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Photo: Getty
Photo: Getty

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In Praise of the Department Store Restaurant

It's a place to pause amidst the organized chaos of things you might own. And it's definitely better than a food court.

Sometimes, when I'm feeling unmoored, I find myself wandering the specialty departments at Bloomingdale's. There are few phrases in the English language more repulsive than "retail therapy," but I won't be the first (or last) woman to admit that surrounding myself with wholly unnecessary consumer goods does, at the very least, clear my head a bit.

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It's never anything extravagant I want to buy, and it's always something that allows me to advance whatever fantasy life I've imagined for myself that particular week—a lacy bra that might peek out of a dress, a candle that will make my living room smell like Vermont. These things help, much as I wish otherwise.

What helps most, though, is an Arnold Palmer. Then a bowl of soup, then a chicken-salad sandwich on sourdough toast, all consumed at a table for one at the Bloomingdale's restaurant, known in most branch store locations as 59th & Lex. To pause in the middle of shopping and eat classic American fare—burgers, Chinese chicken salads, a dish of frozen yogurt for dessert—is restorative and indulgent, comforting and fantastical.

It's a place to pause and just be amidst the organized chaos of all the things I might own, and also a place to cast off consumer anxiety, the terror of hearing "That doesn't come in your size" or "This lipstick is from France and you'll never pronounce the name correctly so don't even try."

Also, nothing on the menu costs more than fifteen dollars.

Department store restaurants allowed middle-class women to pause and refresh themselves in a manner that was, above all, civilized.

For years Macy's and Wanamaker's (RIP) fought over who could claim to have opened the first restaurant inside a department store. The shops themselves started appearing in American cities in the mid-19th century, a place to serve the purchasing needs (and wants) of a new class of women—not rich enough to see private French dressmakers, but wealthy enough to want to turn buying a new dress into an event. Afternoon luxury, you might call it: The indulgence is found and paid for and everyone's home for supper.

Department store restaurants allowed middle-class women in the throes of consumer ecstasy to pause and refresh themselves in a manner that was, above all, civilized. Since the department store was essentially a feminine space, there could be no harm in dining in its restaurant with other women, or, if one was feeling especially brave, alone (preferably surrounded by full shopping bags).

The food was fancy but not overly so—consomme, tongue sandwiches, and delicate fruit salads all appear on a 1901 Macy's menu—and nothing served would render a woman incapable of continuing to shop after she'd finished. It allowed for a minor expansion of the consumer fantasy; diners didn't have to leave the store, and could finish the meal in less than an hour. But it was more special than going home for lunch, just like buying a pair of silk stockings in a department store in the city was infinitely more special than buying them at the drugstore in town.

The story of department stores is, by the middle of the twentieth century, invariably tied up with the story of shopping malls. Malls encouraged middle-class women who lived in the suburbs to stay there: why venture into a dirty, crowded city when just around the corner was an expanse of clean, brightly lit stores?

Malls were, and are, usually anchored by a Macy's, or a Nordstrom, or (in certain neighborhoods) a Neiman Marcus or a Saks, but are they really the draw? The mall closest to my childhood home in California has 72 stores. Rather than encourage me to stay inside one of them all day, the layout beckons me toward the middle, passing by windows selling jeans, dresses for teenagers, stuffed animals for children. At the center, of course, is the food court. The first food court (or is it Food Court?) appeared in Paramus, New Jersey, in 1974. It was no longer glamorous to park inside a stuffy tearoom next to the lingerie department. People still got hungry when they shopped, but now, thanks to benevolent developers, they had options.

The last mall food court I was in had, if I counted correctly, twenty-one different food stalls, yet the feel of the place was singular. The ubiquitous smell of Auntie Anne's soft pretzels, the ubiquitous sounds of teenagers (malls are for teenagers, of course) using the space to practice at grown-upness.

The last time I was in one I ordered a bowl of orange-flavored chicken and white rice with a fountain Diet Coke from Panda Express. I sat a table by myself and tried to read, just like I do at Bloomingdale's, but it was different. Different because it was noisy, different because the food, while delicious, left me stuffed before I was even done.

I'd gone to the mall that day to buy a dress for a college friend's wedding, one I was dreading attending. In every dressing-room I looked in the mirror sulkily and, MSG seeping out of my pores, I wondered how I'd made such a terrible mistake. If I'd gone to Bloomingdale's and eaten a Niçoise salad I'd have been relaxed, serene. The kind of woman who never spills anything on her dress, and radiates goodwill towards former friends.

I wondered how I'd made such a terrible mistake. If I'd gone to Bloomingdale's and eaten a Niçoise salad I'd have been relaxed, serene.

Is shopping a chore? Is it work? Is it stressful? Is food consumed during a shopping trip food consumed because the body always needs fuel, or is it somehow different?

Answering yes to any or all of these questions turns my face red-hot with shame, but of course it is. Everything you pick up ultimately asks you to question how beautiful you think you are, and whether the thing you are holding will increase or decrease that beauty. (I'm willing to admit that there are non-neurotic shoppers who feel none of this. I am not one of them.) That's the rub of conspicuous consumption, isn't it? That everyone has to watch you consume and so you, in turn, have to think about how you'll look doing it?

The best department store restaurants manage to be spaces where this tension can be soothed with a salve of toast and jam, lemonade and miniature fruit tarts. In a space full of shoppers, I'm alone with my thoughts because I know every other woman (and sometimes my father, who loves a good Club sandwich) is lost in the same kind of purchasing reverie I am.

The restaurant takes care of us all.

The other thing about department store restaurants is that they are, for better or for worse, kind of old-fashioned. The average age of the diners at my preferred location seems to be well north of retirement, and it is most crowded at 11:30am, for lunch.

I suppose it makes sense, then, that brands are trying to reimagine in-store dining as something a bit hipper, a bit more expensive. The New York Bloomingdale's location boasts a cafe attached to the celebrity chef David Burke, where balsamic reduction terrorizes perfectly ordinary plates and instead of BLTs, diners are encouraged to eat things like Duck Confit Banh Mi.

Macy's in Herald Square used to operate a restaurant called The Cellar, made even better for the fact that it was in the luggage department and there was no cell phone reception. It closed earlier this year. The store now runs an Italian restaurant I've been afraid of ever since I looked up the menu online and discovered they specialize in a brunch item called "hangover pizza."

I'm going to California in a few weeks, within walking distance of my favorite 59th & Lex. It's been a strange winter. My anxiety has been heightened, and I've spent more time than usual fretting about my appearance as a stand-in for all the other things I can't fret about openly.

On the second or third day of my visit, I imagine, I'll walk to the mall in search of face masks, sandals, pencil skirts. I'll wander and touch and try things on, wondering if each object will make any kind of a difference, good or bad. Eventually I'll get hungry and set myself down, halfway between Housewares and Intimates, and, for forty-five minutes, be cocooned in the spoils of capitalism, watching the finest mid-late-century casual cuisine arrive in front of me.

I'll tuck into my sandwich and, with the first bite, take my place in the long line of women who've sought something they were looking for and decided, at last, to have lunch instead.


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