Lobster Rolls, Champagne Bars And French Pastries: Mall Food Is Getting An Extreme Makeover

Here's why your next great meal may come from the mall.

Lobster roll, fries, condiments and sandwich on table.

The lobster roll at Yorkdale’s Restoration Hardware Cafe. Photo, @siham.hxw.

Food at Canadian malls has never been better. Shopping centres across the country are investing millions of dollars in food courts and adding higher-end restaurants, upscale grocery stores and trendy international eateries in the hopes more people will start saying, “Let’s go to the mall.”

When the iconic French patisserie Ladurée opened its first Toronto location, it didn’t land in a trendy downtown neighbourhood. Instead, it brought its Parisian charm to the Yorkdale Shopping Centre, in the city’s north end, so shoppers can sip Jardin Bleu Royal tea with their rose-petal macarons and financier cakes after browsing at Uniqlo.

Other big-name restaurants have made Yorkdale their home, too. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver chose Yorkdale for Canada’s first Jamie’s Italian back in 2016 (the fresh pasta dishes are supposed to be top-notch) and the Cheesecake Factory drew hours-long lineups for its massive mains (and 50-item-long dessert menu) when it made its Canadian debut there just before Christmas. At the other side of the mall, the real draw at Restoration Hardware’s new 70,000 square-foot home is a made-for-Instagram restaurant that serves truffled grilled cheese sandwiches and lobster rolls. For those craving doughnut cones, peking duck tacos and internet-famous cheesecake-on-a-stick, Yorkdale hosts a series of pop-up eateries from some of Toronto’s most popular food trucks. And it has a splashy food court thanks to a $35 million reno in 2012.

But Yorkdale’s not the only shopping centre where folks are queuing up for food. Jollibee, the Filipino fast-food chain, drew overnight lineups when it opened in November at Winnipeg’s Northgate Mall. Leña, an upscale Argentinean restaurant by Oliver & Bonacini inside Toronto Eaton Centre’s Saks Fifth Avenue store, landed on numerous best-of lists when it opened in 2016. At Leña, mall food means oysters, quail eggs and rib-eye steak. Saks at Etobicoke’s Sherway Gardens is also home to an Oliver & Bonacini restaurant, Beaumont Kitchen, that describes itself as a “fashionable all-day dining lounge” and counts a $34 Fogo Island cod among its mains. Both these Saks locations include onsite Pusateri’s, a chi-chi grocery store.

It’s not unusual for grocers to take up shop inside malls. But the latest supermarket crop goes beyond mainstays like Sobeys, No Frills and Walmart. The Eaton Centre Pusateri’s, for example, features a food hall, Champagne bar, “vegetable butcher” kiosk, where a chef will slice and dice your produce while you finish shopping, and the vegan, gluten-free bakery Sorelle & Co. Not to be outdone, the Pusateri’s at the Sherway Gardens Saks offers a Nutella cafe and an impressive cheese aisle.

Display of cheese at mall.

The cheese section at Sherway Gardens’ Pusateri’s. Photo, Cadillac Fairview.

The Rideau Centre in downtown Ottawa transformed its old food court into a Farm Boy grocery store, complete with the Canadian chain’s private label line and signature food bars (including both made-to-order pizza and stir-fry bars). The goal: to attract busy commuters searching for high-quality takeout and grab-and-go items.

So why don’t Yogen Früz and New York Fries cut it anymore? As retail moves online and department stores don’t draw shoppers like they once did, mall owners need to find new ways to stay relevant — and food might be the answer.

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Food and dining is the fastest growing segment for Cadillac Fairview, which operates 19 malls in Canada and is leasing space to full-service restaurants and grocery stores like McEwan, Pusateri’s and Farm Boy. “We’re making a concerted effort to go through our portfolio… to revamp, or rehab or entirely renovate all of our food courts,” says Sal Iacono, Cadillac Fairview’s executive vice president of operations. In 2011, CF spent $48 million on the Toronto Eaton Centre’s food court and this past January, it announced it would be pouring $17 million into the food court at Calgary’s Chinook Centre.

Oxford Properties — which runs Yorkdale Shopping Centre, as well as a handful of malls in Ontario, Alberta and Quebec — plans to double the footprint of food and beverage outlets at its malls. And the Montreal Eaton Centre is set to get a $200 makeover, which includes a gourmet food hall.

“Food as a category, is certainly an anchor and is becoming a more important anchor with time,” says Iacono. In other words, don’t worry if you get hungry the next time you browse the sale racks.

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