Some time ago I interviewed Marion Cunningham, author of the Fannie Farmer Cookbook, among many others, and an ardent spokesperson for home cooking. In the course of several hours, we talked about food in many different capacities, and one of the more surprising revelations of the day had to do with where to get the best hot dog. Cunningham swore by the hot dogs at Costco — the kosher polish sausages. Some friends had taken her there specifically to try one. Had I ever had one? I was a Costco member, but no, I’d never partaken of their Hebrew National dog, Polish or otherwise.
I should, she advised. I might like it, especially if I liked hot dogs.
On my next visit to Costco, I ate one. And now, every visit to Costco includes an ongoing internal debate about whether or not I can afford the fat grams for the Polish dog. They are terrific-tasting dogs — but they are not low-fat. They are, however, a bargain: for $1.50, you get a hot dog or a Polish dog and a 20 oz. refillable soda. Foil-wrapped and steamed till the bun is soft, these plump dogs can be doctored with sweet relish, catsup, two kinds of mustard and onions.
Other people have other Costco passions: One person I know loves the pizza slices, and a 6-year-old friend of mine always has to leave with a frozen lemonade. One of the frustrations surrounding the Costco hot dog is, after deciding to have one, having to wait in line while people order enough pizzas to feed small armies.
Of course, you don’t have to visit the concession to eat at Costco. The vast warehouse markets are famous for their free samples. On any given day, you might find rotisserie chicken, baby-back ribs, a bakery item or two, and some kind of reconstituted powdered drink. The huge cluster by the frozen-food case? They’re waiting for the toaster oven to disgorge samples of Wolfgang Puck’s four-cheese or barbecued-chicken pizza.
When I’m standing in a checkout line, and the woman ahead of me has spent 10 minutes rummaging in her duffel-bag-size purse for her Costco card, the light at the end of a tunnel, the island of sanity on the horizon, the great pending reward, is a Polish dog, relish and yellow mustard, and a big, icy Diet Coke.
Fast foods, coffee bars, delis, cafés and even full-service restaurants can be found inside or adjacent to many â a store and shopping area, allowing hungry shoppers to renew their strength and energy and return to that most patriotic of all occupations, retail spending.
At IKEA you’ve gone through living-room furnishings, bookshelves, entertainment centers, dining-room sets, kitchens, bedroom furniture and office furniture when a familiar steamy smell seeps into the air: It’s the smell of cafeterias, the smell of steam tables, steam tables holding some form of ground meat and a certain beef-flavored gravy. IKEA’s little upstairs café gives meat the form of walnut-size Swedish meatballs. You can order them in various quantities (10, 15, 20!), but the most popular way is the Manager’s Special: 15 meatballs, two plump, rosy-pink boiled new potatoes, a salad and a soft drink: $4.95. When I am retired and living on a fixed income, I will come to IKEA for these bargain meatballs, dragged through tart lingonberry jam, a couple times a week, at least.
Replenished, you’re ready to hit kitchen- and tableware, candles, bed and bath, curtains, carpets, kids’ furnishings, lighting, picture frames, storage stuff, closet stuff, garden stuff, the self-serve warehouse and, finally, the long lines of checkout. Whew! By then you’ll be droopy all over again, a fact that the savvy folk at IKEA haven’t ignored. Right there, on your way out, is a small food store of Swedish groceries and, serendipitously, a small counter selling hot dogs, and sugar in several uplifting forms: a fragrant, appealingly huge cinnamon bun and, my personal favorite, a big, fat cone of soft-serve frozen yogurt. That would be me, toting several unwieldy yellow bags en route to the parking lot, madly licking a floppy vanilla cone, with big drips running off my elbow.
Some big stores have such established cafés and restaurants that people other than shoppers come to eat there. Barney Greengrass on top of Barneys New York in Beverly Hills draws in a lunch crowd of sleek, well-heeled, well-dressed Beverly Hills citizens. Take the elevator to the fifth floor, and you’ll come across a deli case filled largely with cured and smoked fish, many of which look as if King Midas had touched them. Trout and whitefish and sturgeon — their golden color comes from the smoking process.
Indeed, if ascending through the etheric realm of ultra-expensive consumer goods doesn’t screen out the great unwashed wealthies, Barney Greengrass’ prices certainly will. This is really a deli for the rich; the food is good, but can any sandwich with a side of barely dressed coleslaw justify a $16 or even $18 price tag? I mean, the Nova Scotia salmon and silken sable are above reproach, but this is not a mile-high sandwich, or even a thick sandwich, nor is the commercial sliced multigrain bread artisanal or anything special. A whitefish-salad sandwich, a mere $11, is also good, but again . . .
