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Why eating at L.A. malls is way, way better than ever

Why eating at L.A. malls is way, way better than ever
The Grove's high-end restaurants include 189 by Dominique Ansel. Dishes there include fried oysters, served back in their shells and topped with horseradish aioli and serrano pepper. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

A decade ago you did not go to the mall to eat. You snacked on a squishy hot dog or a too-sweet lemonade between bouts of shoe shopping. You did not seek out the food court for sustenance that was anything but, well, retail fuel — something to keep you from keeling over and into the sale rack. But now, because of an influx of big-name chefs and cult-favorite restaurants, malls and shopping centers in Los Angeles are a different breed.

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With chefs such as Dominique Ansel — the pastry chef who brought you the Cronut — and restaurants like Egg Slut (chef Alvin Cailan’s ode to the egg sandwich), Taiwanese dumpling specialist Din Tai Fung and New York burger joint Shake Shack, not only has the food become worthy of a shopping trip, but you could call most Los Angeles malls actual dining destinations. You’re going to want to go there — and deal with the parking — to eat a plate of excellent fried chicken; to pull apart the layers of a truly great kouign-amann; or share a steamer full of soup dumplings.

Companies such as Westfield, which owns more than 30 malls in the United States, and Caruso, owned by developer Rick Caruso — who is behind the Grove, the Americana at Brand and the Commons at Calabasas — recognize that shopping centers can be about much more than just shopping. And they are making an effort to bring lauded chefs and popular, independently owned, local restaurants to their centers. Here’s a brief guide to four of L.A.’s biggest shopping centers, a breakdown of what you’re eating, and why some of the country’s best chefs and restaurants ended up at your local mall.

Beverly Center

One of the dining rooms inside Farmhouse at the Beverly Center in Los Angeles.
One of the dining rooms inside Farmhouse at the Beverly Center in Los Angeles. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Because of a lingering “mall food” stigma, restaurateur Jeremy Fall didn’t immediately want to open Easy’s, his all-day diner set to open later this summer, at Beverly Center. The 27-year-old, known for his Nighthawk Breakfast Bar in Venice that serves boozy, fun takes on breakfast food, initially said no when Taubman Centers, the development company behind the mall, approached him. But being an L.A. native, and someone who grew up going to the center, which has stood at the corner of La Cienega and Beverly boulevards since 1982, he started to flirt with the possibilities.

“Keeping a closed mind to never going into a shopping center wasn’t a smart idea,” said Fall, whose family bought a dog from the pet store that stood where Easy’s is now. “Usually these types of places are reserved for massive corporations and chains, but that’s changing and these guys are looking at people like me versus the CPKs and PF Changs. Shopping centers are more experiential centers than just shopping. Dining is a big component.”

At Easy’s, located on Level 6, Fall has a full liquor license and plans to serve cocktails, beer and wine along with a menu of what he calls elevated diner classics that includes duck Parmesan, Kentucky hot browns, fried chicken and funnel cake, meatloaf, milkshakes and burgers.

Fall is part of the center’s $500-million renovation that includes a slew of new restaurants and a new food hall called the Street, spearheaded by chef Michael Mina.

Sandwiches ready for pickup at Eggslut at the Beverly Center.
Sandwiches ready for pickup at Eggslut at the Beverly Center. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

“After doing years of research for this renovation, we found that the food portion of the experience within a shopping center was very important and an element our customers desired,” said Susan Vance, marketing and sponsorship director for Beverly Center. “The shopping environment, particularly in L.A., is really competitive, and these food experiences are beyond what you would normally get at a mall.”

“Food in malls can get a bad reputation, which is why, to me, finding the right people and partners to work with is crucial,” said Mina in a statement. “I’m happy to see that food has become an important part of malls, just as it has become a cornerstone of so many great hotels and casinos.”

