When I worked for Bi-Rite Catering, one of my colleagues would say she worked in a grocery store, just to see people's reactions. Six years later, I delight in telling people I work in the mall. SF Weekly's offices are above Westfield, the shopping center on Market between Fourth and Fifth streets. (Pictures of the Rainbow Girls, that notorious shoplifting gang, are posted in the security office.) With a Bloomingdale's and a Nordstrom, a coworking space called Bespoke, and high-end gastronomic destinations like M.Y. China and Tap 415, Westfield could almost be said to be putting on airs. I once went to a benefit under the mall's ostentatious fourth-floor dome that had free booze and one of the Eurhythmics. (Not the cooler one.)
Still, I avoid eating in the food court whenever possible. It's loud, crowded, and windowless, and slow-moving people walking three abreast drive me nuts. (Unless I'm buying Christmas presents for the people who raised me, I give malls a wide berth, period.) Biking to work every day effectively quadruples the radius of how far you can roam for lunch, but assuming it's going to start raining very hard, very soon, I'm resigned to a dreary winter of entering the building straight from Powell Station and not leaving all day. So, in preparation, I ate in the mall almost every day, for weeks.
Initially, Lobster ME was a disappointment. Unlike nearly every other fishery worldwide, and for reasons that aren't entirely understood, there's a glut of Atlantic lobster these days, so I'm guessing somebody did a back-of-the-envelope calculation and determined that fast-casual lobster restaurants were feasible. Peering into Lobster ME's transparent kitchen, you see numerous back-of-house staffers crammed together, so it looked as though too many cooks spoiled this broth: The Velveeta-lookalike mac 'n' cheese was virtually taste-free, and awfully small for $12. But I went back for the poutine ($12), squeaky curds and all, and that was much better. ("Yeah, but how can you mess up cheesy gravy fries?" you might be thinking. See the above mac 'n' cheese.)
Sold at a separate window from the rest of the grocery, Bristol Farms' The Cookie is worth your time. At $3.50, it comes close to the $4-bread-product-that-shall-not-be-named, but it's half an inch thick at the center and kept warm on a heated slab. If "Belgian chocolate" has fallen out of fashion as a selling point, this triple junction of gooey, salty, and buttery might revive it.
I was going to skip Panda Express until one of my Asian-American colleagues made a joke about white people dismissing food they didn't grow up eating as inauthentic. Although that wasn't quite what I was thinking, it touched a nerve. So we went, and it was exactly like I thought it would be: flavorless and expensive. The chow mein was crunchy — and the curved escalators looked especially Guggenheim Museum-esque from where we were sitting — but the veggies were uniformly uninteresting, and the orange chicken tasted like an extruded meat product shellacked with a heavy glaze. I get that when you step into a mall, you feel hermetically sealed off from the outside world, but the beloved Vietnamese hole-in-the-wall Tú Lan — where I eat once a week — is only one long block away, and way cheaper besides.
Ajisen Ramen is next door to Panda. After forcing coworkers to fake-browse through Left Shark iPhone cases at Claire's so I could Instagram the goth trio working behind the counter, I got a spicy pork ramen that was one of the best lunches of this endeavor. Ajisen's lines are long, drought warnings are posted above every third table, and for some ramens, you'll have to guess what the ingredients are based on the picture alone, but at around $10 or $11 for above-average broth, it's worth the wait.
Elsewhere on the cellar level is Amoura, a Mediterranean joint that microwaves its pitas and puts too much parsley in its tabbouleh but otherwise avoids doing anything offensive. The baklava is small for $2.95, but the dolmas in the healthful combo plate ($9.95) weren't bitter; I'll go back on the rare occasion when I don't crave empty calories. Fire of Brazil Churrasqueira was another pleasant surprise. Yeah, you can find these in other liminal spaces like SFO Terminal 2, but I give them top marks for the generosity of portions. A sausage-and-chicken combo plate (with paella and pinto beans) came to a steep $17.13, but it was fit for cave-dwelling Neanderthals, in spite of the legumes.
The mall's fourth floor is more upscale. (No vaping kiosk here!) Strangely, you can peer out of a lounge in SF Weekly's office and see El Mercado, the La Cocina offshoot where La Boulange used to be. It's not quite finished unpacking yet — at least one pastry case is empty — but it does serve Equator Coffee. A bowl of squid ink pasta ($19) at Cupola Pizzeria was overwhelmed by red pepper, but the kitchen didn't skimp on the squid. The large portion is $19, but it can easily feed two people (although, with elaborate wallpaper and mirrored columns, the interior is trying very hard to justify that price tag). M.Y. China, Martin Yan's almost unnecessarily large banquet hall, recently rolled out a new menu of vegetarian dishes, including mushrooms with spicy sesame soy sauce ($13) and perfectly cooked tempeh sliders ($7). You'll be treated to music that sounds like the Weather Channel without the weather, but the dim sum is easily the peer of Yank Sing's. I appreciate when chicken feet don't taste like tea, and the way the Hong Kong crispy noodles ($16) softened in the sauce was delightful.
In all, this mall madness adventure allayed my dread about where I'm going to be eating once El Niño is in full swing. I'm still going to walk to The Flying Falafel and pedal to Saigon Sandwich all the time, but at least I won't be huddling over my laptop eating leftover quinoa salad.