I Spent an Entire Day in a Mall Food Court
Breakfast, lunch and dinner inside the belly of America's disappearing mall culture.
Photo de Kim Newmoney
Look, I love the mall. It's where I go to get away from $5 cups of coffee, and boutiques I can barely afford to stand in. When I initially moved to Los Angeles's Silverlake neighborhood, I knew what I was in for. Crystal shops outnumber diners and the few that still exist serve $5 cups of coffee. The neighborhood, like most neighborhoods, is a reflection of its residents. For the most part, I don't mind it. But, damn it—sometimes your ass needs to be inside of a Starbucks inside of a Target. To me, malls are very therapeutic for this reason. Circumventing through large crowds of families and hearing the cries of children being denied something that they want bought for them is genuinely healing.
More importantly, the American mall is an emblem of youth. It used to be the place you could go to get away from your parents, but still spend their money. For many teenagers, the local mall was like a second home. It was exciting, because it was the place where you could experience a taste of adulthood. I envied older women when they'd open their wallets and expose multiple credit cards. Of course these days, my views on credit cards are completely different now that I am perpetually in debt, but back then, I saw them as a symbol of things to come: an independent life where I could have whatever I wanted and make my own decisions.
That brings me to the ever popular food court: the special part of the mall where one goes to take a break from shopping 'til they drop. As a teenager, it was the place to be seen. I recall sitting with my friends for hours, hoping my crush and his friends would show up. I'd have fantasies of him sitting next to me, asking if I wanted to share a basket of fries. I would envy the other couples walking past me, holding hands and laughing. I wanted to be them so damn badly. Of course, I never was. The food court kept that fire alive, though. For better or worse.
These days, trends are shifting, and our shopping landscape has forever changed. Customers and retailers alike are moving more towards buying and selling online. Mall culture is slowly dying, because something more convenient has entered the picture. But before malls officially turn into dinosaurs, I wanted to spend an entire day in a mall food court and taste my way through suburban culinary offerings and observe humanity one more time.
11:34 AM: I arrive to the Westfield Fashion Square in Sherman Oaks completely famished. I'm ready to dine right away, unsure of what to eat. Food courts are lunch and dinner establishments, which means that breakfast is not really an option. I survey my options. There's Chipotle (burritos and tacos), Earthbar (smoothies), Stone Oven (sandwiches and salad), Panda Express (orange chicken, mainly), Sarku (sushi and bento boxes), Great Khan's (Mongolian Barbecue), Charley's (cheesesteaks), Burger King (burgers), Bibigo (Korean rice bowls and barbecue), and Massis (shawarma and kebabs). Slightly adjacent to the food court, there's a salad bar called Sa La Ta and a Wetzel's Pretzels.
11:37 AM: I have walked around the food court twice, still not sure what I want to eat. I decide on Bibigo and order a bowl with kimchi rice, mixed vegetables, and spicy pork. I find a table and quickly get to eating.
11:56 AM: I am full and can't bring myself to look at the bowl anymore. I ate too quickly and am now regretting the large brick of rice I just built in my stomach. Everything tasted delicious though, especially the kimchi rice. I'm not usually a fan of sweet meat, but it works here. This is some surprisingly good quality Korean barbecue for a mall food court, which explains the pain I am now in. It's going to be a while until I eat again.
12:22 PM: I count four different people who have their laptops out and are taking advantage of the mall's free wi-fi. I applaud them.
1:23 PM: The Wetzel's Pretzels kiosk is handing out free samples. It's a cinnamon-sugar pretzel bite. I knew it. Every time I get a sample from this Wetzel's Pretzels, it's cinnamon-sugar. I don't know if this is because it's their most popular pretzel flavor or least popular pretzel flavor. I'm always hopeful that maybe there'll be a savory pretzel sample, like pepperoni or jalapeño cheese, but that's never the case. Regardless, the cinnamon-sugar bite is delicious and I know I should not complain about free food.
