For a gourmet meal, head on over to ... the food court?
Battered by the recession and competition from non-mall retailers, shopping centers are trying to attract customers with a decidedly upscale culinary hook.
Burger joints and smoothie shops are giving way to sushi bars and churrascarias. Flatware is replacing plastic utensils. And forget grungy cafeteria seating with the sticky table tops and fluorescent lighting. Now customers are chowing down in Wi-Fi-equipped patios with lush landscaping, waterfalls, fireplaces and city and ocean views.
Years ago, Steven Polen, 59, would have never ventured to a mall to eat. But he recently headed to Westfield Century City just to have lunch at its food court, now called the "dining terrace" following a posh makeover.
After surveying the dozen or so upscale food vendors — including Korean barbecue, prime rib and made-to-order sushi — the retired Miracle Mile resident settled on Asian eatery Take a Bao. There, he spent $9.95 on a chicken teriyaki rice bowl with sauteed Chinese broccoli, caramelized shiitake mushrooms, housemade pickled vegetables and sesame seeds.
Although he'd had no intentions to shop, Polen made an impromptu purchase anyway, stopping by See's Candies to buy a box of sugar-free peanut brittle for his wife.
"The mall benefits from having superior food options," he said. "I tend to come here to shop because I know I'll get a good meal."
The push for better fast-casual dining follows similar efforts in airports, hotels and even gas stations as businesses recognize consumers' increasingly refined palates.
But it's a particularly smart move for shopping centers, retail experts said, as they struggle to adjust to leaner economic times. While many consumers still aren't in the mood to shell out for a pricey new outfit or an expensive dinner, they still need to eat, and they can usually afford to do so at a food court.
Malls have also lost ground in recent years as consumers turn to standalone shops and the Internet. To stay relevant, they're looking for ways to evolve into "lifestyle centers" where the food and entertainment offerings are just as important as the shopping.
"Non-retail matters increasingly more as you look ahead for malls," said Michael Niemira, chief economist at the International Council of Shopping Centers. "More and more, the industry is focused on where it needs to be in five, 10 years."
Food court remodels are an expensive undertaking, with malls spending millions of dollars to upgrade the spaces. But executives say the payoff is an increased number of shoppers who stay at the mall longer and spend more. In some cases, food court vendors are so profitable that their sales per square foot exceed those of retail tenants.
By tackling food courts, traditionally considered an afterthought in shopping centers, mall owners are trying to create more of a dining experience and less of a pit stop.
"In the past, you'd put in your hot dog stand and some seating and that's it," said Guy Mercurio, vice president of restaurant leasing for mall operator Macerich. "Today we're approaching it very differently."
When Macerich's newly remodeled Santa Monica Place reopens in August, a whopping one-third of the shopping center's retail space excluding department stores will be dedicated to dining options, compared with just 5% before. It's the greatest emphasis on food ever for a Macerich property, Mercurio said.
At the heart of the project is an open-air dining deck that will feature a giant fireplace, wireless Internet access and views of the Pacific Ocean and Santa Monica Pier. Next to the food court, a gourmet marketplace similar to San Francisco's Ferry Building will sell artisanal cheeses and other upscale fare.
After completing the Century City mall's dining terrace in 2005, parent company Westfield Group upgraded more than half a dozen additional food courts, including those at Westfield Topanga and Westfield Culver City. Westfield malls in San Diego, San Jose and San Francisco are currently undergoing their own food court makeovers.
"Our new standard is dining terraces, and wherever we can, we're upgrading," said Vince Zawodny, senior vice president of design for Westfield. "The appeal is much broader."
The new dining terraces — which take about two to four years to complete — usually feature glassware and flatware, more comfortable seating and workers who bus diners' food trays when they're done eating.
Westfield is also adding little details such as indoor umbrellas, fresh flowers and mood lighting. Remodeled restrooms in the dining terraces feature state-of-the-art hand dryers.
The trend is anathema to self-described foodies such as Drew Hubbard, founder of the LA Foodie blog, who snickered when he heard the term "dining terrace." Fine dining can't be had for cheap, he said, and a food court is still a food court "no matter what you call it."