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Is This the Saddest Pandemic Dining Experience in America?

Thursday, August 20, 2020   /   by The Villages Home Search

Is This the Saddest Pandemic Dining Experience in America?

When Los Angeles County shut down indoor dining on July 1 — for the second time — Gevik Baghdassarian was determined to keep his family’s restaurant open. His employees at Massis Kabob, a local Armenian chain and fixture in the Glendale Galleria’s food court for three decades, began to run stacks of foam-clamshell-encased kebabs to customers as they waited in their vehicles, turning the entrance to the adjacent parking garage into a makeshift drive-through.


But some customers started parking their cars and eating at a handful of tables just outside the food court, a small space which filled quickly and wasn’t set up for social distancing. That’s when representatives from Brookfield Properties, which owns the mall, came to Baghdassarian with another idea: to turn the bottom floor of the three-story parking structure into a dining patio.


The somewhat open-air dining area opened on Friday, and responses to photos posted to social media were not generous, painting the situation as a virus-induced dystopian nightmare. Even the Onion had a take. Slate’s Henry Grabar, who argued early on in the pandemic for restaurants to use parking lots for seating, posted a three-word review: “Advantage: New York.”


When I visited yesterday, a dozen parking spots in the 6,300-space garage had been cordoned off for the Galleria’s dining area, which has a seating capacity of about 75 people. The speckled linoleum tables from the food court have been arranged into singles and pairs, some of them situated on swatches of Astroturf, which reduces the wobble inherent to dining on a ramp.


As you might expect, the acoustics are challenging. Each squeal of a tire or smack of tread ricochets through the space. A honk is enough to jolt your gyro right out of your hand. But since the spaces immediately surrounding the patio are being used for curbside pickup for the mall’s stores (which are mostly closed), there aren’t all that many cars zipping around. A few times per hour, two Bath & Body Works employees in blue aprons bring out blue checkerboard-printed shopping bags — truly essential quarantine purchases — and deposit them in the trunks of vehicles.


As I sat, making my way through a side of shredded-red-cabbage salad — Massis is a family favorite and our go-to at the food court — I thought that the setup isn’t all that much worse than eating from a food truck. From certain angles, the endless concrete expanse, accented with the primary-colored arrows and centerlines, could almost work as a dining concept. And with the cavernous shade and cross-breeze, the garage is, in many ways, an improvement over in-street dining on a busy road, where your meal is served with an uneasy feeling that a speeding vehicle could land on your table at any moment.


A parking garage is filled with chairs and tables clustered into dining areas as part of a mall’s program to give people places to safely eat outdoors during the coronavirus pandemic.
Every surface is slanted, from the painted lines of the parking spaces to the sloping roof and floor.


On the streets surrounding the mall, many restaurants in Glendale (which borders Los Angeles on both its southern and northern edges) have embraced the city’s outdoor-dining program. Along Brand Boulevard, colorful road-construction barriers have demarcated parking spaces into temporary dining parklets furnished with tables, umbrellas, and planters. But the Glendale Galleria, unfortunately, just wasn’t built that way. In 2012, a major renovation dismantled its 1970s brick bunker façade but didn’t bring daylight into its interiors or reorient it toward the street, as has been done with many of its Southern California peers. A small outdoor-seating area sculpted out of the Central Avenue entrance was never fully activated — perhaps because developer Rick Caruso’s Americana at Brand, another mall right across the road, offers grass and seating, plus dancing fountains for entertainment. Since it’s laid out like a Main Street, the Americana’s stores are permitted to be open, and walking through the luxuriously spaced outdoor-dining tables with people in designer-brand masks feels like some kind of coronavirus-era theme park. Caruso is using his parking structure to show drive-in movies.


Hypothetically, one could transport a Glendale Galleria takeout meal to the Americana’s lawn or one of the Brand Boulevard dining areas. But that would require driving and reparking, or walking all the way around the unopened mall in late-July heat, as I regretfully did when I visited yesterday. That didn’t seem worth it for the garage-patio patrons who started to stream into the space around noon: a mall employee on a break, a parent with two young kids, a shopper hugging a comforter stuffed into a giant JCPenney bag, and three friends keeping up a long-standing coffee date.


For the past 15 years, Gary, Jerry, and Ricky — who didn’t want to share their last names — have met for coffee and conversation at the Glendale Galleria food court. In recent years, until the pandemic hit, they’d stake out the same table near the Dunkin’ Donuts. Despite the fact that they have to walk all the way down to the Starbucks in the Target for coffee now, they say the garage dining area has provided a convenient place for them to safely gather again — but they do have some ideas for improvements.


Since they can’t get into the mall, they have to walk to one of the anchor stores to use a restroom. “They need bathrooms for people out here,” says Ricky, who is retired but used to work in law enforcement. “That’s too far.”


Gary, who is a lawyer, was thinking bigger. “Let’s put an outdoor grill with barbecue smoke, hanging plants, a little bar, soda, juice, wine, beer — no hard liquor. A little mariachi band there,” he says, surveying the space. “Then take all the small stores and bring them outside in tents. And a Dunkin’ Donuts outdoors.”


The garage will have to be the norm for some time, says Jerry, nodding. He works for a health-care company and thinks a vaccine is more than a year away. “The virus is here to stay for a while,” Gary agrees. “We’ve got to be ingenious, creative. We won’t be captive.”


What the novel coronavirus has really snatched from us are those in-between spaces in our daily routines. These are destinations that don’t fall into neat categories listed in a state health officer’s reopening order yet leave gaping holes in our lives when they’re gone. Malls in particular are these kinds of places, especially in California, and as L.A. enters its hottest months, the people who rely on them are stuck. What has happened to the people who walked circuits around the terrazzo ramps right when the mall opened, or to the folks who need the AC and those now-closed restrooms to survive the day? A food court, 2012 renovation and all, isn’t a particularly aspirational place to eat, but it does serve a purpose as a place to rest and refuel. During our pandemic summer, a free, shaded, and spacious garage café is the next best thing. And it has that most elusive Los Angeles quality: plenty of parking.


For the handful of restaurants that have decided to tough it out through the next few months, the garage might also be a lifeline. “We gave it a shot, and, to our surprise, people were actually coming,” says Baghdassarian. “God willing, when this pandemic is over, I think people will still enjoy — or, maybe, prefer — being outdoors.”


A shaded parking garage rooftop shows rows of parked cars with mountains far in the distance.
Solar panels make excellent shade canopies on the top floor of the parking garage.


While I thought about this, I climbed to the top floor of the parking deck, which is somewhat of a revelation. Sweeping views of the San Gabriel Mountains are framed by angled photovoltaic canopies that drop shadows in gridded clusters across the diagonal painted lines. Maybe, as more stores and restaurants aim to open safely, they could do so from up here, creating the open-air bazaars that Gary envisioned.


When I made my way back downstairs, Gary, Jerry, and Ricky were doing their best to improve the ambience of their adopted spot with a portable speaker playing “Can’t Fight This Feeling,” by REO Speedwagon. As it reverberated through the parking garage, for a moment it was just loud enough to drown out the trucks rumbling into the loading dock.



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