Founded as a shoe store in 1901, Nordstrom, the Seattle-based, luxury, mega-retailer started opening its subsidiary stores around town over a decade ago, including discount outlet Nordstrom Rack, in my backyard at Union Square. Its smaller stores proliferated, most in Manhattan except one in Brooklyn, until the chain debuted its first flagship here in October 2019 — a seven-story 320,000-foot behemoth at the corner of 57th and Broadway. That edifice is now known informally as the women’s store. Two years earlier a three-story men’s store had opened across Broadway, and now the complex totally dominates its corner just south of Central Park.
The Nordstrom chain conceived the complex not only as a department store, but as a series of cocktail bars, carryouts, and restaurants in a multi-floor, meandering food court so that a meal or mixed drink would never be far away.
Eight eating and drinking establishments of varying size are situated in the two buildings, some featuring big-name Seattle chefs, some not, most duplicating formulae the chain has tried in other markets. The company operates over 200 restaurants with 16 distinct brands in Nordstrom stores nationwide. All seem calculated for the dining needs of the upscale shopper — or the tourist passing through looking to snatch a quick bite.
Surprised at the sheer number of dining establishments, and the fact I hadn’t heard of any of them before (this is partly because the store was closed for part of the pandemic), I decided to make a week-long assault on the complex. So I went, spoon in hand, having little idea what the quality, range, or cost of the eats and drinks would be — and the collection turned out to hold some interesting surprises.
There are two subterranean levels of the women’s store at 225 W. 57th Street, and the lowest of the two (LL2) most resembles a conventional food court — or perhaps a windowless medieval dungeon. It shares the floor with a mildly depressing children’s department that features Versace, Dolce & Gabbana, and Balenciaga — flashy and expensive clothes that would probably get your kid beaten up on the playground. There, you’ll find a pizza and pasta spot, a conventional coffee bar, a hamburger stand, and a mochi doughnut counter.
Maybe mochi doughnuts are more popular in Seattle than here. They were indeed beautiful — glistening, multihued, and lined up in a well-lit glass case. “They’re all gluten-free,” said the clerk, “except for the Oreo cookie one.” At $3 each, they weren’t a bad deal and I selected two, one lemony with slices of dehydrated strawberry on top, the other covered with a thick gooey layer of chocolate. They were a bit spongy in the middle, but otherwise, like doughnuts you might find at Peter Pan or Donut Pub.
Next to the doughnuts stands a hamburger restaurant with an open kitchen along one side, plenty of well-lit seating, and a seafood motif to the murals that seemed incongruous with the hamburger theme — until I realized that the predecessor in the space was a restaurant called Hani Pacific, specializing in Northwest Coast seafood and described as a “Tom Douglas concept.” It had suffered from atrocious online reviews. Only open two weeks, the burger replacement seems like a Nordstrom experiment intent on harnessing the current burger zeitgeist.
The Nordstrom Burger Bar has no apparent chef, and offers a menu of burgers, fries, milkshakes, and wine or beer — that’s it. The range of hamburger options is bewildering, with six patty options (three vegetarian), and six configurations (with names like jammin’ jalapeno). The one called Southwest quizzically features Cajun blackening, making me wonder if Nordstrom is oblivious of American geography.
I went simple with the certified Angus beef burger made into the classic: with American cheese, lettuce, tomato, sweet pickles, and a house sauce tinted bright orange (with fries, $18). I looked on disappointedly as the cook squished my raw patty on the griddle repeatedly with his spatula, then immediately placed a dome lid over the thing, letting it steam and turn gray. The resultant burger was awful, with no sear and no flavor, as a thin brownish liquid of indeterminate origin pooled underneath. The sauce contained bits of dill pickle.
But the slender, skin-on fries were abundant and tasty, though marred by a salt-and-pepper seasoning also being sold at the counter in small jars, containing Himalayan pink salt, herbs, and dehydrated garlic. The chocolate milkshake, though, was excellent –- rich with chocolate flavoring and thick enough it was difficult to suck up through the straw.
But while the burger was disappointing, I remained optimistic about the other boites’ potential. On the other side of the mochi donuts was a place called Jeannie’s, once again helmed by Tom Douglas and concentrating on pastas, salads, and pizzas — the latter suggested by a flickering gas hearth on one side of the room that is nearly the sole decoration. As with the burger bar, the place was nearly empty when I dined with a friend on a weekday around 1 p.m.
We tried to order the artichoke dip, but were told they didn’t have it that day — it’s also a feature of the brief food menu one floor up at the Shoe Bar, where a short curving bar is stocked with a limited number of top-shelf bottles, and the surrounding retail space a rarefied jumble of Manolos, Ciaras, Guccis, and Garavanis. We went right for the double-patty burger on Jeannie’s menu, intent on comparing it with the burger recently eaten next door.
At $14.55, it was better — and cheaper — than the one at the Nordstrom Burger Bar, with zippy garlic aioli, a dill pickle, and some sear to the patties. The salad that came alongside was fab, too, though we could have had French fries instead. Seven pizzas were offered, and the one we picked, sausage and cherry pepper ($18.50), was an oblong and expertly baked affair, with tomato sauce, crumbled Italian sausage, and two kinds of cheese. The only problem was — no cherry peppers. Instead, we got a sparse strew of mild yellow pepperoncini, depriving us of the cherry pepper heat and vinegar.
