A new upscale food court at the Eaton Centre is better than expected, but is hampered by tone-deaf marketing.
Not bad… for a food court. That’s our verdict on the food at the new Urban Eatery, the upscale food court on the bottom floor of the Dundas Street end of the Eaton Centre, which opened yesterday.
The launch was well attended, probably because of the novelty, and also because of the $10-off coupons distributed over the course of the past week. Shortly after 11 a.m. a queue of nearly 30 people waited to validate those coupons—by handing over their email addresses. By lunch hour, the space was packed with a crowd dominated by the office workers who normally haunt the First Canadian Place food court. For Cadillac Fairview, owners and operators of Eaton Centre, this must be encouraging: the company invested $48 million in renovations and furniture, including designer chairs, automated hand-washing stations, and revamped washrooms.
The most interesting aspect of the Urban Eatery is the absence of garbage bins; instead, there are stations where patrons leave their trays for attendants to sort and clean up, à la Ikea. Plastic cutlery is nowhere to be found. Instead, there are real knives and forks, used alongside white serving bowls and short, stout glasses for soda.
A tilapia burrito from Mexican fast food chain Mucho Burritos was more flavourful than, say, Taco Bell, thanks to fresh cilantro and jalapeno and a spicy salsa that actually has a kick to it. But it was still a few grades below local favourite Burrito Bandidos, or even Chipotle. The skimpy serving of blandly seasoned fish didn’t help matters, and neither did the hefty cost: the small burrito, paired with a bag of tortilla chips and a bottled pop totalled over $13. More generously portioned was a butter chicken rice bowl from Amaya Express, served with a fist-sized bowl of tasty Masala fries, again for over $10. Gelato from Froshberg Gelato was inconsistent. A scoop of chocolate hazelnut gelato with bits of wafer (à la Ferrero Rocher) was better than a scoop of pistachio gelato, which had an artificial finish and wasn’t nutty enough.
At $35 altogether, there are (many) better places in the city to grab lunch for two, although Urban Eatery could attract a steady clientele of office workers looking for a middle ground between a full sit-down meal and low-end fast food. (There is plenty of fast food, though, including dolled-up versions of McDonald’s, KFC, A&W, New York Fries, and Sbarro.) Along with Amaya, King Street West burger joint Big Smoke (better known by its original name, Craft Burger) and Kensington haunt Urban Herbivore will likely become the jewels of the Urban Eatery. With time, we’ll see if their presence elevates the idea of a food court, or if the brands will be diluted because of their participation.
One thing the Urban Eatery nails is self-importance. We chuckled when, at first, we mistook plastic signs on the tables for ecological reminders, before realizing the signs said not “preserve the environment” but “preserve our environment”—a prod for patrons to return their trays after the meal.
Less amusing is how the food court is being marketed as an “urban food movement”—a phrase usually used to describe initiatives like rooftop and community gardens. While we support the move away from disposable plates and cutlery, the majority of restaurants in the eatery are still fast food chains that aren’t local or sustainable. The phrase comes off as disingenuous.
It gets worse. The Urban Eatery’s marketing team created a “grass roots [sic] organization” called the Urban Food Movement, complete with a fake Facebook page and Twitter account, without any disclosure that either was linked with the Eaton Centre.
You have to wonder why the Eaton Centre agreed to such a convoluted, ethically shaky campaign instead of letting the food court stand on its own merits. Hundreds of people lined up for gourmet food trucks in the Distillery this summer. By comparison, the Urban Eatery seems more like lipstick on a pig.
CORRECTION: September 2, 2011, 11:00 AM This article originally indicated that the new food court is at the south end of the Eaton Centre, when in fact it is at the north end, nearer to Dundas Street.