The Hill I Will Die On: Shopping Centre Food Courts Are Getting Way Too Fancy
The Hill I Will Die On is a regular Junkee series in which we air our pettiest gripes. It should, of course, not be taken very seriously.
At the risk of sounding like a boomer yearning for the good old days where everything cost five cents and avocado toast didn’t yet exist, I need to get something off my chest. Something has happened to the food courts of inner-city shopping centres, something which – though it may sound trivial – really grinds my gears. They’re just getting way too fancy.
When I say “shopping centre food court” hopefully your mind takes you to the good old days of the ‘00s. The golden era, some might say.
Food courts were a beautiful place, with tiled floors, plastic tables, and one mixed bin for everything, be it plastic, paper, or food waste. Every food court always had the staples: An Indian outlet with a number of bright curries in bain marie trays that sat around all day, despite 95 percent of customers ordering the butter chicken. A sandwich shop that never charged more than $7 and did a really good schnitzel and cheese number. If you were lucky, a Wendy’s. Maybe a McDonald’s. Definitely, a kebab shop where you could get $2.50 hot chips after school, and a sushi place that did a roaring trade in chicken teriyaki rolls. We really were blessed.
But lately, things have been changing. Maybe this is only happening in big cities, but the glorious food courts of our youth have undergone quite the facelift in recent years. Gone are the scuffed tiles and cheap lunch options, and instead we’re left with “dining precincts” that have overpriced poké bowls and chrome light fixtures.
I’m sorry, but food court meals should not be something that looks good in a flatlay. If I wanted to spend $18 on a burger and sit on an uncomfortable stool at a high table, I’d just go eat at the airport.
I’m no businesswoman, but I assume these new food courts are being devised by management to bring in more patrons. If we really have to have them, it shouldn’t mean we have to lose the old ones.
The Blessing And Curse Of The Double Food Court
Sydneysiders might remember the glory of the two food courts at Bondi Junction Westfield. One, up on the top floor with a view of the city skyline, featured posh cafés, high-end fast food chains, and a couple of dine-in restaurants for good measure. But the real magic happened a few levels down at the dingier food court.
It was glorious and cheap, and everything I wanted after a day traipsing around that behemoth of a shopping centre. If my memory serves me, it had a McDonald’s and a KFC, as well as all the usual non-chain food court staples. So imagine my surprise when I visited a few weeks ago, only to find it gone. The McDonald’s still stands, but what am I supposed to do if I want a Macca’s burger, kebab shop chips, and then a Subway cookie for dessert?
A shopping centre without a Macca’s is like a pub without a schnitty on its menu.
Instead, that food court now houses the most Bondi thing I’ve ever heard: a David Jones with an oyster bar, bakery, and butcher, designed by Neil Perry.
We’ve seen this double food court model work elsewhere: Pacific Fair on the Gold Coast. PacFair really embodies everything great about the Queensland city. It has an atrium featuring a tiled pond, spanned by a bridge that goes nowhere. It’s got a Louis Vuitton and a Coffee Club. It’s gaudy and glitzy and seriously great. They have a brand-new ~dining precinct~ that is, dare I say it, way too fancy for the Gold Coast. It features a ramen restaurant as well as the higher-end chains that are the hallmarks of a trendy food court: Schnitz, Grill’d, and Top Juice.
It’s a great location if you’ve got cash to spare. I imagine the diners who eat here are the kind of couples who pay the premium to go to the movies on a Saturday night and don’t second-guess the choice to buy an overpriced combo as well.
Now, if you venture over to the other side of Pacific Fair, there’s a food hall with everything you actually want to eat – Macca’s, Subway, KFC, a noodle joint, and a pide place. It’s heaven. One time I went there with a hangover and was able to get a post-mix Diet Coke, a greasy serving of Chinese, and a Subway cookie in one central location, for like ten bucks. If you try to mix-and-match like that in a fancy food court, you’ll end up spending $30 and quickly realise that Max Mex and Soul Origin don’t mix quite like, say, Singapore noodles and a white chocolate macadamia cookie.
There’s Data On This, Dammit
According to a UBS survey, Australian shopping centres have seen a 15 percent decline in patrons and I’m pretty sure I know why. We all miss the days when Sumo Salad was the fancy outlier in our food courts. A shopping centre without a Macca’s is like a pub without a schnitty on its menu. Alarming, and becoming more and more common.
Broadway Shopping Centre (despite its lack of McDonalds) has a special place in my heart. My first three jobs were in that mall, it’s where I’d spend school lunchtimes during year 11 and 12, and it’s where I’d waste my weekends shopping in Jay Jays. I’ve had not one, but two break-ups happen in that shopping centre.
Up until a few years ago, its fanciest offering was Nando’s. But it has changed, man. The food court now spans nearly a whole level, with sectioned-off dining areas and restaurants.
To be fair, I still go there every weekend. My bougie ass loves Din Tai Fung dumplings and ChaTime, and I’ve been known to propose a date night at Grill’d. But when you boil it all down, it’s just not a shopping centre food court, as we know and love it. The small plastic tables have been replaced with round, communal ones. It’s scattered with trendy-looking chairs accompanied by low tables that are impossible to eat off without leaning over and shovelling food into your mouth.
I know I sound bitter and sad and like I’ve got nothing going on in my life. That may well be very true, but we’ve all got our personal demons and mine just happens to be food courts. All I want is to slurp on a Macca’s thickshake while aimlessly wandering around a shopping centre. And don’t even get me started on the apparent phasing-out of Wendy’s in big cities.
They don’t need to get rid of the fancy, top-floor food courts. Just give us a dingy space on the bottom floor where I can eat my $5 footlong and think about the good old days.
Jemima Skelley is a freelance lifestyle writer & social video producer. A wine mom with no kids, Jemima is a Taylor Swift fangirl til the day she dies. Jemima tweets at @jemimaskelley.