If you could go back in time 20 years and tell a wary Christiana Mall patron that they would one day be enjoying the view of a packed mall parking lot while dining on delicious, high-quality meals, they would've choked on their Auntie Anne's pretzel twist.
Yet that's exactly what has happened at the mall over the past year.
In April 2010, the Cheesecake Factory became the first of several new-to-market eateries to open in the mall's unofficial "restaurant row" that lines the northwest side of the complex. Brio Tuscan Grille, California Pizza Kitchen and J.B. Dawson's Restaurant & Bar followed suit, joining with Ruby Tuesday to make the mall a dining destination as much as it is a shopping destination.
Nordstrom added yet another facet with its in-store Sixth and Pine restaurant that harkens back to the old-school lunch counter-style restaurants where women would take a break from shopping and have a bite. Don't worry, boys: You're welcome here, too.
This fall, a Panera Bread will be added to the mix between Macy's and California Pizza Kitchen, said Steve Chambliss, the mall's senior general manager.
The concept of adding multiple standalone restaurants revolved around the idea that each eatery would be unique to avoid any competition. And they'd be attached -- rather than detached like the defunct Houlihan's -- to provide customers with the best of both worlds.
"Customers can visit the center and go only to the restaurant if they choose and feel like it's a free-standing location, because the access is only on the exterior," Chambliss said.
Let's see what all the hubbub is about.
J.B. Dawson's Restaurant & Bar
315 Christiana Mall, Newark, Del.
Location: Near Nordstrom in the northwest corner of the mall.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Type of food: Standard American fare with everything from cheeseburgers ($10.99) and prime rib ($20.99) to crab cakes ($21.99) and barbecue chicken ($14.99). They also have several pasta dishes on their menu along with a choice of pepperoni or roasted tomato and basil flatbread pizzas ($12.99). Check out the perfectly crunchy, yet somewhat mild, buffalo tender bites appetizer for $10.99.
Ambiance: The stately restaurant opened in October and is dominated by a dark wood that was used for everything from the ceiling to the bar to the tables and the booths. The large bar with a few flatscreen televisions tuned to ESPN bisects the restaurant, and several large windows give diners a peek into the expansive kitchen. However, the aged soft rock music that played during a recent lunch -- Genesis, Glen Frey and Laura Branigan -- couldn't help but give the dining experience a food court/dentist office vibe.
Specialties: The staff touts their baby back ribs ($21.99), which are all-you-can-eat on Mondays for $25.99. Also, happy hour from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. has a featured martini for $5, and $2.50 Yuengling and Coors Light drafts.
Who's gonna be eating here: J.B. Dawson's might draw eaters who have been at one of their other four locations. As a local, Pennsylvania-based chain -- the other spots are in Drexel Hill, Langhorne, Lancaster and Reading -- Dawson's stands out among the glut of faceless chain restaurants from parts unknown. You'll see a mix of weary shoppers, locals and even some weekend warriors stopping in on their way to or from the beaches.
Best time to dine here for fast service: The best way to avoid a wait is to avoid dinner hour, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. There is rarely ever a wait during the lunch hour. Reservations are accepted. Ryan Cormier
California Pizza Kitchen
325 Christiana Mall, Newark, Del.
Location: Near west entrance to Macy's.
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Mon.-Thu.; 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat.; 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Sun.
Type of food: Two California lawyers set out to reinvent the American pizza in 1985 in Beverly Hills, and the business now has close to 265 restaurants in 32 states. BBQ chicken pizza ($12.99) is a signature dish (choose the thickness of your crust), and a deep menu shows a similar inventiveness throughout. There are salads, like Miso Shrimp ($9.49 half-size and $12.99 full), which has a light miso flavor. A sandwich like the cranberry walnut chicken salad on focaccia ($10.99) illustrates the creative blending of flavors. Our server told us that a favorite dessert is the butter cake with whipped cream ($6.29). You'll also find a respectable beer list, as well as lots of mojitos, margaritas and specialty cocktails and a good selection of wines with half glasses for $3.50.
Ambiance: Warm, soothing tones and big comfy booths soften the family restaurant setting. Low lighting and low-cut booths give the room a clean, uncluttered look. In the back of the room there's an upscale diner feel, with a long row of counter seating with people dining on a granite surface. There are plenty of outdoor tables.
Specialties: There are no happy-hour prices. There is a menu guarantee that urges regulars to be adventurous. You can try something new, and if it doesn't thrill you, the staff will replace it with a favorite.
Who's gonna be eating here: Families, resting shoppers and mall employees grabbing some time off their feet.
