Most mall food courts abandon the heritage


November 27, 1992|By JACQUES KELLY

For the next 27 days, scarcely a Baltimorean will be able to escape the indignity of the food court.

To those who have never stepped in the Westview, Towson Town Center, Marley Station or Owings Mills malls, the food court is the shopping center's universal pit stop.

It's a place where a dozen or so individual vendors sell their pizza, hamburgers, french fries, Oriental food and sweets to fatigued shoppers.

The food merchants are grouped around a large enclosure of tables and chairs. Off to the side are the mall's central bank of toilets and telephones.

Designers and interior decorators have tarted up the fancier courts with stage-set-like trellises, English garden benches, tubs greens and skylights.

Whoever coined the term "food court" was on the money. It's a place where both plaintiffs and defendants are sentenced to mediocre fare, echoed noise and non-bargain prices.

It's frequently a marvelous forum for children to stage tantrums and display outrageous behavior before the observant eyes and ears of an audience of fellow Christmas shoppers. But, no one ever takes real offense. Wretched behavior is always tolerated in the food court. There are no rules, except please bus your own table.

Once you're refueled, you're back on the pavement as quickly as possible.

At its worst, the food court is like a badly rendered version of "The Little Drummer Boy" -- discordant, irritating and repetitive.

But there is little arguing with success. The food court is a popular gathering place, frequently the most congested component of the mall.

The Rouse Co. claims to have invented the food court as we know it today. The firm has a business practice of monitoring all its tenants' gross sales receipts. Despite the fact that early mall eating joints were frequently afterthoughts, tucked away under escalators, Rouse executives discovered that small mall restaurants did a lot of business.

They came up with the idea of clustering them into an arena known as the food court. The first food court made its debut in a Rouse mall in Paramus, N.J.

The superinformal, quick-food court quickly became dominant, nosing out the old department store tea room or basement luncheonette.

In fact, the court's ancestor was the Lexington Street hot dog stand, with its emphasis on quick-burning calories and low price.

While the food court is a strictly self-service environment, a world of plastic trays and portion-controlled, prepacked ketchup, the old department stores were still using finger bowls in the 1950s.

Gone are Hutzler Brothers' Colonial Tea Room and its Quixie and Westview Gardens, where uniformed and aproned waitresses served the chicken salad platters followed by slices of Lady Baltimore or Wellesley fudge cake.

Some Baltimore shoppers built their day around a luncheon at the old Hochschild-Kohn Continental Tea Room and a main course of chicken a la king and a piece of seven-layer chocolate cake.

Others sidled up to a chocolate soda at the May Company's Court Yard Restaurant, an ingeniously designed place decorated with 19th century Baltimore shop fronts salvaged from old streets.

The department store restaurant was everything the food court is not -- refined, slow-paced, a place to be quiet and sit for an hour while mannequins paraded by in the latest fashions.

Oddly enough, the last bastion of the old-fashioned department store tea room survives nicely in Columbia, home of many of the Rouse executives who perfected the food court.

The Woodward & Lothrop department store restaurant, now in its 26th year, is a Columbia institution. There'd be a rebellion if its tuna melt and salad bar ever ceased to be.

"The chicken pot pie is still on the menu, and so are the club sandwiches. But the molded Jell-O salads left with the buffalo," says Tom Heilman, its manager.

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