and fell flat on their own wrapped and apparently fragile toys.
Still feeling hassled? Manager Michael Ridgeway of the Maggiano's in Tysons offers what may be the most practical advice: Just carry another shopping bag home. Since at holiday season the waits may easily top an hour at peak time, the folks who are going to eat first may well be the ones who take the dinner home and eat it there.
SPEAKING OF the new White Flint P.F. Chang's China Bistro, the Scottsdale-based, pan-Chinese, no-MSG chain is a lot more attractive, both physically and gastronomically, than you might expect from a chain restaurant. (In fact, White Flint's restaurant row, facing Rockville Pike between Lord & Taylor and Bloomingdale's, is beginning to look like Las Vegas, what with Chang's giant antique horse replicas guarding the entrance and Bertolini's columns and "cracked" stucco (301/984-0004). What's marked spicy is just that; the spicy eggplant is sweet, hot and not too oily; and the signature lettuce wraps, either chicken or veggie stiff-fries chopped and ready for rolling, are a quick and quite satisfying bar treat. The staff blends a dipping sauce right at the bar from chili paste, vinegar, sesame oil and soy; we suggest you skip the soy, since the chili paste is somewhat salty, and dig right in.
AND SPEAKING of food courts (and realizing that shoppers with small children may be making it more pleasant for the rest of us by not hitting the restaurants), Dulles Town Center has installed a large number of pint-sized tables and chairs in its Eatery to accommodate kiddie consumers. The weird thing, mall marketers report, is that the adults are cramming themselves in with them. Maybe squashing up limits your caloric intake. Hey, we'll try anything.
THE FEED BAG
We had just made all the jokes about politics making strange bedfellows -- a la former Republican National Committee chairman Haley Barbour and Democratic superlobbyist/Louisiana political scion Tommy Boggs joining Sam & Harry's partners Larry Work and Michael Sternberg to open (another) downtown steakhouse to be called the Caucus Room -- when politics' absolutely most famous strange bedfellows, James Carville and Mary Matalin, trumped it with their own announcement of an "American cuisine" spot to be called emerson's at the edge of Georgetown. (And for those of you who thought political beefing might be peaking, note that the Caucus Room will be at Ninth and Pennsylvania NW, bone-throwing distance from both the Capital Grill and Maloney & Porcelli at Sixth and Seventh. Has anybody checked into the beef industry's lobby bills lately?)