The ritual began when I was four in their '60s armor–short-jacketed suits, white gloves, and pearls–my mother and grandmother would take me for tea sandwiches at Lord & Taylor in Manhattan. We'd ooh and aah over the holiday windows and shop a bit, but the point was to end up at the Bird Cage, as it was called back then. I can't remember an occasion when we ordered anything other than those dainty triangles of egg, tuna, chicken salad, and nutted cream cheese, each on a different kind of bread with trimmed crust. You could get them with sherbet or a fruit cup.
Now all grown up and living in Washington, I still have great affection for department-store restaurants. There's something comforting about them, even though they no longer are just for ladies who lunch. My husband is convinced the reason we bought a house within walking distance of the Lord & Taylor in Chevy Chase is so I could have tea sandwiches any time I wanted. Naturally, my daughter has been going there since she was born.
Woodies and Garfinckel's had both closed by the time we moved here; both had lunch spots I would like to have tried, and there are people who lament the loss of the restaurants as much as the stores. But a few bastions remain. All the Nordstrom stores, Neiman Marcus at Tysons Corner, and the Lord & Taylor in Chevy Chase still have restaurants.
Maybe the department-store restaurant is the wave of the future. Saks Fifth Avenue in Chevy Chase recently added a tiny cafe on its lower level. The Ikea stores in Woodbridge and College Park have gleaming Euro-style cafeterias. And Target, the discount darling of hipsters, has eat-and-run snack bars in all its local stores. What better find for the holiday shopper than a place to refuel right on the premises? I decided to make the rounds.
Cafe American Style at Lord & Taylor
The tea sandwiches are still on the menu. But the crusts aren't trimmed, the date bread has disappeared, and they're served with fresh fruit and a ladylike swirl of frozen yogurt. The fillings are the same: classically fine egg salad, tuna salad, and white-meat chicken salad. These are not hefty but genteel triangles. The demise of the date bread is a disappointment. Cream cheese on white just doesn't cut it.
For those not wedded to tea sandwiches, the cafe does a nice salmon Cobb over baby greens. There are also a couple of open-faced carb watchers' picks: egg salad on sourdough toast with confettilike scallions and cilantro, and grilled salmon on whole-wheat toast with scallion-mint mayo. Thinly sliced Granny Smith apples add pizzazz to smoked turkey and lemon mayo in a sourdough panini. Skip the quiche, a soggy-crusted affair, and the Waldorf chicken salad, singularly lacking in oomph. Among the specialty breads, the cheese biscuits leave me cold, but I've been known to take a loaf of zucchini bread home. Vegetable lasagna and the Black Angus burger with sautéed onions, cheese, and bacon are two more-recent respectable arrivals.
The airy lunchroom, done up with white chairs and tables, is popular with blue-haired ladies from the neighborhood–on Tuesdays, seniors get a 10-percent discount. You'll also find mothers and daughters, shoppers, and folks who work in offices nearby. For a sit-down, waiter-service restaurant, prices are surprisingly low, and after ten lunches, you get one free. It's a local favorite even if you're not shopping there, because let's face it–the dining choices in Friendship Heights are slim.
Cafe American Style, 5255 Western Ave., NW; 202-362-9600. Open Monday through Wednesday 11 to 5, Thursday through Saturday 11 to 6, Sunday 12 to 4. Entrées $6.95 to $9.75.
Neiman Marcus Cafe
If you're looking for the stylish ladies who lunch, this is where you'll find them, air-kissing hello and catching up on the latest scandal before making off with a closetful of Armanis. Tucked into a corner, this little jewel box with a chic bar along one side has glass walls so diners can see out and shoppers in. The Cafe is the most upscale of the department-store restaurants and the priciest. Food is more ambitious, presentations more flamboyant–Neiman's is, after all, based in Dallas–and wines and Champagnes are available by the glass.
The mandarin-orange soufflé, once a supporting player to Neiman's fabulous chicken salad, is given top billing on the new menu–the chicken salad and banana bread get small print beneath. Soufflé may be what it's called, but this is more like one of those Jell-O concoctions Grandma used to make, and it's delicious.
Salads are glam and gargantuan. Peppered goat cheese gets paired with slow-roasted tomatoes and citrus vinaigrette, and a hefty taco number features roasted corn and first-rate guacamole. White-bean chili with chicken is piquant but not too, and marmalade onions make the Black Angus burger special. The chicken casserole is an ode to lunchrooms of yore, as is tuna salad studded with pecans. Kids–you don't see many–will go for the oversize quesadillas with roasted vegetables or chicken.
And though no one but me ever seems to be even picking at dessert, there are several, most of them disappointing. Two exceptions: raspberry-mango sorbet and the signature pecan ball–vanilla ice cream rolled in pecans and drizzled with hot fudge.
Neiman Marcus Cafe, Tysons Galleria, 2255 International Dr., McLean; 703-761-1600. Open daily 11 to 5. Entrées $7.50 to $17.
Bethesda, Pentagon City, Tysons Corner
Trendy and classic meet on this menu of zippy salads, grilled sandwiches, fancy pizzas, and hot dishes. Recent renovations at the Montgomery Mall location in Bethesda and at Tysons Corner Center have made the dining rooms airier. Bethesda even has a sunken patio with umbrella tables for warm-weather dining. All three restaurants require a trip to the counter to place your order. This hybrid version of counter/table service appeals to stroller-derby moms who show up in droves during the day and couples who stop in for a bite before agonizing over a new couch.
