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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Tailor-Made Food for Busy Shoppers at Fred Segal Store

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

No longer is it enough to shop ‘til we drop. First, all the big malls provided restaurants where customers could collapse and refuel themselves between buying bouts. Now, this practice has crept into smaller retail enterprises.

Fred Segal, the exclusive, idiosyncratic department store chain, has opened three food concessions in its Santa Monica location. Today, you can shop . . . drop . . . shop . . . drop . . . through breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner.

To the observer, it’s a medley of consumer activity: midway between boyswear and fancy dresses, you can see men and women and teen-agers spearing salads and tearing into pizza.

Fred Segal is on Broadway, with the main store on the east side of Fifth Street and an annex called Fred Segal for a Better Ecology on the west side of Fifth Street. We have breakfast at the Food for Life restaurant in the Better Ecology annex. This small self-service counter is at the back of the store, near the parking lot. There are pretty prepackaged sandwiches, salads, daily specials and bakery goods. Big boxes of lemon grass grow in the kitchen. In the dining area, the water fountain reads “Bacteriostatic filtered water,” and the wall above it reads “I am you / You are me / They are we.”

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Although the scent in the air is the unmistakable health-counter aroma of roasted grains, burnt tamari and free-floating vitamins, the setting itself has the handsome, industrial, bright-white austerity of a spotless warehouse. We compose gift lists and down some rich, amorphously shaped blueberry scones with soy coffee, a brew that surpasses my expectations while still tasting like, well, roasted beans.

After a few hours of shopping, we’re ready for an early lunch. We try the largest, slickest concession, California Crisp, in the main store across the street from the Better Ecology annex. This is another self-service counter; it’s very much like those concessions in the lobby of downtown skyscrapers, a no-nonsense refueling station. There are tables with stools in an area walled off from menswear but one may also carry food to the outdoor patio, or to one of the tables set up along the main aisle between the front and back doors. California Crisp’s menu offers soups, salads, pastas and about a million variations of the stuffed potato.

We peer discreetly at what the well-dressed, if wan, shoppers around us are eating and the one thing that looks amazing are the huge golden potato chips served with the sandwiches. Since the young woman at the register says she can’t sell chips without sandwiches, I buy half a turkey on sourdough to procure a handful. While the sandwich is serviceable, the chips prove to be a mirage--over-cooked, unsalted, lifeless. We’re not thrilled, either, by a Caesar salad with a bland white dressing and distressed lettuce--or anything else, really, except maybe Smokey Robinson and Gladys Knight, who sing over the sound system.

The best thing I can say about the vegetable soup is that it would be ideal for no-fat diets. The pasta with pesto cream sauce is an inedible gluey clump, but we’re not surprised, considering that the young woman we ordered it from had turned to one of her young helpers and told him how to make it: “You take some noodles, put the pesto stuff on it, swirl it, you know. . . .” The best thing is the corn bread, a dense, moist mass studded with kernels of corn and green chiles. We eat lightly, return to the job of shopping.

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Later, at our second lunch, we find food more to our liking back over at Food for Life, where the day’s special, a brown basmati rice salad with vegetables and pumpkin seeds, is a delicious, textural pleasure, and the lentil soup is robust. The accompanying chunks of grain and seed-laden Swiss Health breads are a little dry; we can’t help but think they would make swell emergency survival food.

We have been in Fred Segal for half a day and have had more to eat than even trying on jumpsuits or strenuous check writing can burn off. So we head for the beach and take a good long walk to build up our appetites and buying power.

We return, shop assiduously, and, truly in a near state of collapse, head to Pizza Bene, a small concession with a concrete counter between sunglasses and headbands. With “Atomic Dog” blasting from the sound system, we order one slice from each of the displayed pizzas. All have good thin crusts and distinctive, well-conceived toppings. We especially like the one with sausage and roasted peppers, the tomato-basil pizza, and the vegetable pizza with no cheese.

It is dark outside. We could shop for two more hours: We actually could finish Christmas shopping and start in on Spring wardrobe enhancement, after which we could try one of Pizza Bene’s tempting focaccia sandwiches, or Food for Life’s grilled tuna steak special. . . . As it happens, the only thing that appeals to me at this point is the bed in the housewares department, the one with all the antique-fabric and potpourri pillows. But who knows: Maybe next year Fred Segal will open a bed and breakfast or a franchise of the Hotel Bel-Air in the parking lot and we could shop, without serious interruption, for days.

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Fred Segal, 500 Broadway, Santa Monica, (310) 393-4477. Open Monday-Saturday 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Sunday noon to 6 p.m. All major credit cards. Parking in lot. Lunch for two, food only, $10 to $25.


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