I grew up near Riverside, where a hot summer day meant finding relief in the local mall. We'd cruise around, try on clothes and eat food that, well, often involved cheese-on-a-stick. I remember it clearly: a crisp, brown shell giving way to a thick, gooey, hot clump of cheese, swallowed down with a slug of sugary iced lemonade, handed to me by a smiling teen in bold striped colors – and, wow, killer hat! Yes, Hot Dog on a Stick was once a highlight of my shopping mall ventures.
Somewhere between those days and these days, though, something happened: food court fare stopped tasting good to me. I started paying attention to my daily fruits-and-veg intake; carrot juice and almond milk replaced soda in my fridge; and lo and behold, I craved organic anything like I once craved Otter Pops.
Lately, some shopping malls have been heeding the cries of the masses demanding healthy food. Just look at Westfield Century City's new dining area, opened just last year. Shopping bags are strewn about, and chatter hums throughout the expansive indoor atrium and outdoor terrace”¦but what's that on the people's plates? Sure, you've got your pizza and stir fries, but there's also a whole range of healthful fare. From organic oatmeal and soups to salads, sushi and smoothies, the array is so extensive you may run through lunch hour just deciding what to order.
This mall takes the concept of “food court” and ramps it up ten notches. At Westfield Century City, we feast at a dining terrace. Forget the Styrofoam plates – here, we eat upon china. And, in the evenings, we're even serenaded by live jazz.
A popular eatery here is Coral Tree Express, an outpost of Brentwood's Coral Tree CafÃ©. Stop by for organic coffee or loose-leaf tea. The juices and smoothies include the Everything Nice ($3.95). With watermelon, green apple and a little lemon, it's the kind of cool-ya-down drink that quenches the thirst and hydrates down to the bone.
The menu also offers a healthful array of food, including salads (organic greens used), paninis and soups. The veggie wrap ($7.95) is packed with lettuce, red cabbage, sprouts, tomato, avocado, a flavorful hummus and a little lemony zing. All wrapped up in a whole wheat tortilla, it's a refreshing lunch, served with a side of fresh greens.
As you wait in line at the Coral Tree, you may be seduced by a dessert or two. The lemon tart ($4.50) is a treat, with a smooth, creamy tang held up by a light pastry crust. Alternatively, the chocolate bundt cake ($3.25) is a straight-up, no-frills hit of dark, rich chocolate.
For something hearty and, despite the heat of summer, a little on the warming side, head to Red Rock Chili Co. There are eight varieties of chili here, from Hot Rock to Caribbean Chicken, but vegetarians will stick with the Tofu Veggie chili, a decent medley of black beans, garbanzo beans and yellow corn in a mildly spicy sauce. You can have it over spaghetti ($7.39), on a salad ($7.49), over nachos ($6.99) or just over some slightly sticky white rice ($5.99).
Harper's Express serves dependable Italian. The eggplant parmesan ($8.95) consists of three dense slices of eggplant in a mildly salty yet flavorful breading, topped with a simple tomato sauce and melted cheese. As a side or starter, chilled gazpacho ($4.95) is a good choice; it's tangy with undertones of sweetness. Swallow it down with – why not? – a glass of wine. Wine, beer, espresso and other beverages are on offer.
Fancy a big salad? Try Tacone; its Spa salad ($7.49) is packed with a vibrant medley of grilled and fresh veggies and toasted pumpkin seeds over greens. Mr. Hana does a vegetable udon noodle soup ($7.99), while Seiki-Shi Sushi boasts a whole variety of sushi, salads and teriyaki dishes.
For a quick and inexpensive bite, and so much choice at your fingertips, you can't really beat a trip to the mall these days. Have a wander, pick a line, put your nose up against the glass and see what's cooking. I did, and while I still carry nostalgia for my bygone cheese-on-a-sticks, I'm grateful that a trip to the mall these days can hit a more healthful spot.