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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: James Rouse

food court

(1980’s | businese (real estate) | “dining area”)

Why “court”? It’s more like a dining mall, but in the early days food courts were found only inside of malls, and a mall within a mall would have caused confusion. And why “mall”? A mall was a wide pedestrian boulevard, often grassy, and it never had anything much to do with commerce — though shopping malls did typically have wide central corridors that one walked along. I haven’t done the research, but it seems to me that “mall” and “court” were adopted for these bastions of plebeian retail because of their grand associations with aristocracy, elegance, and luxury. Not that there’s anything particularly elegant or luxurious about your standard food court, yet “court,” with its echoes of royalty, lends the enterprise a touch of class. A more plebeian explanation is that the word conjures up a big open space, like a basketball or tennis court. Or it’s where you go to judge the food.

One chronicler of the food court lays it at the door of James Rouse, a developer who responded to Levittowns by creating the planned community Columbia, MD ten years before he opened Harborplace in 1980 in downtown Baltimore. (I grew up between those two landmarks, in the heart of Rouseland.) For a developer, he wasn’t that bad, according to the New York Times obituary. It’s not clear if the phrase “food court” is due to Rouse; he may be responsible for “shopping mall.”

Pioneering food courts stirred in the seventies, and by the mid-eighties they were de rigueur, and not just in newly constructed malls — older malls were forced to renovate in order to add them. The term followed quickly, arising in both Canada and the U.S. by the late seventies (the oldest hit in LexisNexis comes from a Toronto paper in 1979). The term came straight out of the oddly buoyant language of developers, but food courts themselves were symbols of adolescence then, understood as places for the disaffected young to get away from their parents and pretend they were adults. The emphasis on fast food (they were sometimes called “fast-food courts”) made them popular with kids. They turned up next on college campuses, heralding a revolution in campus food service. Adults had to get used to eating in them soon enough when they invaded hospitals, airports, and office buildings.

The idea of restaurants and specialty food stores in shopping malls was not new in the seventies, but gathering several of them around a large open seating area was an innovation that demanded a new expression. The malls I went to in my youth didn’t have food courts, but they had drugstore lunch counters and Orange Julius and Baskin-Robbins. I don’t remember fast food restaurants being common in malls back then, but I didn’t get around much and they may have been. (My beloved Gino’s on Frederick Road wasn’t part of any mall, I’ll tell you that. Now it’s a McDonald’s.) Some chains — Sbarro’s, Panda Express — really took off with the advent of food courts.

I find them more than a little repulsive, personally. The open space — bare except for nondescript tables and chairs and people who don’t want you anywhere near them — always feels hostile, and there’s nothing I want on any of the menus. Then there’s the indignity of figuring out how to punch the order into a machine that doesn’t work half the time. Whatever I order, it’s cold by the time I find a seat, and it wasn’t all that good when it was hot. Plastic furniture, plastic cutlery, and the food . . . Everything predictable and disposable. That’s partly why food courts are becoming passé after a thirty-year reign, as “food halls” supplant them. It’s the same idea, only the restaurants on offer are more varied and quirky (and pricier — this is about consumption, after all). “Food hall” makes more sense as a name, “hall” being a word for large open area with action at one end, but “food court” should remain in the language for at least another generation or two.

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