Lewellyn's Fine Fried Chicken with petite cheddar waffle and spiced watermelon at Yardbird Southern Table & Bar at the Beverly Center.
Lewellyn's Fine Fried Chicken with petite cheddar waffle and spiced watermelon at Yardbird Southern Table & Bar at the Beverly Center. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

In addition to Mina’s new food hall, expected to open next year, and Cal Mare, his restaurant with chef Adam Sobel, the center is also home to a location of Eggslut, Cailan’s food-truck-turned-Grand Central Market sensation; a location of Yardbird Southern restaurant, known for its excellent platters of fried chicken; and Farmhouse, a 7,000-square-foot restaurant from Kenter Canyon Farm farmer Nathan Peitso. And the crew from Saison, the three-Michelin-star restaurant in San Francisco, is opening a restaurant called Angler at the center. 8500 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 854-0070, www.beverlycenter.com.

Westfield Century City
A bufalotta pizza with cherry tomatoes, mozzarella di bufala from campania, prosciutto San Daniele DOP and arugula at Eataly at the Westfield Century City.
A bufalotta pizza with cherry tomatoes, mozzarella di bufala from campania, prosciutto San Daniele DOP and arugula at Eataly at the Westfield Century City. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

This 1.3-million-square-foot outdoor shopping center has been around since 1964. With the addition of the Eataly Italian marketplace and restaurant complex earlier this year, Westfield Century City became one of the most popular places to eat in the city. It is still difficult to secure a seat at any of the Eataly restaurants, especially Il Pesce Cucina, helmed by Providence chef Michael Cimarusti. There are Eataly locations all over the world. Chief Executive Nicola Farinetti says the mall was the perfect location for a 67,000-square-foot, three-level Italian marketplace.

“I understand that people might not look at restaurants in a mall with the same eyes as maybe restaurants on the street, but we have always been a company focused on food more than coolness,” Farinetti said. “And when we saw we were going to have our own presence, and not be in the center of the mall, and have that fantastic rooftop, we said, ‘Let’s do this.’ ”

The center is also where you’ll find a location of Compartes, owner Jonathan Grahm’s chocolate shop and walk-up window that serves frozen hot chocolates. Grahm, known for his chocolate bars studded with things like farmers market strawberries and actual gold flakes, has a shop located in Brentwood and one on Melrose Place.

Ellie McNayr, 5, shows off her selection of chocolate at Compartes at Westfield Century City.
Ellie McNayr, 5, shows off her selection of chocolate at Compartes at Westfield Century City. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

“The mall pitched the idea that they were trying to make the mall feel more L.A. and more local than other malls,” said Grahm, who worked with designer Kelly Wearstler on the shop’s design. “It’s interesting when I’m looking around and seeing all these big-box stores like Sephora and Macy’s and then there’s Compartes. It makes it feel sort of like we’re playing with the big boys, in a way.”

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What might be the biggest chef name attached to an L.A. mall at the moment is Jonathan Waxman. After starting at Michael McCarty’s landmark Santa Monica restaurant Michael’s in the early ‘80s, Waxman cooked alongside Alice Waters at Chez Panisse and opened Barbuto in New York City. He chose Westfield Century City as the location for his yet-to-be-named first restaurant back in L.A. "All in all this makes for a stellar location where I'm greatly looking forward to feeding folks in L.A. again," Waxman said in a statement last year.

The mall is also home to a Shake Shack, Din Tai Fung and Meizhou Dongpo Chinese restaurant. 10250 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 277-3898, www.westfield.com.

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The Grove
Anthony Montague from Long Beach, Meg Pursell from Pasadena, center, and Stephanie Lee from Alhambra enjoy pastries and coffee at Dominique Ansel Bakery at the Grove.
Anthony Montague from Long Beach, Meg Pursell from Pasadena, center, and Stephanie Lee from Alhambra enjoy pastries and coffee at Dominique Ansel Bakery at the Grove. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Caruso’s outdoor shopping center opened next to the Original Farmers Market in 2003. Within the last year and a half, the center brought on Ladurée, one of France’s most prized macaron shops, and 189 by Dominque Ansel restaurant and Dominque Ansel Bakery.

At Ladurée, the French shop is turning out its famous macarons along with a full breakfast, lunch and dinner menu. And at 189, the French chef’s first full-service restaurant, there’s dishes such as pork shoulder with red pepper coulis; and at his bakery, there’s kouign-amann and Cronuts.