Still, the smoked fish is the draw. Salads (beet and spinach, a boring Caesar) are average. The borscht, with a dollop of sour cream, is a good cool summer dish, and a mere $4.50. But desserts disappoint; they’re overdone, fussy, diffuse. A seasonal peach cobbler with blueberries? A chocolate martini with espresso ice cream, brownie and chocolate sauce? Rich cherry and white-chocolate-chip cookies are too soft and not that tasty. Yet the view, to the east and the south and within, is lovely. The terrace is the prime real estate; ask to be seated there when making a reservation, or you’ll be stuck inside the terribly noisy room yelling and craning halfway over the table just to hear your friends complain about their meals. But maybe you’re just supposed to sit back and admire the abundance of Jil Sander and Zegna seated at tables all around you.
Shoppers at Fred Segal on Melrose are fed by Mauro’s Café and ristorante, a busy and efficient operation that simultaneously functions as a coffee and juice bar, a fast-food takeout café, and a sit-down restaurant with table service. Again, lunch is the main order of the day, and the salads, sandwiches and pastas are very good and reasonably priced. In a nice way, the food is on the light side; nobody who buys here wants to go up a size at lunch.
The pastas are simple and some of them handmade: try the checca, the spaghetti with sautéed chicken, spinach and chopped tomato. Caesars can come with a whole pile of anchovies on request. My favorite menu items are the hot vegetable dishes “all sautéed in your choice of olive oil and garlic or tomato sauce.” These are delicious, the vegetables cooked al dente in combinations that include asparagus, spinach and mushroom, and mushroom, broccoli and zucchini; chicken or shrimp can be added for a few dollars more. This is the best way to eat, and it’s not expensive (vegetable dishes run from $5.50 to $9.25 with shrimp). Fresh fruit and vegetable juices are made on the spot; also fresh fruit shakes. Don’t miss the simple watermelon slush; a sip is light and cooling on a hot day. Chocolate-chip cookies are especially tasty.
The scene is a far cry from Barneys’ high-altitude diners. Outfits seem more beachy and casual, if no less pricey: sarongs, jeans, scant tops, flip-flops — this is sunny Southern California dressing at its highest end. Many bare midriffs and pierced things. Only in Europe have I seen more people on cell phones. A personal assistant near our table consults her shopping list and speed-dials for important clarification: “What kind of nail brush did you want?” Well, there are all different kinds. “Natural bristle? Nylon bristle? Nylon’s stiffer.”
Of all the high-end department-store restaurants, I’d have to say Mariposa in Neiman-Marcus is my very favorite. Not to be confused with the bar on the fourth floor, where each seat has it own tiny television set (a horrifying proposition!), or with the tiny crowded café on the third floor alongside ladies’ more casual ready-to-wear, Mariposa is an actual sit-down restaurant in the basement, tucked in a cove off housewares. Windowless, the space has a slight subterranean feel, despite design elements obviously meant to counter this effect: a glass wall of bright butterfly silhouettes and an extravagant number of framed Calder tapestries on the walls. The décor is impressive, but not what beguiles.
The crowd is another distinctive â and fascinating hodgepodge of rich and materialistic; the cosmetic surgery at one table of six lunching ladies would buy my house. There are mothers with daughters — now that the Bullocks Wilshire tea room is gone, where else can they go? There are lone shoppers settled among piles of bags, one picking at a salad and talking on a cell phone, another eating tortilla soup and reading Jackie Collins. The room is filled with an uncanny number of grand dames and queens of every gender.
The showstopper, the seducer, the allurer, the item that will drag me and many other consumers back to this pricey cave, is the glorious, enormous, fully-puffed popover. Nearly the size of cabbages, these are crunchy and buttery on the outside, moist, eggy, even custardy within. They are distributed as made, carried fresh from the oven to you. These small, discreet caverns of fragrant steam don’t really need the butter and jam provided, but heck, why not slather it on? The food is otherwise prohibitively expensive, but the $24 lobster cobb salad is wonderful, the lobster fresh, sweet, tender and heaped on in profusion. And I haven’t had better crab cakes in L.A.
