Holding food court

Lunch at Neiman's is still fashionably good, but Nordstrom just serves off-the-rack

Style is as important in dining as it is in dressing. We humans define ourselves in subtle ways, believing you can judge a person not just by the company he keeps and the clothes he wears, but by the food he eats and the places he goes.

Certainly, restaurateurs believe people crowd to the latest chic bistro not just because the food is good, but because of the restaurant's image. More and more, restaurants are designed around personality and image instead of food. Think of such theme parks as the Hard Rock and Planet Hollywood, which send the message as clearly as Madison Avenue: If you eat like us, you'll be like us.

The link between fashion and food finally--and weirdly--came full circle with last year's opening of the Fashion Cafe, the Midtown Manhattan restaurant owned by and based on the celebrity of anorexic-looking high-fashion models, women whose job description is their image. And whose real-life lunch menu isn't much more than mineral water, a celery stick, and a cigarette.

Dallasites may not be any more style-conscious than people in any other big city where your image paves your way to success, but we do shop more and eat out more than people in most other places. It occurs to me that someone's missing out on some obvious cash here, because you can seldom eat and shop in the same place. You can eat very nicely at Barney's in NorthPark, for instance, but it's hard for real people, the kind of people who would eat there (and more than mineral water and celery) to actually find something to buy.

Yet department-store dining rooms are becoming dinosaurs. It's hard to explain their extinction; everyone wishes they were still around, but mostly, they're not. Must we, then, shop till we drop? Or find our way to the food pits in the belly of the malls?

The recent opening of Nordstrom at Galleria (now the largest mall in the city) called for a comparative taste of those in-store restaurants we do have left. Nordstrom has always inspired a fierce, almost fanatical loyalty from its shoppers; its opening here was hysterically heralded, as though Dallas had never had a good specialty store before. But of course we do already have our own hometown shopping Mecca. Neiman Marcus once inspired a similar degree of loyalty, so a Neiman's revisit seemed in order, along with a review of Nordstrom's in-store eateries.

There are three restaurants in Nordstrom. I tried two, Cafe Nordstrom and the Garden Court, leaving the Pub to the men's department. I do appreciate the nonsexist idea of a guy's restaurant in a fashion store. Nordstrom has several West Coast liberal touches like that--"family" rest rooms, for example, where dads can take their little girls when they need to. But department-store dining has traditionally been the ladies' turf: This is where the "ladies who lunch" cut their teeth. So I stuck with the places they would go--or the places they do go, as it turns out.

An evening visit to the Cafe was predictably lonely, but go in the middle of a weekday and the Garden Court looks like Saturday night at Star Canyon. The host, with that famously friendly Nordstrom attitude, handed us a beeper so we could shop around until a table was available--in 25 minutes, he promised.

For the most part, Nordstrom clothes have all the cutting-edge style of Middle America, which is to say none. And its restaurants are firmly, solidly, stolidly in fuddy-duddy sync with the fashion. Oddly located between Lingerie and Children's Shoes, the Cafe and the Garden Court share an entrance and that friendly host I mentioned. The Cafe has a horsey, Western overlay on its basic hotel-coffee-shop interior: It looks like a place you could find on the exit road of an interstate. Nordstrom's signature piano music seemed to be piped in, or else they just tune the sound system to that particularly Nordstrom-style Muzak. It's modified self-serve: You place your order, and a waitress delivers it.

We tried the Caesar salad, a huge bowl of romaine lettuce dressed as dowdily as could be with flavorless dressing. The "Californian" sandwich was made on airy panini, a flat pseudo-Italian bread that crumbled when you bit it and turned mushy under the sun-dried-tomato pesto meant to moisten the filling of red peppers, onions, havarti cheese, and chopped artichoke hearts. The better sandwich didn't try so hard to be trendy: The "Big D Grill" layered turkey, avocado, tomato, very tough bacon, and Swiss cheese on sourdough bread. Both plates were accessorized with a dill-pickle spear and a frill of purple kale along with a serving of Sunchips. Great slabs of desserts, oily carrot cake and thick chocolate cake, were served straight from the cooler.

The Garden Court is Nordstrom's more-upscale effort. Decorated like a gazebo, a theme we thought we'd left behind in 1972, it's a small room, and when we ate there, it was mostly overflowing with women--new mothers and their offspring, parties of two or three serious shoppers camped out with their bags all around them, and some mother-daughter teams.

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