According to Jackie Levy, executive vice president of operations for Caruso, the company courted Ansel for five years before he opened the restaurant and bakery in 2017. Caruso is also behind the Americana at Brand in Glendale, where there is a Bourbon steakhouse by Mina, a Din Tai Fung, a Tsujita ramen restaurant, and a Shake Shack and Egg Slut across the street (also managed by Caruso).

“Our overall philosophy is that each store is extremely valuable, and an independent draw to the property,” Levy said. “We were the first to identify the need to bring exceptional restaurants to the properties, and it’s great to see other shopping centers have followed and acknowledged what we realized a long time ago: that restaurants are a big part of the experience. The restaurants are a great draw to our properties.”

“It’s all about traffic and location and they [the Grove] have the traffic, a good location and they have the farmers market,” said Ladurée U.S. President Elisabeth Holder. “And we love the fact that it’s not only about shopping. It’s about eating and the experience.”

Ansel says being part of the Grove helps offer a certain level of hospitality to his guests in terms of parking and security. He also wasn’t hesitant about putting his biggest restaurant project to date into a shopping center.

“The food scene really has been changing, and so many shopping destinations have transformed what they’re doing to really create something special for their guests, whether they’re shopping or dining,” Ansel said. “I think there’s a revolution that’s happening with what people consider to be a ‘mall‘ atmosphere. There’s been a real open-mindedness with the L.A. crowd, our guests and critics, who have been able to judge us more based on our food and our service without seeing the ‘mall‘ aspect as a negative thing.” 189 the Grove Drive, Los Angeles, thegrovela.com.

Third Street Promenade

Head up an escalator at the Gallery to find Dialogue, an unmarked restaurant. To enter Unit K, patrons are sent a code once a reservation is confirmed.
Head up an escalator at the Gallery to find Dialogue, an unmarked restaurant. To enter Unit K, patrons are sent a code once a reservation is confirmed. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

A chance encounter between a restaurant business partner and the owner of a real estate development company at a Mommy and Me class (an L.A. story) resulted in a next-level, fine-dining establishment — in a food court. Dave Beran, who has cooked at the three-Michelin-starred Alinea and was the executive chef at Next, both in Chicago, is behind Dialogue restaurant in the Gallery on the Third Street Promenade, the three-block, pedestrian-only stretch known as the Promenade since 1989.

You’re not likely to have dinner at this 800-square-foot, 18-seat restaurant for less than $350 a head, and the menu consists of a procession of about 20 dishes. The entrance to the restaurant looks like it might be the restroom (you need to have a code and use a keypad to get in), and the passageway always smells like waffle cones.

“I hated the idea because I didn’t move to L.A. to open a food court restaurant,” Beran said. “For us, it’s almost like — no offense to the Promenade — but we’re kind of just omitting the fact that this exists here. It really was just an opportunity for us to do something and create a relationship with the diners.”

Oyster leaf with lychee mignonette at Dialogue, inside the Gallery food hall at Third Street Promenade.
Oyster leaf with lychee mignonette at Dialogue, inside the Gallery food hall at Third Street Promenade. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Beran isn’t the only big-name chef in the food court. Chefs and brothers Bryan and Michael Voltaggio (Michael was on “Top Chef” and is behind the now-closed restaurant Ink.well) opened STRFSH, a fast-casual seafood stall, next to Dialogue last year. The brothers specialize in build-your-own fish sandwiches. Downstairs, next to an ice cream shop, is a location of Everytable, the socially conscious restaurant with a variable pricing model. And Beran anticipates more notable restaurants in the future.

“It was beneficial to the owners of the building because they were able to start leveraging it to get other people in as well,” said Beran, who added he was looking at a location in downtown L.A. before deciding on the Promenade.

“But part of me feels like location doesn’t matter. This is the total opposite of what I ever could have imagined doing here. And I wouldn’t trade it for anything.” 1315 Third Street Promenade, Santa Monica, www.dialoguerestaurant.com.

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