Expect sandwich classics with modern twists like chicken salad with honey and lemon and meaty beef tenderloin with roasted red peppers, arugula, and horseradish aïoli on a baguette–more men seem to frequent Cafe Nordstrom than other department-store restaurants, and this sandwich may be why.
Salads are equally creative and done with flair. Grilled salmon gets a boost from hearts of palm and basil-shallot vinaigrette, and BBQ Ranch Chicken with cilantro and black beans is punctuated with a pair of crispy tortilla spears that my daughter has used to stage swordfights between Peter Pan and Captain Hook.
Less enticing are personal-size pizzas and hot plates like knife-and-fork-turkey with mashed potatoes and mushroom gravy, which don't taste like Mom's. A new-wave beef stew with still-crisp vegetables is an occasional special and one of the better picks. Ditto for chicken fingers and mac and cheese (a drink is included) on the kids' menu. The roster varies a bit from store to store, but the chocolate-chip cookie and moist carrot cake would be contenders anywhere.
Nordstrom, Fashion Centre at Pentagon City, 1400 S. Hayes St., Arlington, 703-415-1121; 8075 Tysons Corner Center, McLean, 703-761-1121; Montgomery Mall, 7111 Democracy Blvd., Bethesda, 301-365-4111. Open Monday through Saturday 10 to 8:30 and Sunday 11 to 5. Entrées $6.95 to $9.95.
Saks Fifth Avenue Chevy Chase
It's really nothing more than a cart and a few chic aluminum tables and chairs next to the escalators, but when you're power shopping, how great to have an espresso bar and a few noshes close at hand.
White-meat chicken and tuna salads on good sourdough are mighty fine. (Ham and cheese and turkey are dull by comparison.) You also can get scoops of the chicken and tuna over salad greens. A chef's salad with a surprise hard-boiled egg underneath the meats and vegetable crudités would be better if the dressing were house-made, not from a foil packet.
If it's sugar you crave, go for chocolate-coated biscotti or an icy coffee drink like the Mocha Blast. Bagged potato chips, pretzels, and candy bars are also available. Most diners are female and solo, though occasionally you see a couple of ladies who lunch (and shop) on the fly.
Saks Fifth Avenue, 5555 Wisconsin Ave., Chevy Chase; 301-657-9000. Open Monday through Saturday 10 to 5:30. Entrées $5.95 to $7.95.
Woodbridge, College Park
I've always been a sucker for Ikea's Swedish meatballs in creamy gravy with a dollop of lingonberry jam, so I'd never tried anything else. Turns out I wasn't missing much. Other than an attractive open-faced sandwich of baby-shrimp salad heaped on Bibb lettuce and pumpernickel, a homey house-made chicken-noodle soup, and a small but pristine salad bar, not much is going on culinarily. Gravlax is kind of funky, the salmon too thick and the taste slightly off, and grilled salmon is cooked way past flaky. The vegetarian offering, spicy wheatberry salad, is fine if you want to make a meal of wheatberry.
Kids seem to love the mac and cheese, and a spout for lingonberry juice makes for big fun at the soda machine: It's cloying solo but makes a spectacular spritzer with sparkling water.
Desserts, with the exception of a crunchy yet somehow flavorless chocolate Nesselrode pie, are wonderfully unfamiliar: dark-chocolate-dipped cylinders of leaf-green cake filled with almond paste, cinnamony apples in a carmelized cookielike pie crust, iced tartlets that are really small cakes.
Like the rest of the store, this second-story cafeteria feels a bit like a modern European airport, all chrome and blond wood with a giant wall of glass overlooking the parking lot. Insider hint: Those addictive meatballs are sold 72 to a bag along with tubs of gravy and jars of lingonberry jam in the gourmet shop, as an anytime indulgence. And if you're hankering for Swedish fare, there's really no other place to go.
Ikea, 2901 Potomac Mills Cir., Woodbridge, 703-494-4532; 10100 Baltimore Ave., College Park, 301-345-6552. Open Monday through Friday 9:30 to 9, Saturday 9 to 9, Sunday 10 to 8. Entrées $3.95 to $9.99.
The zippy graphics and wooing of highbrow designers like Michael Graves and Isaac Mizrahi made me curious about Target's snack bars. Sure thing, they had that pop-art feel with fast-food tables and chairs in Target red and zany, oversize color photographs of people eating. But the fun stopped there.
The girl behind the counter was molasses slow. Popcorn was stale, pizza microwaved flabby, cream-of-chicken soup a blob of whitish paste. A few sorry-looking iceberg-lettuce salads languished in the refrigerator case, and the Icee machine must have been on the fritz because the goo coming out was slimy white rather than the eye-catching ocean-blue in the picture.
The hot pretzels had sex appeal, but they turned out to be plastic fakes–the real things weren't available that day. So I sought refuge in a nicely grilled all-beef hot dog, a Nantucket Nectar from the refrigerator case, and a Ben & Jerry's Peace Pop. An extensive array of packaged food, from Cheetos to single-serving Rice Krispies, can be also had. All in all an interesting mix, much like the store itself.