- My photo, 2017 - Century III Mall, Pittsburgh, PA

A Nostalgic Trip to the Mall Food Court

A story of what once was America's most popular hangout.

35w ago

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Your feet are aching. Your arms are tired from lugging around heavy shopping bags of overflowing purchases. You regret not leaving your coat in the car as sweat beads down your back. A hint of coolness in the air gives you a small reprieve and reminds you that it's twenty degrees outside. You say a small prayer that it hadn't snowed ten feet since you got there.

Your stomach grumbles. At a center kiosk is the famous soft pretzel place you loved since you were young. You consider getting a snack - the classic pretzel topped with the huge salt granules and tiny packets of zesty mustard you pour on the paper it comes wrapped in for dipping purposes. But you shake your head and you remember the times you begged your mom to buy you one. Those pretzels were a staple of every mall outing. Sometimes you both shared the cinnamon sugar kind as a treat.

No, you're viciously hungry. You hadn't eaten since lunch time at work, and that was only a turkey sandwich you brought from home. A silvery sign labeled "FOOD COURT" hangs above your head with an arrow pointing right. You've been at the mall for hours now, so what's one more to sit down and regain your strength? You definitely don't feel like cooking tonight.

You find yourself in the dwindling food court of one of the few busy malls left in the area. "Busy" being used laughably. You scan over the remaining vendors and are pleased to find the old Sbarro pizzeria is still in business. No one's in line and you get your slice immediately.

Suburban Americans have abandoned malls in favor of the Internet, so no one's working up an appetite from laborious shopping. The busiest food courts you will find these days are in airports and highway rest stops - strategically placed for bustling travelers to replenish their energy. Not for the endangered shopper.

My photo, 2017 - Century III Mall, Pittsburgh, PA

My photo, 2017 - Century III Mall, Pittsburgh, PA

Now you're sitting in a sea of empty tables. You breathe a sigh of relief and your back thanks you for the break. The plastic tray makes an all too familiar plunk when you set it down. A wave of nostalgia overwhelms you when the pizza's familiar flavor touches your tongue. You take this moment to soak in the surroundings and venture back in your mind to what once was the most popular hangout for youth in the United States.

It is best remembered by the generations who grew up in the 1970's and all through the early 2000's, that the mall was *the* place to hang out. While a trip to the mall after work today sounds exhausting and inconvenient, a trip to the mall after school or during summer break was exhilarating. Each of us has our own fond memories of our local mall, but the common one that everyone shares was indulging in all the junk at the food court.

The mall food court was usually the main entrance. Once through the glass doors, a variety of smells overwhelmed your senses in all the best ways. You could quickly spot your favorites - Sbarro pizza, the Japanese place that always gave out free samples, Philly cheese steak sandwiches, char-grilled hamburgers, Baskin Robbins, Dippin' Dots, Mrs. Field's Cookies, and Orange Julius. A candy store wonderland was tucked away somewhere towards the end.

All of these different smells - sweet, savory, spicy, hot, cold, familiar, foreign - are some of the first things you likely remember about the mall. You never knew where to start, but you knew for certain that you weren't leaving without a few of those fresh baked cookies.

Image by Yinan Chen from Pixabay

Image by Yinan Chen from Pixabay

Crowds of people occupied almost every pastel colored metal chair that screeched across the stone or ceramic floor tiles. Their dining experience was illuminated underneath a grandiose skylight smack in the center of the ceiling. The plentiful food vendors lined the vast cafeteria space, piped with buzzing neon lights of another mismatched color scheme, maybe reds and yellow. Whatever decade you grew up in, ABBA, Prince, or Nirvana echoed through the openness behind all the real life chatter of people who actually socialized.

You jumped in line of that Sbarro pizza and immediately scanned the glass case up front, past the tall customers who blocked your 16-year old view. It was filled with so many types of hot, fresh pizza and other delicacies like pepperoni rolls and pasta salads. But you went with your usual slice of pepperoni. Your best friend stood next to you and raved about the one with sausage that you thought was gross.

