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The best way to shoppers’ wallets might be through their stomachs. Developers and retailers are increasingly trying to lure customers with interesting dining experiences.

Mall food is no longer the bastion of cheap Formica tables and plastic trays, dominated by burger joints and quickie Chinese food stands. Besides incorporating sit-down and even white-tablecloth restaurants at regional malls and lifestyle centers nationally, mall developers have taken the traditional quick-service, cafeteria-style food courts in quite the opposite direction, with theme decor, outdoor views and amenities running from WiFi to table service.

Welcome to the new mall dining experience.

“People don’t even necessarily have shopping in mind when they come to the mall,” said Rick Strauss, vice president of leasing for Taubman Centers.

Of course, when shopping is only a few steps away, it’s easy to make the leap from dinner and drinks at PF Chang’s or Legal Sea Foods to the cash register at Nordstrom. Because of their ability to bump up traffic to malls early or late in the day, sit-down restaurants such as these are becoming as prevalent in malls as department stores. But developers are moving on up from the ubiquitous Cheesecake Factory and Maggiano’s to more upscale restaurants like Brio Tuscan Grill, Bravo! Cucina Italiana and Capital Grille.

Even bars and clubs are greeted by welcoming arms in lifestyle centers and malls. For example, the trendy Blue Martini Lounge of Florida has made homes in several of the state’s biggest retail centers, including the Related Cos.’ City Place in West Palm Beach, Taubman’s International Plaza in Tampa and Keystone Property’s Galleria at Fort Lauderdale.

Food courts are also experiencing a renaissance. Traditionally a hangout for bored teens or cramped havens for parents looking to feed grumpy children, the modern food court features upscale decorative touches, more comfortable seating and services such as wireless Internet to encourage quiet, productive lounging — more akin to a Starbucks than a Taco Bell.

The move to more service-oriented food courts isn’t exclusive to luxury malls, either. In middle markets, developers are adding modern amenities for shoppers’ enjoyment, such as in Pembroke Mall in Virginia Beach, Va., which is operated by Jones Lang LaSalle. The food court at Pembroke offers free WiFi access and flat-screen plasma TVs with cable access scattered throughout the seating area.

This story first appeared in the July 10, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

In Central Mall, also a Jones Lang LaSalle property, in Fort Smith, Ark., a children’s play area offers plasma TV screens for adults in addition to the jungle gym and toys for children.

“We want to make the food court as welcoming and comfortable as we can,” said Greg Maloney, president and chief executive of Jones Lang LaSalle Retail. “It’s a change from the old view of wanting to turn the tables as fast as you can and pack as many people into the food court as possible.”

The Westfield Group has taken the modern food court concept a step further. It recently introduced its Dining Terrace model at Westfield Century City, a mall in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. At Century City, the company replaced the traditional vendor-carryout system with a restaurant-style atmosphere that offers china, silverware and busing service from the food merchants, who bring the food out directly to customers rather than having them wait in line and carry it themselves.

While the service is upscale, the food doesn’t necessarily have to be. Century City’s 15 food vendors count among them traditional food court tenants like Panda Express and Fuddruckers as well as more high-end restaurants such as Mr. Hana and Café Venizia.

Though it doesn’t expect to roll out the concept to all of its malls, Westfield has incorporated a Dining Terrace at the 1 million-square-foot Bondi Junction in Australia, and is building one into its massive Westfield White City property in London.

“This,” said Peter Lowy, group managing director of Westfield, “is what food service should be.”

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