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A Culinary Coup in Columbia

How a Howard County mall became every foodie’s favorite dining destination.
By The Mall in Columbia

Rewind a half century, before developer James Rouse carved Columbia out of the forests of Howard County, and making a decision on which restaurant to go to was a whole different experience. Typically, gourmets would head for Baltimore, Washington, or Annapolis to find any sort of choice, be it French, Asian, or American cuisine, whether for lunch or dinner.

But how things have changed in Rouse’s visionary community: Even a food futurist wouldn’t have predicted that a mall would become the place to go for excellence in dining.

“The Mall in Columbia has long been known for its Food Court offerings.”

We’re talking about The Mall in Columbia, and to find out how that happened, we checked in with the restaurateurs behind this success to see what their secret is for drawing ever-growing crowds.

When did The Mall in Columbia first start earning a reputation for food?

The Mall in Columbia has long been known for its Food Court offerings,” says Barbara Nicklas, mall general manager. “In the early 2000s, we opened what we call Restaurant Row with four restaurants, including The Cheesecake Factory and PF Chang’s. From that point on, we believe the mall’s reputation as a great place for food really took off.

Tell us about the restaurant options today.

“Our goal in curating our restaurant selection was to have a wide range of choices,” Nicklas says. “With over 20 eateries in our Food Court, the offerings are vast and include something for everyone. Outside of the Food Court, we have great fast-casual options like Shake Shack and Panera Bread. We also have many specialty food retailers with offerings including ice cream, frozen yogurt, pretzels, candy, smoothies, bubble tea, and coffee. Health-conscious eaters flock toward Urban Plates and Zoe’s Kitchen, while more adventurous eaters may choose Bibibop. Those looking for a more formal experience can have a delicious meal at Seasons 52, P.F. Chang’s, or Maggiano’s.”

What are the popular choices for families with small children vs. a business lunch?

“Families tend to head to Uncle Julio’s, Cheesecake Factory, Shake Shack, or Main Event,” says Nicklas. “All of these restaurants have a lively atmosphere that’s great for families.” And for executives who want to entertain a colleague or impress a client at lunch? Seasons 52 and Maggiano’s have been popular choices since they opened. Urban Plates has also proven to be a hot spot for business lunches. “One restaurant that could be great for either audience is The Walrus Oyster & Ale House,” says Nicklas. “Children age 10 and under can order a complete meal from the restaurant’s Pups Menu for only $5.”

What makes some of the individual restaurants stand out in Howard County’s dining scene?

“Besides our fantastic service and food, it would be the Today and Tomorrow pasta,” says Mike Woernle, Managing Partner of Maggiano’s. “When you order one classic pasta, we send you home with another one free. The second would be our Family-Style dinner, which is the best way to experience Maggiano’s.”

Des Reilly, Managing Principal of The Walrus Oyster & Ale House, says it’s that everything they make is from scratch and sourced seasonally and locally. “But what really sets us apart is that we are locally owned and operated. My partners and I work in the restaurant, which is key to our success. We also serve 15 different varietals of oysters. Last year, we shucked over 500,000 in Columbia. All shells get recycled back to the Chesapeake Bay through our involvement with the Oyster Recovery Partnership.”

And the draw at Urban Plates? Says Gil Fornaris, Vice President Operations, Urban Plates, “We provide fresh, made-from-scratch meals prepared in an open kitchen, including customizable plates, hand-tossed salads, chef-crafted sandwiches, seasonal soups and sides, slow-cooked braises, natural juice replenishers, and house-made desserts.”

What is the best dish on your menu?

Woernle of Maggiano’s says is their lasagna: Homemade and consist of imported ricotta cheese, Italian sausage, ground beef, layered with marinara sauce, lasagna sheets, and love. Reilly of The Walrus Oyster & Ale house nominated Maryland’s Best Lobster Roll, with over a quarter pound of warmed lobster meat, butter sauce, and lemon on buttered pan bread, while Fornaris of Urban Plates says it’s the Chimichurri Grass-Fed Steak Plate, which is always served with a guest’s choice of two chilled or hot sides and grilled rustic bread.

What are some awards that restaurants have won?

In 2018, Maggiano’s was named best among all 52 Maggiano’s, as well as best 2018 allergy friendly restaurant in the U.S., best 2018 Italian chain restaurant in U.S., and best local best restaurant in Howard County. While Urban Plates is new to this market, their other locations have been named among San Diego Magazine’s“Best Restaurants 2018,” Best Salad (tied), “Best of Pasadena 2018,” by Pasadena Weekly, Best Outdoor Dining and Best Salad, and the San Diego Restaurant Association’s Best Casual Restaurant.

Read more stories about the Mall in Columbia.