This New Food Hall in the Valley Is Redefining Mall Dining for the Modern Era

Topanga Social is bringing the food court into the future with exciting local restaurants and high-tech ordering.

Topanga Social in San Fernando Valley
Photo by Renee Cascia, courtesy of Topanga Social
Photo by Renee Cascia, courtesy of Topanga Social

Malls have been centers of youth culture for as long as there has been youth culture. There are iconic examples in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (of course) and Mallrats (duh), but kids hanging out in malls goes at least as far back as Trajan’s Markets in the heart of the Pax Romana. And for much of that time, mall food sucked. In the common era, the fixtures of the form were heat lamps and steam trays, aged pizzas and dirty frying oil and sugary-ass lemonade, and food courts became a hub of modern life anyway. But Valley mallrats won’t have to put up with that nonsense any longer, thanks to the opening of a revolutionary new food hall, Topanga Social.

Topanga Social comes from restaurant magnate Robert Earl and his Earl Enterprises working in partnership with the Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield commercial real estate mega-corporation, which is behind some 100 malls, hotels, airports, and giant properties worldwide. And the new food hall’s scale is fitting for a massive partnership like that. Topanga Social covers more than 55,000 square feet, with almost 800 seats in a space designed by award-winning firm AvroKO. To put butts in those ample seats, the teams at Earl and URW have assembled a stellar collection of 27 food and drink vendors, with a focus on concepts that are smaller, hipper, and more highly regarded than any other mall in town. The bar may be low, but they’re flying way the hell over it.

The headliners at first glance are probably Mini Kabob, the beloved and diminutive Armenian restaurant in Glendale, known in equal parts for the Martirosyan family’s warm hospitality and their incredible grilled meats and ikra, the charred vegetable dip they refer to as “eggplant caviar.” But the vendor list has no skips, from offshoots of other family-run businesses like Seaweed Hand Roll Bar to rapidly growing chainlets like Katsu Sando and Poke Me to upstart beverage specialists like Hey Hey and MadLab Coffee.

Topanga Social
Photo by Renee Cascia, courtesy of Topanga Social

When you approach from the parking lot, you’re greeted by Margarita Garden, an indoor-outdoor bar that doubles as de facto patio seating. It’s a little asphalt rectangle cut out of a walkway, but it’s made to feel luxurious and secluded with greenery, umbrellas, and stylish outdoor furniture. You enter the cavernous court through the doorways, revealing a ring of food stalls anchored by Rock and Reilly’s pub in the middle, circling a large central seating area. Even in these early days, in the middle of the afternoon on a weekday, the din is striking—it’s already a hit.

People stream around the court, eyeing the various stands as they stroll in a large circle. There are groups of coworkers sharing big tables and remote workers sitting alone with their laptops, official Topanga Social ambassadors in khaki looking eager to help, teenagers ditching class from Canoga Park High across the street, and a ton of people lined up at tablet-based ordering stations. That’s the other thing about Topanga Social—it is also something of a real-world beta test for a new unified ordering platform.

Instead of cashiers, all of your ordering happens through a single system. For now, that’s done through tablets placed around the court and in front of each stall where cash registers might be, with a phone app coming soon. You tap through a series of login instructions, sync their system with your phone, and then you can order from every restaurant at once. Go for a Tempura Shrimp Hand Roll, a cortado, a Mole Tamal, some Xiao Long Bao, and a Detroit-style pizza, and then take a seat. Text alerts from each vendor roll in as dishes are ready, so you end up eating in an unpredictable sequence, like a sort of haphazard tasting menu. It’s fun, it’s exciting, and from top-to-bottom, the food is extremely impressive, executed at a high level and at good efficiency for opening week. It’s also, to be perfectly honest, a little alienating.

Removing even the simple human exchange of ordering profoundly affects the food court experience, turning it into perhaps the most solitary thing you can do in public. If you pop in for a quick afternoon coffee or a weekday lunch by yourself, you will likely be in and out without saying a single word to anyone. You tap on a screen, pick up your food, eat, and move on. Maybe this is the future and what people really want in their lunches, as Postmates brought into meatspace. And maybe this will trouble no one but the already alienated; most people will undoubtedly visit in groups anyway.

That’s a win for restaurant workers, too. Removing the burden of customer interaction makes the job much easier, especially in an age of highly publicized public freakouts. It is a stark contrast from the typical food court experience, and maybe it’s all for the best. Still, it takes a little recalibration. You will never feel like a regular, no matter how many reward points you earn in the app.

Topanga Social
Photo by Renee Cascia, courtesy of Topanga Social

It’ll be interesting to see how the model holds up in the area because Topanga Social is surrounded by stiff competition. Across the street, to the west, there’s a Shake Shack, a Dog Haus, and a dispensary. To the south is The Village at Topanga, another Westfield mall property with a similar luxury bent and several worthwhile food options. North by Canoga Park High, there’s an In-N-Out, a Panda Express, and a Pollo Campero. And two blocks south is the Promenade, a dead husk of a mall that was the luxury option in the area only a couple of decades ago; Stan Kroenke now owns it and appears destined to be demolished to make way for a practice facility for the LA Rams. Even out here in mall country, the future is uncertain.

As you eat a distinctly excellent lunch, it is hard to ignore the context; the new tech bolted onto an old format, the nebulous future of retail as a concept, and the corporate assimilation of cool food. Or maybe Topanga Social will be the juice malls in general need, a blueprint for Westfields worldwide.

If the whole thing strikes you mostly as another megamall built to lure citizens away from genuinely public spaces and into capitalist territory masquerading as such, spaces where you are much more likely to part with your money, time, attention, and data… well, you’re not wrong. This is a ploy to bring you to the mall, to get you to download the app, to get you to post pictures having fun shopping, to get you to wander and browse after lunch. It’s a megamall in the deep Valley—already a stronghold of mall culture—and your cynicism is fully warranted. But if history has taught us anything, it’s that kids will hang out at malls. And it’s worth remembering that there was no poke at Ridgemont Mall, no micheladas at the San Dimas Mall, and no ikra at Eden Prairie.

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Ben Mesirow is a Staff Writer at Thrillist.