By Katie Hamilton
How would you define the perfect day shopping? Whether it’s finding the perfect blouse, to-die-for shoes or the very last “it” handbag in stock, all perfect shopping days include enjoying a great meal.
For those shoppers who prefer the mall experience, the dining options are endless. The fast-paced shopper can grab a quick bite in the food court or a sandwich shop. Those looking for a more upscale culinary experience can try one of the popular high-end chain restaurants, such as P.F. Changs or the Cheesecake Factory. Or, more and more, shoppers can simply stop by their favorite department store’s dining room.
The Beginning of Retail Dining
Before the creation of the modern-day shopping mall, department stores stood as individual attractions. In order to enhance the customer’s shopping experience and keep them inside the store longer, retail dining was born.
The pioneer of the retail dining industry is Neiman Marcus. In the 1950s, the owner of the department store chain, Mr. Stanley Marcus, sought to bring fine dining to downtown Dallas because he was tired of the subpar restaurants neighboring the store. He felt that his customers deserved a dining experience equally as luxurious as their shopping experience. With the help of Chef Helen Corbitt, Neiman Marcus’ first restaurant, the Zodiac, set a new standard for retail dining by introducing the “Balenciaga of food.” The Neiman Marcus Restaurant Group now includes a total of nine restaurant franchises.
When malls were first introduced to America, commercialized restaurants opened along with these new consumer havens. But that didn’t end the appeal of in-store dining, for several reasons. The good food, some say. Or a certain cachet, perhaps.
Bistro N, in Nordstrom, and Neiman Marcus’ Mermaid Lounge (both in NorthPark Center) are especially popular dining destinations for students. Junior Breely Ungar enjoys lunches at Bistro N. “It is the perfect end to a shopping day,” she says. “I think the ambiance of the shopping and the high-end feel of the restaurant makes everyone feel like an ‘A-lister’.”
Opening its doors in Dallas in 1953, Neiman Marcus’ Zodiac is the first restaurant of its kind. Besides the famous orange soufflé and seasonal menu, the Zodiac restaurant keeps diners coming back because of its “club-like” atmosphere. Kevin Garvin manages Neiman Marcus’ NorthPark restaurants. He notes that “65 percent of guests are repeat diners.”
“Neiman Marcus attracts 2 percent of the top money earners, so these people do not want to eat where everyone else eat. They only want to dine in the ‘club’.”
Although Helen Corbitt gave Zodiac the crown for “the queen of the ladies’ lunch,” Neiman’s has now proved itself an appropriate location for business lunches and a dining destination for those who are not already perusing through the store’s fancy showrooms.
Neiman Marcus is not the only department store to venture into the retail dining industry. When Nordstrom’s opened Bistro N, its business began to rival that of the Zodiac. Although Nordstrom’s and Neiman’s cater to separate clientele, each store relies on the same pool of diners. Jaime Friswold manages the Nordstrom at NorthPark Center. “Bistro N offers the same upscale cuisine as the Zodiac restaurant, yet in a more inviting environment,” she says. “Bistro N attracts a more diverse crowd of diners, like Nordstrom, whereas Neiman Marcus targets a more specific shopper- maybe a little older and more sophisticated.”
The T Room
Department stores are not the only retail venues to offer in-house restaurants. Boutiques are also catching onto the retail-dining trend. Without the same steady stream of walk-in customers as a mall, boutiques rely on frequent customers to keep their doors open. Boutiques, such as Dallas’ Forty-Five Ten, now offer shoppin clients’ a dining experience. The quaint T Room in Forty-Five Ten offers a limited menu, specifically tailored for the shops’ clientele. With a select offering of salads, sandwiches and soups, The T Room has been named the “chicest lunch spot in Dallas.” Nationwide several other well-known boutiques are mimicking department stores’ successes and hope to expand the attraction of the store through the addition of a restaurant.
Although it caters to a much different clientele than the stores mentioned above, Bass Pro Shops has also opened a restaurant to better serve its clients. Because of its enormous size, large selection and appeal to DFW’s outdoors aficionados, Bass Pro Shops in Grapevine is truly a destination store. Customers from all over the state travel to Grapevine to shop the store and stay the entire weekend in a neighboring hotel.
Cleon Converse, manager of Uncle Buck’s Restaurant, considers the restaurant to be “an amenity of the store,” he says. “Just like a department store has a jewelry counter, Bass Pro Shops offers a restaurant.”
The restaurant’s hunting lodge atmosphere and steakhouse staples bring a rustic dining experience within the outdoor megastore. Converse has managed Uncle Buck’s for 10 years, and he says he has seen the restaurant decline in the past five years. “The novelty of Bass Pro Shops has worn off, so people are not traveling to this location as often as they did when it first opened,” he speculates.
Converse says Uncle Buck’s restaurant caters to three types of clients: “Bubbas” or good ‘ol boys, business people who hold convention lunches in the large space available and families who travel to the store on weekend trips.