1:25 PM: The kiosk where I once impulsively bought a hermit crab is now selling fidget spinners.
1:28 PM: I find a new table where I can sit. Michelle Branch's "Everywhere" is playing, but I can barely be heard over the cacophony of noises coming from everyone around me.
2:03 PM: I am bored out of my mind. I would describe the decor of this food court as desperately chic. It looks like what someone in 1994 considered the future of design to be.
2:12 PM: A middle-aged woman is feeding her dog strawberries. The dog looks very comfortable. It's clear that this is the dog's day-to-day life. I write in my notes that this dog probably has a better life than I do.
2:30 PM: I miss the originality of malls, but it seems as though every single one has been renovated to look like a Pier 1 threw up inside it.
3:12 PM: I decide to speak to three men sitting at a table together. They do not seem thrilled, but are still cordial to me. Their names are Victor, Mike, and James. All three are on their break from working at Macy's. I feel worse now for bugging them. They're not on the Macy's floor, but are behind the scenes guys doing various managerial things. I had no idea Macy's was this extensive.
4 PM: I have it in me to eat again, but now the decision is even more difficult. I feel like I should do the opposite of Korean food, so I decide to be bold and eat somewhere I've never eaten before: Charley's. I get a classic Philly cheesesteak with French fries covered in cheese sauce and bacon bits.
4:12 PM: I stare at my cheesesteak and cheese-smothered fries and remember that I don't digest dairy well.
4:13 PM: Fuck it.
4:33 PM: I have devoured the fries, but I've only eaten half of my sandwich, which is underwhelming. The bread to meat ratio is upsetting. Korean barbecue is still in first place.
4:40 PM: The food court has been consistently busy. I'm sitting next to two teenage girls who are drinking smoothies from Earthbar. Both of their faces are partially obstructed by large Victoria's Secret bags. These two are the teen girls I never was: health conscious and aware of their budding sexuality. I both hate and envy them.
4:43 PM: Third Eye Blind just came on. What year is it? Also, I desperately want coffee but am scared that drinking coffee in combination with what I just ate will lead to me shitting myself.
4:48 PM: I decide to talk to the guy at Charley's who served me my cheesesteak. His name is Edwin, and he's very clearly in his early 20s. To my surprise, Edwin says he prefers the food court environment over traditional restaurant work. "You get to do more, and the shifts go by faster."
5:10 PM: I'm suddenly saddened upon the realization that this mall doesn't have a Spencer's.
6:02 PM: I am dreading the thought of having to eat dinner. My body hates me right now. I still want coffee.
6:15 PM: Pharrell's "Happy" comes on. My immediate thought: Oh.
7:00 PM: I have fallen in love with an elderly gentleman eating alone who I'm calling Colonel Sanders because of his white hair and goatee. He is void of any sort of facial expression that indicates emotion. He is a shell of a man, munching away on noodles from Panda Express. I start fantasizing about his life and imagine that he is single, never married, and eats Panda Express every day. He has four dogs, all named Champ. His kink is wearing women's stockings.
7:14 PM: A child, probably around 5 years old, is playing on an iPad while her slightly older sister plays on an iPhone. Their mother is stuffing Burger King fries in their mouths as they play. Not once do they tear their eyes away from their devices. The mother seems pleased with this.
8 PM: I can't bring myself to eat another full meal, so I end the night with pretzel dogs from Wetzel's. They are delicious, doughy, and incredibly greasy. I dip them in jalapeño cheese sauce because I hate myself. I somehow have no regrets and am full of regrets at the same time.
8:22 PM: I order a kombucha from Earthbar, because you can take the girl out of Silver Lake...
8:30 PM: That's it. Nine whole hours in a mall food court. I head back to my car, relieved that it's over. I mean, all I did was sit in free air conditioning, eat a lot of food, and think excessively about shopping. In other words, my day was spent being the perfect American.
This first appeared on MUNCHIES in July 2017.