Best time to dine here for fast service: Early dinners on weekends -- say 5 p.m. -- are a time when you can have much of the restaurant to yourself. Even at 7:30 p.m. on a recent Friday, we walked in and grabbed a booth without a wait. Gary Soulsman
719 Christiana Mall, Newark, Del.
Location: Between JC Penney and Target, with entrances inside and outside of the mall
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mon.-Thu.; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat.; 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Sun.
Type of food: The famous salad bar is always a good choice for a starter or a meal -- it's an additional $2.99 to any meal for an unlimited plate. The lunch menu has many mini-options of burgers and chicken, as well as a Fit & Trim menu of smaller-portioned jumbo shrimp scampi, grilled salmon and chicken fresco. After 4 p.m., the dinner menu opens, with more of a focus on burgers, ribs and seafood. There's an extensive drinks menu for both lunch and dinner. For "shareables," the quesadillas ($10.99) were recommended and were a good starter for two. Off the summer specials menu, the ribs and bacon-wrapped shrimp ($15.99) was great for its price.
Ambiance: Most of the tables were booths for two or four with high walls, which kept out a lot of the noise from the other diners. The décor is low-key, with wood paneling and some large overhead lights. There's a bar with large-screen televisions to the right if entering from the mall, while the opposite side has more open tables. At 5 p.m., the other diners were either families with children or people off from work; the waiter said the crowd picks up around 7-8 p.m.
Specialties: The summer menu offers seafood mixed grill, mango chicken, Asian barbecue salmon and jumbo shrimp skewer, and New Orleans seafood. Premium cocktails are always $5, and a lot of local beer is on tap. They're now offering gourmet cupcakes for dessert.
Who's eating there: Depends on the time you go. Later in the evening you'll see more of the bar crowd and spillover from the Cheesecake Factory, while earlier in the day it's primarily families and shoppers who want to get away from the food court.
Best time to dine for fast service: 2-4 p.m.; the place is packed around 7 p.m. Even when it isn't crowded, the service is fast but not rushed. Danielle Bukowski
Brio Tuscan Grille
305 Christiana Mall, Newark, Del.
Location: Outside on West Plaza, Near Macy's
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sun.-Thu.; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat. Brunch available until 3 p.m. Sat. and Sun.
Type of food: Italian, with an emphasis on the steaks, pork chops and other meat-based dishes you might have found in an old restaurant in Tuscany, manager Michael Collins said. The menu is packed, and even the options have options. You don't just get bruschetta as an appetizer selection -- you get a whole section devoted to bruschetta. The Sliced Steak Bruschetta ($11.95) came stacked with gorgonzola dolce, arugula, fennel, charred tomato, Parmigiano-Reggiano and Tuscan Italian dressing. The bread was not too crispy and not too soggy. All of the traditional Italian specialities -- lasagna, veal and chicken marsala and an array of pasta -- are here as well. The lunch version of the Mezza Lasagna and Insalata ($12.95), featuring a half portion (if a whole were for an NFL lineman) of the housemade lasagna bolognese with a salad, started off as a disappointment. The first few bites had no meat, but once the spicy, juicy chunks arrived in subsequent bites, the dish was a goner. The crab and shrimp cakes ($12.75 for lunch) swam rather than drowned in a dollop of creamy horseradish sauce, while the roasted vegetables and crispy potatoes added to the summer flair.
Ambiance: When you walk into Brio you feel like you just walked into your rich friend's wedding reception. The interior is a wide open space with high ceilings and rich wood everywhere. The hostess lept to greet us, and as she led us to the patio she turned over her shoulder and asked, quite genuinely, "How is your day?" That relaxing tone continued on the patio, where couches sat behind the elevated tables that looked out onto one of the entrances to the mall and the parking lot. Dining there on a warm day was a little like finding a coveted pair of shoes on the clearance rack -- you couldn't believe your luck.
Specialties: Roasted lamb chops ($26.95); grilled salmon ($20.95); Chicken Limone ($18.75); and Pasta Alla Vodka ($16.25).
Who's going to be eating here: Just about anyone. It's nice enough for an anniversary or other big occasion but affordable enough for a casual date night or midday lunch.
Best time to dine here for fast service: Lunchtime, when some shoppers but few business types come in. Saturday nights are almost always packed, Collins said. Peter and Kelly Bothum
The Cheesecake Factory
132 Christiana Mall, Newark, Del.
Location: East plaza near Barnes & Noble.
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Mon.-Thu.; 11:30 a.m.-12:30 a.m. Fri.-Sat.; and 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Sun.
Type of food: The spiral-bound menu has 21 pages. That's right. Twenty. One. Pages. If you can't find at least one dish among the 200 menu items, then you earn the crown for the pickiest eater in the world.