While the burger and pizza verged on the delectable, the dish described as baked cauliflower mac and cheese ($17) made us scratch our heads. On a menu teeming with cauliflower, this dish featured mac and cheese heavy on Alfredo sauce and low on cheese, with an ice-cold, raw, shaved cauliflower salad dumped on top. We discovered that, if you rapidly stirred the salad into to mac and cheese, the hard vegetable would soften somewhat — but it also chilled the mac and cheese. An irrational combo of hot and cold dishes lazily dumped into one small casserole.
Jeannie’s, named after Jeannie Nordstrom, the wife of a former chairman of the company, is apparently one of the chain’s more successful restaurant brands. The menu also offers a stab at modern healthy dining, including a kale Caesar; a broccoli, tofu, and quinoa dish; and a vegan spinach ravioli in a tomato-cauliflower ragu.
The beer taps were out of commission, so we washed our lunch down with canned beer. Afterward, we stepped next door to the coffee bar, where I found a Starbucks-style display of pastries, packaged salads, snacks, cookies, and candy bars. In addition, there were some items specifically aimed at children, such as animal cookies in a bus-shaped box, appurtenant to the microscopic toy department adjacent.
The nicest of the Nordstrom flagship restaurants is Bistro Verde. Occupying a good chunk of the fifth floor, it features a sprawling dining room presided over by two elegantly dressed greeters, who consult their seating chart, then usher you to a table near the open kitchen on one side, or the liquor bar on the other, with booth and table seating in between. If you can, ask for an outdoor seat on a long balcony that overlooks 58th Street. The view is not impressive, but the balcony is shaded from the sun and catches Central Park breezes and thus is cool even on a hot Sunday afternoon.
This is indeed a prize brunch spot, with a bewildering array of dishes offered. Sure, you can have eggs Benedict with a lobster tail, a three-egg breakfast with vegan chorizo, or the alliterative green goddess grain bowl, but we chose instead cheddar chive biscuits and gravy ($16.50). A pair of nicely fried eggs came with red potatoes, along with a biscuit that had been halved and topped with slices of sausage and also a tan gravy bearing nuggets of the same sausage. It was overall a satisfying plate of food.
We had begun to notice commonalities among all the menus at Nordstrom. Bistro Verde offered that confounded artichoke dip, for example, which was also on the menu at Jeannie’s and Shoe Bar. I purposefully ordered a couple of additional things that were also on the evening menu at Bistro Verde, since I didn’t plan on eating more than one meal there. An heirloom tomato and burrata salad ($11) utilized wholesome ingredients, but came so squirted up with balsamic and dribbled with pesto that the flavor of the main ingredients were obscured. The hard-shell, ground-chicken tacos (two for $8) would please a Taco Bell fan, even with its lime vinaigrette.
Hands down the most popular thing at my table was the signature monkey bread ($10). I’ve seen lots of things called monkey bread before, but this turned out to be a huge cinnamon roll dripping with white frosting, delivered hot and gooey. There was a serving on every table, but isn’t Nordstrom slightly embarrassed at this unabashed Cinnabon knockoff?
I tried to get into the Broadway Bar a couple of times during the day and at night, but found this two-story, window-hugging, stairway-connected, architecturally impressive place closed on every occasion. One evening, I traipsed downstairs instead for a solitary meal at Wolf, located on the second floor and the most luxurious of Nordstrom’s restaurants.
It’s up a short flight of steps, making Wolf seem cave-like. The premises is U-shaped, arrayed along picture windows on the south and west sides, with tables that look down on the street and stools that face a very long bar, and thus don’t take advantage of the view. The atmosphere inside is subdued, and the place was filled to about ten percent capacity that Thursday evening around 6:30 p.m., as some very wealthy shoppers in an international variety of costumes trolled the aisles of the store — though few paused for a meal.
I sipped a Canal Street daiquiri (lime, orange, ginger, bitters, $22), shivering slightly at the thought of the water that the canal once had held. The flavor was a little fussy, but the drink strong, as I scanned the menu, which was divided into predictable Plates (octopus, steak tartare, fluke crudo, olives, salmon, and two featured steaks), with a second section of seven pastas. Pastas are also an important part of the menu at Jeannie’s and Bistro Verde.
Via Seattle chef Ethan Stowell, the menu is supposed to show a Pacific Northwest bent. I picked the king crab salad ($24) because it contained an ingredient the region is famous for. Configured in a great arc, the salad arrived ready for its Instagram close-up. Beets played a starring role, along with thin-sliced radish, underpinned by an avocado mousse that tasted like unflavored guac.
There was a generous amount of crab leg in the Nike-like swoosh as it worked its way across the plate, but the crustacean extremities were fibrous, rubbery, and overly salty. My main course was lamb loin ($45), which I ordered as a tribute to Basque shepherds that roamed Washington and other West Coast states a century ago. The two planks were meaty and nicely fatty, accompanied by a red-pepper coulis that complemented the too-mild flavor of the meat. But the highlight of the plate was a pair of panisse, creamy chickpea fritters deeply browned in fat. Still, Wolf merits inclusion in any list of upscale restaurants around Central Park, without engendering a desire to visit another time. And there was nothing about the menu or premises that made you feel like you were dining in New York City.
I dropped by the Milk Bar pop-up at the men’s store the next day, hoping to find at least one dish unique to this version of the ubiquitous dessert chain. There wasn’t, but the clerk told me, as he rearranged plastic-wrapped cookies on a rack, “This isn’t really a pop-up, it’s a permanent fixture.”