In simpler times, department-store lunch counters and restaurants were a thrilling part of any Saturday shopping excursion.
Some were semielegant rooms with table service, specializing in exotic-seeming dishes the home cook would seldom dare.
Others were informal settings backdropped by the comforting racket of clattering plates and the mysterious exchanges between the veteran counter women and the short-order cooks, such as, "Lemme have a cowboy with spurs!" Translation: a Western omelet with french fries.
Lunch-counter fare was firmly stuck in the 1950s – triple-decker tuna salad sandwich, grilled cheese with bacon, patty melt. And milkshakes, of course.
Those scenarios changed when many department stores moved from city centers to the suburbs to become the anchors at shopping centers. No need to staff a restaurant when food courts were serving fast food to a younger demographic obsessed with hanging out at the mall with friends.
Lunch pals Joe and Nikki Lausmann and I were batting that around at our somewhat cramped table at Nordstrom Cafe. Joe runs Lausmann Lumber in Loomis, and Nikki is a Sacramento-area real estate professional.
Everybody knows what Nordstrom is, right? The high-end department store with a reputation for quality goods, inexpensive shoeshines in the men's shoe department, a hassle-free exchange policy and salespeople you can actually find when you need help and who don't act like somebody's slipped 'em a mickey when they're asked questions about the merchandise.
The cafe opened in 1989 and is still semihidden on the third floor of the department store. In every November for 15 years, it hosted the annual "Nutcracker Character Breakfast," in which cast members of the Sacramento Ballet Company dressed in "Nutcracker" costumes and posed for pictures with excited children. It was a family tradition that sold out each year, but ended five years ago when the ballet's other commitments took precedence.
On this day, the dining room was flooded with natural light and talkative knots of well-dressed folks we assumed to be shoppers who had decided to take a break from punishing their Nordstrom charge cards.
At the next-door table, four women with purses as big as their shopping bags held up just-purchased dresses for mutual admiration.
"That is just darling!" one said to a beaming friend.
The cafe isn't only for shoppers, though, said assistant manager Owen Ward on the phone days later.
"It's become a dining destination," he said. "There are more guests here who aren't Nordstrom shoppers than you would think. We have a loyal clientele, some of whom come in twice a week."
The menu shows soups, nine salads, seven sandwiches, two pastas and a hearty-looking bowl of braised pot roast with egg noodles ($3.75-$11.50). Much of this will change with the next menu revamp, due at the end of May.
We started with cups of delicious soups with crostini – spicy chicken wonton, and smooth tomato-basil – and segued to the Chinese chicken salad, the best dish on the table. The mix of Szechuan-style glazed organic chicken breast, field-fresh organic greens and julienned veggies, mandarin segments, almonds and crunchy wontons was splashed with excellent ginger-sesame dressing.
Nikki: "This has a ton of chicken."
We subbed sourdough toast (for wheat) with the luscious roast turkey BLTA, a double handful of sliced house-roasted turkey breast, havarti cheese, crisp bacon, avocado, lettuce and tomato. The sandwich was loaded with flavors and textures, but was sloppy with way too much mayonnaise. Otherwise, it's a go-to, big enough for two diners to share.
Though the tuna salad on whole wheat ciabatta looked great, the thick roll was too bulky and dense for its contents. Once we got past that, the scant tuna salad itself was wet and under- seasoned, squishing out of the sandwich's sides with each bite.
Nikki: "You could throw in some capers to give it some salt, or some more celery to give it crunch."
Joe: "Or you could throw in some tuna."
Lunch ended with a thick wedge of creamy and tangy cheesecake, just the sweet thing to fortify us for shopping till dropping. Or not.
Tip: Next time you plan a day trip to San Francisco, make a lunch reservation for a window-side table at the Rotunda restaurant, on the fourth floor of Neiman Marcus on Union Square (150 Stockton St.; 415-249-2720).
The view is special, the food first-rate but pricey. It's worthwhile just for the warm, airy popovers with strawberry-infused butter.
Pechal a winner at Tuli
Adam Pechal, chef and co-owner of Tuli Bistro and Restaurant Thir13en, had a good run on the ABC-TV cooking competition "The Taste" before he was shown the door on Feb. 26.
His appearances on the show were chronicled at www.sacbee.com/appetizers by my colleague, wine and food writer Chris Macias.
With that in mind, a lunch pal and I walked over to Tuli to say hello. Pechal wasn't in evidence, but we grabbed a patio table anyway and shared a "pollo caliente" sandwich and a Molinari salumi pizza.
The huge sandwich was tops – tender chicken breast, white cheddar, crispy onion, cabbage slaw and chipotle barbecue sauce on focaccia ($12). The accompanying skinny fries were smothered in terrific chili, chunky with succulent pork and al dente beans, and gooey with melted cheese.
We think Tuli makes one of the most well-balanced pizzas around, cooked in a wood-fired pizza oven that blisters the edges of the thin, chewy crust.
Ours was topped with Molinari-brand pepperoni, salami and hot coppa, rich sauce from fire-roasted tomatoes and just the right amount of mozzarella ($15).
Too bad Pechal couldn't have made those winners on "The Taste."
Tuli Bistro, 2031 S St., Sacramento; (916) 451-8854, www.tulibistro.com.
Where: 1651 Arden Way, Sacramento, in the Arden Fair mall
Hours: 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays; 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sundays
Food: Three stars
Ambience: Two 1/2 stars
How much: $-$$
Information: (916) 646-2400, www.nordstrom.com
Call The Bee's Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128.