Those who grew up in America in the 1980s and ‘90s know the mall and its food court as their hangout, the place young people met and socialized. But the food court’s roots go back much further, to city department store shopping. Postwar suburbia gave rise to enclosed malls, but it’s hard to pinpoint when their food courts began, because it was an evolving process. It took a few decades for food courts to become ubiquitous.
The children of the suburban boom became adults and had children of their own. Those children of the 1970s and 1980s grew up in and around the suburban malls. It was never just a shopping opportunity; it was the cultural experience that Rouse had envisioned. The mall and its food court gave the suburbs a "civic anchor," as Smithsonian magazine put it, and a handful of restaurants quickly emerged as favorites.
One vendor that immediately became a food court staple was Orange Julius, that mysterious, frothy concoction of orange juice and “a few choice ingredients." Along the west coast, the Hot Dog On A Stick franchise served corn dogs and fresh squeezed lemonade, though its true appeal was the circus striped mini-dresses and hats worn by its predominantly female staff. The food courts of the '80s also had their fair share of restaurants with roots in the ethnic immigrant communities, even if the food itself bore little resemblance to its old country ancestors. Sbarro pizza, Panda Express and its famous orange chicken, and a Greek gyro restaurant or two were common food fodder in suburbia.
As malls across the US closed and consolidated, the food court idea spread to airports, colleges, and hospitals. Now malls are trying new ideas to lure in customers and keep them eating. Read about the evolution of the food court at mental_floss.