Department Store Fine Dining Lives On

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. (MainStreet) -- The Broadway, Lord & Taylor, Macy's and more prospered and grew into 19th century shopping empires and centers of fashion commerce in cities such as Los Angeles, New York and London. Many of these grand department stores remained social epicenters through much of the early 20th century with legendary restaurants frequented by the creme de la creme of society. But through business consolidation and urban change, many of these restaurants are gone.

Others lived on to become fashionable -- and delicious -- reminders of shopping's gilded age.

Founded in 1907, Neiman Marcus has been a fixture in downtown Dallas for more than a century. On the renaissance-revival structure's sixth floor is The Zodiac, the store's flagship restaurant -- a gathering point for dapper businessmen and ladies who lunch. The design mixes terrazzo concrete floors with a modern design aesthetic of pale blue walls adorned with whimsical white plaster-framed mirrors with art nouveau detailing.
The Zodiac is the flagship restaurant for Neiman Marcus in downtown Dallas, a gathering point for dapper businessmen and ladies who lunch.

Today at The Zodiac, a lunch-only service begins with convenient half-bottles of Krug Grand Cuvee or a San Francisco bloody mary followed by fresh-baked popovers with butter. Texas-sized portions of salads follow -- Asian ahi tuna or steak, with heaping filet mignon and crumbled blue cheese. Executive Chef David Crow also serves a classic croque madame with truffle fries, or a heartier braised pot roast that's a dining room classic.

In New York, there's no shortage of showy department store eateries, including David Burke at Bloomingdale's and the epic BG Restaurant at Bergdorf Goodman. But Fred's at Barneys New York manages to remain a New York City standout. Named after the son of company founder Barney Pressman, the company's Madison Avenue flagship ninth-floor restaurant offers lunch and dinner. The space offers a more relaxed style than other upscale department store eateries; its walls are festooned in black-and-white photography and the crowds always includes some of New York's most eccentric fashionistas.

Divided equally among those that came to be seen and those looking to eat over business, this popular power lunch spot offers top-notch tuna tartare on mixed greens, lobster bisque and Neapolitan-style pizzas, including a signature "Wise Guy" with hot and sweet sausage. The Italian theme continues with pappardelle pasta in a beef ragu and carrot tortellini with ricotta cheese. The entrees offer a more American theme, including a lobster club, sauteed filet of sole and Angus sliced steak. The menu gets regional substitutions at Fred's locations at select Barneys New York stores in Scottsdale, Ariz., and Chicago.

One of the most famous department store dining rooms in the country is now known as the Walnut Room of Macy's State Street, once Chicago's famous Marshall Field's department store. Opened in 1907, the famous eatery is a downtown tourist stop for those looking to dine in a fabled setting preserved to feel like another time. The grand dining room occupies a showcase spot under a dramatic ceiling, and there's an elaborate marble fountain, opulent display of Austrian crystal chandelier and white-clothed tables, all ensconced in vintage walnut paneling.

Newer elements of the Walnut Room include a wine bar with communal table, opened in the store's centennial year. Open for lunch and pre-theater supper, the restaurant offers a menu mixing old-time classic such as a peach nest salad with chicken in a nest of shoestring potatoes with peaches, grapes and strawberries or Mrs. Hering's chicken potpie. Newer dishes have been dreamed up by Macy's own Culinary Council, a group of chefs consulted from around the country and resulting in such dishes as Tim Scott's farmers market chop salad and Tom Douglas' crabcake BLT.

In California it's been a tough history lesson for fabled dining rooms at legendary department stores such as I. Magnin & Co. in San Francisco, Los Angeles' Bullock's Wilshire -- now the attic of a law library -- and Robinson's, whose shuttered Beverly Hills location may be demolished. While dining rooms still exist at top departments stores, finding one here with the buzz of yesteryear is a tough prospect. One exception is Charlie Palmer at Bloomingdale's South Coast Plaza, which since 2008 has occupied a starry dining room that wouldn't look out of place on New York's Upper West Side, even if it is in one of California's poshest shopping malls.

This ultimate new department store dining room is reached via a glass bridge suspended over a cutting-edge wine storage room and retail store as well as a burger annex called DG Burger (DG stands for "Damn Good"). In the main dining room, reclaimed wood floors from vintage chardonnay barrels complement creamy upholstery with hand-stitched detailing under a central art installation and voluminous chandeliers. A menu honed at eateries such as Aureole and Charlie Palmer Steak offers a sophisticated menu of Hudson Valley foie gras with tamarind chutney or braised crisp pork belly with frisee salad followed by Moroccan-spiced lamb sirloin and thyme-scented steamed halibut in a culinary experience that proves department store fine dining is alive and well.

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Michael Martin is the managing editor of JetSetReport.com, a luxury travel and lifestyle guide based in Los Angeles and London. His work has appeared in InStyle, Blackbook, Elle, U.K.'s Red magazine and on ITV and the BBC.

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