tepping off the escalator onto the second floor of Westlake Center recently, I experienced a moment of noodle-based befuddlement. Did the affable, shabby dining room I love in the U District really spawn this slick counter, where menu photos march across glowing screens?
The name was the same. The ribbon-thick noodles sported the same chew and that familiar cumin-spiked lamb. An employee busy with the lunch rush confirmed: The city’s best purveyor of biang biang noodles, a staple of China’s Shaanxi Province, set up shop in a mall.
In 2016, Lily Wu opened the original Xi’an Noodles in a space whose acoustic ceiling tiles and funky old checkered floor bespoke a singular focus on its menu. It was an entrenched favorite by the time she spotted Westlake Center’s new under-construction food court on a shopping trip. Wu immediately shelved plans for a second full-service restaurant in favor of a presence downtown. Good food and malls may be inextricable in China, but here, she says, most of her customers “have never seen a Chinese noodle shop in a shopping center.”
Our malls are redefining themselves for consumers who browse shoes on their phones and use podcast codes to buy pants. Dining is central to this new landscape, but not in the form of the Sbarros or Cheesecake Factory–type megachains of yore; shopping centers now harbor a critical mass of cool Seattle restaurants.
Pacific Place is two years in on a massive remodel that will incorporate more food, including a rare U.S. location of HaiDiLao, a culty hot pot chain from China’s Sichuan Province. Daniel Meyers of Pacific Place’s parent company, Madison Marquette, says his team sought restaurants with cachet among an international customer base and some sort of “experiential” component. You can shop J. Crew or Lululemon online, but e-commerce can’t deliver HaiDiLao’s dinner theater routine: “noodle dancers,” gymnastic servers whose moves also happen to stretch and expand skeins destined for diners’ hot pots. The region’s largest retail temple, the Bellevue Collection, even built an app to help customers navigate its ever-expanding multitude of counters and sit-down restaurants (Beecher’s, Wild Ginger, a Taylor Shellfish oyster bar...).
The open-air University Village has always opted for full-service restaurants over food courts; its RAM brewpub dates back four decades, and Starbucks opened the nation’s second-ever store here. Recent years have brought a slew of local favorites, from a lavishly designed Ba Bar outpost to Rachel’s Ginger Beer to a forthcoming Hello Robin cookie bakery. “I don’t think in numbers,” says U Village vice president and general manager Susie Plummer of the balance she strikes between locals and out-of-town chains like Shake Shack, due in summer 2020. One common trait is an aptitude for lunch, she says, given the brigade of stroller-pushing parents and others who hang out here during the day.
But mostly Plummer seeks establishments that can transport you away from the sea of parking outside, and the punch list of errands that perhaps drew you here in the first place. This summer, a new Mr. West location began dispensing avocado toast and rosé in the former Mrs. Cook’s kitchen shop. Its geometric light fixtures and leather stools bear zero resemblance to the plasma screen glow and plastic trays over at Xi’an Noodles, but both places serve up an inverted future. One where the most distinctive aspects of Seattle happen at the mall.