Discovering Nordstrom’s ‘Food-first’ Concept

Jo McGarry
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Wednesday - May 20, 2009
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Nordstrom Marketplace Cafe Chef Nawai Keko’olani

Readers of this column are full of suggestions for me. Happily, they usually involve nothing more drastic than checking out restaurants.

“Why haven’t you ever written about Nordstrom Marketplace Café?” Barbara MacDonald e-mailed a couple of weeks ago.

Because I’m not a big shopper didn’t really seem like an adequate answer, so I went.

I’m glad I did. Just driving into the parking lot was a joyous experience. In perhaps the only good thing to come out of this dismal economic climate, the parking lot at Nordstrom is a vast expanse of mostly nothing. The entire lot is bright, spacious and, on the day I went, empty. Great for parking, but sadly not so great for sales.

The restaurant, however, is almost as busy as it’s ever been, only now there aren’t the long lines of those early days. Nowadays, instead of waiting in line for up to an hour, you can pretty much walk in, choose your food and be seated within minutes.

It’s what they call a “food first” concept. That means you see your food, smell your food, order your food and pay for it before you’ve even found your seat.


“Initially that was a new concept for local people,” says executive chef Nawai Keko’olani. “But people are used to it now and it does-n’t seem strange to them anymore.” I’ve known Nawai for years. He was the executive chef for Ruth’s Chris Steak House for almost nine years, and I’ve always liked his competent, relaxed style.

“The food here has to be great and the quality of the food has to be spot-on,” he says, “so there’s no difference in those terms between this and fine dining.”

There’s evidence of Nawai’s hands-on approach in bi-weekly lunch and dinner specials, and the daily menu offers diversity and excellent execution. At lunch, there are panini sandwiches, salads, pasta dishes, roasted chicken, pizza and an assortment of rustic vegetables tossed in garlic, thyme and rosemary. There’s an incredibly good pesto chicken panini sandwich with sun-dried tomatoes, fresh basil, provolone and a pesto aioli that’s so popular there seemed to be one on every table. I had a wild mushroom pasta dish that was one of Nawai’s specials, along with fresh poke and an ahi Nicoise salad. All were excellent. There’s a luxurious tomato basil soup that’s become so popular Nordstrom now has it for sale. “You just take it home and add some cream and it’s ready to go,” says Nawai.

Unfortunately, you can’t take home the addictive Parmesan crostini served with the soup at the restaurant. Crisp, cheesy and perfect for dipping, the thin, lightly toasted breads are reason alone to order the soup.

There are locally influenced dishes on the menu such as poke and ahi salad that differ from the mainstream Nordstrom restaurants.

“We try to give a local flair to the food,” says Nawai, “because our clientele is mostly local.”

Once you sit down, the cafeteria ambience disappears and it’s as if you never stood in line with a tray waiting for your food. There are diligent waiters who’ll refill your water and clear your plates, and the room has a lightly tropical, cool ambience that’s quite lovely at lunch and, I’m sure, just as welcoming at dinner.

And while I suppose the idea of a restaurant within a retail outlet is to encourage people to shop, I’m going back for the food - and the city’s greatest parking lot.

Happy eating!

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