If any place put America’s peccadillos on display in the 1980s, it was the shopping mall food court. Recall: The harsh fluorescent lighting that lent its victims a “Walking Dead” pallor. The semicircle of neon eateries that served gristly, corn starch-slathered meats or glazed, cinnamon-dusted rolls the size of a goat’s head. The shoppers who wiggled between cramped wooden tables in an endless search for a spot to wolf down their Sbarro slices so they could rejoin their pack on the prowl at Spencer Gifts and Things Remembered.
When future archaeologists want to understand how we became addicted to sugar, salt and fat, they’ll need to comb through the fossilized pizza crusts, taco shell shards and crumbly remnants of Mrs. Fields cookie cakes buried underneath the rubble of our dead shopping malls.
Here in 2015, the only malls that seem to thrive are those dedicated to shoppers of a certain zip code, where the prime mode of transportation is a luxury SUV outfitted with a concierge service, a driving assistant and a built-in disregard for any other vehicle on the road. Such malls do not survive on Panda Express alone.
Which brings me to Westfield Montgomery in Bethesda. Last year, the mall renovated its indoor food court and dubbed it, with no apparent irony, the Dining Terrace. The name appears to be a nod to its design: Skylights illuminate the soaring space during cloudless days. Giant circular booths, which practically shimmer like Atlantic herring, look out onto a sea of tables, white modular chairs, stylish low-slung benches and silvery banquettes that wrap around living, breathing trees. When temperatures dip into the teens, you can even feel a genuine winter chill as patrons traipse indoors on their way to the ArcLight Cinemas, which looms several levels above the food court.
The restaurants that line the perimeter have their own distinct architecture and finishes. Lobster ME has adopted a clean, white-tile look with warehouse lights fashioned over the counter. J. Chow’s has a varnished wood facade that gives its counter a clubby, fat-cat feel. Even tired old Qdoba has fashioned a space out of tiles that resemble adobe bricks. Did I mention there’s a sleek Sarku Japan sushi bar in the middle of the terrace, where the staff wears bright red sushi chef coats and skull caps?
The design has a cumulative effect: It raises expectations to a level that few food court vendors can satisfy. Exhibit A: The sushi, sashimi and maki roll combo at Sarku. The thick, mealy salmon and tuna slices had virtually no flavor, other than that of dead refrigerator air. The rice for the nigiri sushi clung stubbornly to my fingers, as if the cooks had forgotten to rinse out the starches before cooking the grains. I couldn’t resist ordering the “golden bagel roll,” a funny little riff on lox and bagels, except I found nothing amusing about the dry wad of salmon surrounded by cream cheese and eel sauce.
Sarku is one of eight eateries that made the transition from old to new food court, its upgrade to first class clearly requiring cosmetic enhancements, if not culinary ones. Of the old-school vendors, the facelift looks best on Bistro Sensations, likely because its rainbow-colored array of ingredients for DIY salads and smoothies aligns better with the mall’s slow shift away from mysterious, steam-table cuisine. (Although my wan, watery salad couldn’t quite match the promise of those vibrant vegetables behind the glass case.) By contrast, Ruby Thai Kitchen, with its mulish reliance on sweet, sad, suburban interpretations of Southeast Asian cooking, must be aware of its imminent extinction daily.
The future of upscale mall food apparently lies in fresh, fast-casual behemoths such as Chipotle (yes, there’s a location here, its pepper logo built from a massive patchwork of cool wood-grain squares) and future fast-casual behemoths like Cava Mezze Grill. The latter hunkers down in a semi-detached warehouse space, complete with its own wood-and-industrial-metal seating, looking as if Cava wanted to dig a moat to separate itself from such terrace companions as McDonald’s. Truth is, if I weren’t wearing my $20 Diner hat (a gimme cap, of course), I’d make a beeline for Cava nine times out of 10, since I’m a sucker for the local team’s philosophical ethos (area farms) and slobber-worthy dips.
Wicked Waffle, another homegrown operation, might take pointers from Cava on how to strip down its concept to something lean and manageable. Wicked’s approach — sandwiches and sweets built from dimpled squares lifted straight from a hot waffle iron — lends itself to bites that don’t stray far from their original recipes (such as the bechamel-rich croque monsieur) versus those lost in some conceptual wasteland (such as the Peking duck waffle, a mashup of sweet, muddled flavors). The same holds true for Lobster ME, a small Maine-based chain. Its clean, chopped claw meat sings of the sea when simply presented in grilled bun form, whether Maine or Connecticut-style, but can drown in the grilled cheese sandwich with its gooey waves of Gruyere, Brie and cream cheese.
The terrace’s attempts at more authentic cuisines from around the globe can sputter or soar depending on the vendor. Mirch Masala Grill might fare better if its chili chicken didn’t lounge on a steam table, congealing into an unspeakable texture. Grill Kabob’s lamb and chicken skewers take far more time to prepare, but they reward your patience with juicy morsels of meat, charred and generously sprinkled with sumac.
One of the most gratifying meals at Westfield Montgomery hails from South Korea, which clearly wants to beat Americans at our own game. Kraze Burgers’ Original burger, seasoned well and cooked unapologetically rare, drips with juices, grill flavor and beef savor. It’s a reminder that, when searching for the new new thing, mall managers shouldn’t overlook the timeless joy of a hamburger done right.
7101 Democracy Blvd., Bethesda, 301-469-6000, www.westfield.com/montgomery.
Hours: Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Nearest Metro: Grosvenor-Strathmore, with a 3.2-mile trip to the mall.
Prices: Varies widely by restaurant.