Michael Ocampo via Flickr

Michael Ocampo via Flickr

Finally, it was your turn. "One slice of pepperoni and a bottle of Coke, please!". You paid with the cash you made at your after school job, or maybe your mom generously slipped you $20 on your way out the door.

You and your bestie snagged a lopsided table near a garden of plastic ficus and ferns. You picked up that slice of pizza and like any proper New Yorker, you folded that sucker straight down the middle and sank your teeth in, all while it burned the roof of your mouth. Those slices were large and thin enough that folding it in half was a must to kept the oil from running off all over your hands. The ice cold soda alleviated the pain of the first degree burn.

Russell Heiman via Flickr

Russell Heiman via Flickr

The mall food court was ripe for people-watching. You could spend all day picking out the different cliques while a rambunctious children's birthday party took over a whole corner by a McDonald's. The latest loud fashions paraded around like a pageant. You spotted your crush over by the Orange Julius and tried to distract your friend. If they saw, they would force you to go talk to them, and you weren't ready. You never were. Besides, the pizza was too delicious to let sit and get cold. The next plan was to head over to the Dippin' Dots kiosk for your fix of the cutesy rainbow ice cream pellets.

When it was time to go home, the food court was the last bit of the mall you would see as you exited. You ran to the car with your friends or waited for your parents to pick you up. Those rides home were filled with satisfaction of a day well spent and a longing for your next visit and slice of pizza. Or maybe that Japanese place.

In the present day, some malls around the country are doing well enough, particularly ones near major cities. However, most malls sit dead or completely abandoned by their community as shoppers await two-day package deliveries at their doorstep. But we must progress towards a much better future.

There's still a nostalgic longing as food court vendors close up shop when there's no one left to feed. All that's left behind in the food court catacombs are the tables, chairs, and empty menu boards of what were once the meeting grounds for teenagers to share food, exchange gossip, and define their generations.

My photo, 2015 - Ashtabula Towne Square, Ashtabula, OH

My photo, 2015 - Ashtabula Towne Square, Ashtabula, OH

What was your favorite mall cuisine? Share your story in the comments!

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Comments (19)

  • The past tense here feels post-apocalyptic. It's very sad.

    Happily, though the retailers are failing left, right, and centre, the food courts I see are nearly always full. If there's an empty table, it's because there's celery and mustard all over it.

      8 months ago
    • I'm glad the past tense part caught on, that was my goal😄 That's great to know regular busy food courts still exist. Hopefully more come back because people will always need to stop for a bite on the go.

        8 months ago
  • I can't remember the last time we went to the mall. I have heard that they are almost like a ghost town now. I believe I usually gotten Chinese if I ate at the food court. Otherwise we would go to Max and Ermas.

      8 months ago
    • They are just like ghost towns and it's eerie to go to one today. I remember Max and Erma's! Those went out of business I believe.

        8 months ago
    • I guess there are still a few around.

        8 months ago
  • Betsy Ann Chocolate, Dippin Dots, Gloria Jean’s Coffee, and don’t forget to get a slice at Italian Village Pizza. We always park at Sears, underneath, it was covered

      8 months ago
    • All good choices, Rick. Especially the covered parking lol

        8 months ago
  • My local mall growing up was too small for a food court but I *loved* going for a hot dog, curly fries, and a chocolate malt (MUCH better than a wendy's frosty) at the Malt Stop. When I got a boyfriend with a car and we started going to the big mall a little further away, my meal of choice was a chicken and shrimp teriyaki from Little Tokyo with a Dr. Pepper from the gyro place nextdoor.

      8 months ago
  • Those vibrant colors that scream "1980's". Those plastic chairs that remind you of the common eatery. You gotta love it. My favorite mall memory? Drinking an orange Julius and eating a slice of Alfie's cheese pizza. All while playing Super Mario Bros. at the arcade. Good times. Thank you for this cool story.

      8 months ago
    • Thanks for sharing your memories, Alex! The arcade was another iconic place to hang out 😊

        8 months ago
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