Court of appeal

It doesn’t take a big city restaurant critic to note that most shopping mall food courts are the pits of possible dining experiences. They are grim, with institutional-looking seating, unflattering fluorescent and neon lighting, dated decor, sickly pastel colour schemes, wafting grease, filmy surfaces, a deafening din and uninspired cuisine.

Robert Ruscio, the head at Montrealbased Ruscio Studio, was determined to break from this dubious tradition -with his $1-million renovation of Place du Royaume’s food court in Chicoutimi (one of three boroughs of the city of Saguenay, Que.). “In the ’80s, when malls were being erected everywhere, the ratio for seating was much less than it is today. So over the years you see added tables everywhere, squeezing in more food vendors and adding kiosks. The result was not very inviting,” says Ruscio. “We increased the seating capacity by creating a new layout. Four-seaters and banquettes were a better use of space. Because of the vastness, we broke it up into different sections so that you can have a different experience depending on where you are sitting.”

Fast-food outlets notwithstanding, the new 720-seat space is urban and aspirational, with “modern baroque” chandeliers, Starck Bubble chairs, giant plasma screen, fireplace and bathrooms worthy of an international airport. It feels less like a food court and more like a swank Montreal supper club or a slick lounge on St-Laurent Boulevard -sans the velvet ropes, burly bouncers, Champagne- bucket-wielding busboys, or the uninhibited dancing on the tables.

The greatest similarity between Place du Royaume’s food court and a big city supper club -where you sit down for a meal in a dining room and get up from the table in a nightclub -is a pronounced day-to- night transition. “With the skylights, there’s lots of natural light,” says Ruscio. “As it gets darker, a lot of the light starts coming from the floor, with the lit, acrylic, low-divider walls, the table lamps, the lit giant flexion vases.” And the flicker of the gas fireplace, which according to the designer is a mandatory accent a five-hour drive into the Quebec hinterland where there are two seasons: winter and July.

The food court’s 20-foot-long, communal high tables with stools were a surprise hit. “The people who sit there are often alone, so it’s a great way of meeting people. They’ve become almost like a pick-up bars,” Ruscio says cheekily. “Or, at least it evokes conversation among patrons that would otherwise be eating by themselves.” cI