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[whitespace] Great Mall It's a Mall World

What a girl wants, what a girl needs ... food courts with atmosphere

By Kelly Luker

OTHER PEOPLE TRAVEL to far-off corners of this great country to seek out the icons--Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota, the Statue of Liberty in New York and the French Quarter in New Orleans. Me, I look for the biggest mall.

Give me brightly dressed windows and bustling crowds, young teens with eyes aglow from a fresh burst of consumerism, the Zen of piped-in pop and the giddiness inspired from "50% Clearance!" signs.

But a mall is nothing without its heart, from which all life and energy flow: the food court. Which leads us back to this area we live in, a veritable Louvre of food-court-powered malls. So lush, so numerous, the rich harvest of enclosed shopping centers in our region offers a powerful argument for planting our Easy Spirits right here for the summer, instead of gallivanting off to some foreign place where the natives refuse to speak English.

Strip malls don't count. Neither do low-rent, really out-of-date malls. It's gotta be a big--honkin' big--mall; then follow your nose to where the action is. Go up the stairs, head past Wet Seal, hang a left and there!--a hundred different taste treats crammed into a PVC-cushioned rotunda.

Maybe it's the thrill of tasting my way through a dozen cultures without every buying a plane ticket. Could be the vast variety of flavors, so much more exciting than an average trek through my own cupboards. Most likely, though, mall-munching appeals to my idea of adventure--safe, prepackaged and 99 percent predictable.

However, it is that errant 1 percent that leads us to realize not all food courts are created equal. What makes one food court destination eating and another a last-ditch attempt at resuscitating plummeting blood-sugar levels? Simple--how it scores on the SAVE index: Scenery, Atmosphere, Variety and Environment.

For example, Valley Fair (yeah, yeah, it's been rechristened Westfield Village or some such pretentious moniker) might be considered the Rudy Galindo of food courts. Charming, multifaceted and definitely our hometown favorite. Nestled in the bosom between the twin monuments of Macy's and Nordstrom, more than a dozen eateries vie for our fast-food dollar. Feeling a Pacific Rim mood overtake me last week, I left work to savor the chicken skewers from the Korean Sarabol and a few potstickers from Teriyaki Palace. Taking my teensy seat at the even teensier table, I allowed the noise of the dinner crowd to drop away from me as a deep calm and peace radiated throughout. Was this what the Desert Fathers experienced in their quest for transcendence? Could they really have done it with locusts and honey instead of Cinnabons? They pondered the great I Am. I pondered the Express Internationale across the way and how much it would cost to finance my twentysomething makeover.

Rating further down the SAVE scale would be Palo Alto's Stanford Shopping Center. Possibly, because there is no food court. I guess Bally and Tiffany & Co. threw a hissy fit at having to share the same oxygen as Hot Dog on a Stick, because hungry shoppers are left with hoity-toity joints like Gourmet Franks or La Baguette interspersed throughout the mall. The closest thing to a food court is Stanford's faux French walkway that leads to Sigona's Farmers Market and Oakville Grocery. The delightful odor of hot grease and sugar is sadly amiss.

Speaking of amiss, however, perhaps La Baguette could explain why they fork up tarte Normande or tarte aux pommes, but are too damn cheap to put out la half-and-half or les packets d'Equal.

Although rarefied, at least Stanford has ambience. Unfortunately, Milpitas' Great Mall of America managed to be somewhere else when they were handing out atmo. It doesn't get much better in "Great Eats," as Great Mall titled their food court. The usual suspects are there--Micky D, Arby's and Sbarra--but so are the disaffected youth, screaming toddlers and way too many cellulite-dimpled thighs peeking out between shorts and flip-flops. The retro neon signs and generic '60s bubblegum music blaring tinnily through the food pod merely adds the final garnish to a meal already reeking with disappointment.

The Great Mall's Great Eats makes one more Great Mistake--skylights. Just like the casinos of Las Vegas, the secret to a successful shopping mall is tricking the visitor into losing track of time and place. A hint of blue sky shining merrily through the gaping skylights serves only to remind us poor suckers of another day wasted in the pursuit of crap we don't need, purchased with money we don't have.

A day wasted, except for the food court. After all, everyone's gotta eat sometime.

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From the July 6-12, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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