Ambiance: OK, so I'm not really a chain restaurant kind of gal. And while I know Cheesecake Factory has its rabid fans -- there were snaking lines after the Christiana Mall location opened -- I've never visited one before. TCF sticks with its seen-one, seen-'em all Egyptian decor with towering Italianate columns, pastel murals, red lanterns, casual bar area and a bakery showcasing its 50 cheesecakes and desserts. Some people will find the sameness comforting. Others may want to run screaming for the doors. So, forgive me, local restaurant owners, but I didn't hate TCF. It's a perfectly fine dining experience with pleasant and friendly servers. The gargantuan portions certainly won't help the rising obesity crisis -- and, for sure, the big plates are part of the attraction -- but what you get tends to be much better than a typical stuff-your-maw in the mall kind of place.
Specialties: Put on the feedbag; you're not going home hungry. But you can get lunch-size orders of many of the pastas, salads and other entrees. They're about two-thirds the size of dinner portions and still plentiful. Cobb salad ($9.95) is more like a chopped salad, but it was fresh and lightly dressed without being saturated. Signature dishes include avocado eggrolls, miso salmon, white chicken chili and "glamburgers," and Baja chicken tacos. Can you leave The Cheesecake Factory without cheesecake? I don't think so. While it's not the cheesecake of my dreams -- Junior's in Brooklyn, N.Y., is still my cheesecake barometer -- the original ($6.95 a slice) is smooth and creamy with a hint of sour cream. Next time, I want the Reese's Peanut Butter Chocolate Cake cheesecake or the Dulce de Leche cheesecake. Take dessert to go and you'll get a slice in a clear box that has plenty of room so the top of the cheesecake doesn't get smushed. There's also a heaping of whipped cream on the side.
Who's gonna be eating here: We saw all ages dining here, and not just weary shoppers. It seemed to be a popular with families, in particular, who park strollers at the hostess desk.
Best time to dine here for fast service: Late in the lunchtime period. Patricia Talorico
Sixth and Pine
100 Christiana Mall, Newark, Del.
Location: On Nordstrom's second floor, through children's department, above women's shoes.
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Mon.-Sat.; 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Sun.
Type of food: Upscale American deli and diner specialities drawing from a variety of cuisines and influences, ranging from
BLTA Sandwich -- bacon, lettuce, tomato and avocado ($10.95) to a remarkably dense chicken artichoke and goat cheese salad ($11.95), and from grilled skirt steak with cilantro lime vinaigrette ($17.95) to a meatloaf sandwich ($9.95). The menu has a few starters, a nice list of salads including the blue-cheese-and-bacon wedge ($11.95); prime plates, including simple roasted half chicken ($14.95), fish and chips ($17.50) and horseradish crusted salmon ($17.95). Why the name? Sixth and Pine is the intersection in Seattle where the original Nordstrom was founded.
Ambiance: Sixth and Pine has a modern, nearly Asian, feel, even with a back wall that's all white subway tiles studded with black-framed black-and-white photos from the Delaware Historical Society. Mixes of wood in the decor, along with splashes of mossy green and orange make it feel special, an oasis in the bustle of the mall.
Specialties: The restaurant offers daily specials in soups and entrees. Entrees are Monday, Italian Sausage & Peppers with Polenta ($10.95); Tuesday, Turkey Chili ($9.95); Wednesday, Grilled Skirt Steak with Cilantro Lime vinaigrette ($17.95); Thursday, Braised Short Ribs ($16.95); Friday, Panko Crusted Shrimp ($17.50); Saturday, Herb Crusted Prime Rib ($19.95); Sunday, Seasoned Fried Chicken ($15.95). Soups (cup, $3.50; bowl, $4.50) are Monday, Roma Tomato Basil; Tuesday, Split Pea & Cilantro; Wednesday, Chicken Pot Pie; Thursday, Spanish Chicken Fideo; Friday, New England Clam Chowder; Saturday, Tuscan White Bean; Sunday, Hearty Steak & Barley.
Who's gonna be eating here: Dahling! This is Ladies Who Lunch heaven. The store is upfront about wanting to give customers a place to eat while they're shopping in hopes of keeping them happy in the store, and a glance around on a recent Tuesday showed that the ladies are responding. Several tables were groups celebrating a special occasion, complete with presents wrapped in bright colors -- and this is a lovely place for a shower or birthday celebration. Others were obviously shopping pals or mother-daughter-grandchildren groups.
Best time to dine here for fast service: This restaurant is busy, but rarely slammed. The most popular time for lunch appears to be 1 p.m. However, our service was fast and friendly at that time in midweek. Reservations are accepted. Betsy Price