High-end department stores are not the only entrepreneurs that endeavor to keep their customers on the premises by keeping blood-sugar levels up. Nordstrom has a coffee bar and a café; the café in the Glendale Galleria is a bright room with many windows overlooking an intersection. There’s plainness to the utilitarian blond-wood tables and all that light. Shoppers and clerks, mostly women, duck in here to take a load off their feet, eat a decent Gorgonzola and pear salad with lots of addictive candied walnuts, or a Chinese chicken wonton salad with mandarin oranges and a gingery dressing. Really, it’s a quiet, often underpopulated place to slip into between the shoe sale and the MAC counter for a quick chapter of Mansfield Park, washed down with a cup of coffee and a slab of potent chocolate layer cake.
I have to admit, however, that more often than not I forgo every other food venue in the Galleria and take my nourishment from See’s. The Bordeaux Bar is the only truly transcendent food experience at that vast mall. The perfect balance of sweet and salty, chocolate and butterscotch, and big enough to eat in several stages, this is the queen of candy bars. Nothing at Godiva compares, especially at the price. One dollar. Heaven.
The convergence of retail and repast has also resulted in a number of odd hybrids, a shop that is also a lunch spot. Rita Flora on La Brea Avenue, for example, is a florist-adjacent café. Further north on La Brea, Maison Midi, a fabulous housewares store, shares its address with Café Midi, which also opens right into American Rag Company. In the back, with a long, dark bar and a charmingly European ambiance, Midi serves breakfast and light lunch. Best try on your Martine Margiella shifts and Caniper sandals first, then, if it’s early, refuel with eggs, omelets, pancakes or cereals or, at lunch, try the quiche (baked on the premises) or a curried-egg-salad sandwich or any number of good salads, including a lovely Belgian endive with Fourme d’ambert and walnuts. Go shop for gorgeous Jar pottery or yellow Provençale napkins, then slip back for a shot of espresso and a fruit tart, wedge of chocolate cake or slab of banana bread — all are baked on Midi’s premises. Take your dessert outside, at a table in front of the shop. The weather’s simply perfect for it.
Another alluring and idiosyncratic hybrid café-cum-shop can be found on Sunset Boulevard in Silver Lake. Casbah began as, and still is, a store called Maindreville, an outlet for hand-loomed Oaxacan cottons. The store’s owner, Claudia O’Sullivan, worked with indigenous women in Southern Mexico, encouraging them to continue their ancient art of backstrap weaving with natural fibers instead of less expensive acrylics. “They would work on an involved, intricate piece of weaving for three months, and it would be in cheap acrylic yarn!” O’Sullivan says. Casbah sells bedspreads, beach sheets, napkins, tablecloths and other beautifully made woven items produced by these women; the store also stocks Moroccan baskets and tiles and tea glasses, plus an eclectic selection of clothes items and accessories (a bamboo purse, a thin cotton nightie), Indian pajamas, scarves from France. The selection is unusual, but don’t skip the salades and gateaux. Casbah’s owners also own and operate Figaro, a new French bistro on Vermont, and an off-site bakery where a French baker makes artisanal breads from natural yeast starters, a process that takes several days rather than the expedient half-day of bread-baking with commercial yeast. Casbah then features these wonderful breads. A small selection of sandwiches (proscuitto, Brie and tomato) is augmented by quiches, soups, and a special or two. One day, the special is a simple avocado salad: a whole, perfectly right, pitted avocado, still in its skin, served with fresh lemon wedges, good tomatoes, a tossed green salad and lots of chewy bread. Casbah’s desserts come out of the Figaro kitchen. Try the iced, tart lemon tea cake (waiters here add a spoonful of macerated raspberries). Casbah’s service staff is particularly good-looking, if disorganized and, bluntly, sluggish. There are benefits to having a fascinating store in this particular coffee/sandwich bar; at least there’s plenty to look at while waiting 15 minutes for a coffee or a bowl of asparagus soup, and that’s when the place is nearly empty. Casbah has become quite the hip and popular breakfast spot, especially on weekends. Take your patience and your credit card, and you won’t leave hungry or empty-handed.
Costco, 2901 Los Feliz Blvd.; (323) 661-8791.
IKEA Burbank, Media City Center, 600 N. San Fernando Blvd.; (818) 842-4532.
Barney Greengrass, Barneys New York, 9570 Wilshire Blvd., Fifth Floor, Beverly Hills; (310) 777-5877.
Mauro’s Café, Fred Segal, 8112 Melrose Ave.; (323) 653-7970.
Mariposa, Neiman-Marcus, 9700 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills; (310) 550-5900.
Cafe Nordstrom, Glendale Galleria, 200 W. Broadway, Glendale; (818) 502-9422.
Café Midi, Maison Midi, 148 S. La Brea Ave.; (323) 939-9870.
Casbah Café, 3900 W. Sunset Blvd.; (323) 664-7000.