Excellent mall restaurants are on the rise—and we’re not talking about Auntie Anne’s.
One of Philadelphia’s most celebrated new restaurants isn’t in Center City or the hip Fishtown neighborhood. Scott Anderson, the James Beard Award-nominated chef behind the Princeton, New Jersey hotspot Elements, recently opened his third restaurant, Mistral, in between a Lord & Taylor and Neiman Marcus at the mall.
Situated in the suburbs of Philly, the King of Prussia Mall—referred to by locals as “KOP”—is the second largest in the country, packed with a seemingly endless string of high-end stores like Apple and Gucci, as well as your standards like Hot Topic and Cinnabon. While KOP has historically lured people with a taste for luxury goods, the mall is now drawing crowds of diners eager to taste Anderson’s cooking.
“We wanted to make a smart menu and still stay true to our values and quality and consistency,” Anderson says. “We wanted to put things on there that would be appeal to everybody, but do it in our style.” Anderson, along with chef de cuisine Craig Polignano, offer a menu that is at once accessible and interesting. Many of the dishes have an Asian influence (Anderson grew up in Japan,) from crispy pork riblets and steak banh mi with jalapeño aioli and fermented radish to the pork belly ramen. Polignano’s spin on the intensely satisfying dish has fermented-in-house kimchi (“I allow it to sit for a few weeks, and it starts to get a light effervescence and a delicious funk to it”), a soft poached egg that’s been soaked in a mixture of soy sauce, miso and cherry vinegar for six hours, and cured and roasted Berkshire pork belly and pork butt, both rubbed with a Chinese five spice that’s also made in house. The airy, unpretentious space feels worlds away from the Panda Express.
While retail brick-and-mortar stores have been struggling to attract customers in a world where anything can be delivered to your door in just a few days, if not hours, restaurants may be the key to bringing back people who come to eat and stay to shop. Polignano admits he was initially surprised by Mistral’s location, but he quickly warmed to the idea of elevating mall cuisine. “I’d like to consider us a destination as opposed to just a stop at the mall,” he says. And diners seem to agree. While the perpetually bustling restaurant serves reliable mall staples like a burger and chicken Caesar salad, the chef says his grilled calamari dish with a pickled papaya salad and tamarind brown butter sauce was one of the top selling items when Mistral opened.
The concept of the actually-good mall restaurant is starting to take root. Where there were once only chains offering weary shoppers pizza or endless appetizers, more unique dining options have been gaining traction at malls around the country. At the Moorestown Mall in New Jersey, Jose Garces’ Distrito serves modern Mexican cuisine and fresh fruit margaritas, and Marc Vetri created the menu for Terrain Cafe in Palo Alto, California. Part of URBN (the company that owns Anthropologie, Urban Outfitters and now Vetri Family restaurants,) the café is located in a former Bloomingdale’s at the Stanford Shopping Center and serves dishes made with local cheeses, greens from a nearby farm and pork from a ranch less than 100 miles away. There’s also a locally-driven wine list and nonalcoholic spritzers made with housemade syrups and herbs.
Anderson may be more at home in the woods, foraging for ingredients, but he sees the merit in offering an upgraded dining experience to shoppers at the mall. “I think this is a second cycle,” he says. “I remember as a kid, going to the mall, there was always a Bennigan's, or a TGI Fridays. Places like Simon [the property group behind King of Prussia Mall] want to bring that back, but a little more upscale, a little fresher.”