A Tech Bro’s Wet Dream: Clean Strip-Mall Aesthetic Comes to Manhattan

In all its glory, a mall-style P.F. Chang's has touched down in Manhattan.

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P.F. Chang's in Ponce, PR. Photo by Tito Caraballo.

The children of suburbia and out-of-state transplants are getting what they want: unsophisticated dining. Allow me to elaborate. During the pandemic, I started to notice a trend, which I had hoped would abate as soon as the gate of my 7-story walk-up apartment (read: cell) in Alphabet City was flung wide open, and it was once again safe to traipse across the greenery and occasional gray-ery of Tompkins, Seward, or just any wide open space with ample room to be loud, obnoxious and youthful. However, New York’s worse angels won out and the New Jersey-ification of Manhattan is here to stay. No, I’m not talking about Kushner real estate or 666 Park Avenue, I’m talking about P.F. Chang’s, Panera, and White Castle.


Yes, where there was once empty space or an establishment where you can buy a Gwyneth vagina candle and get your nails done, there is now a golden calf, well, horse, with a scrawled mystical utterance: P.F. Chang’s. There is something subversive and ominous about that stately horse on University Ave in Union Square standing where there was once a Vapiano’s (R.I.P) and staring directly into the inner recesses of a Scandinavian modern designed Panera Bread – a vibe shift has taken root.

“Where there was once empty space or an establishment where you can buy a Gwyneth vagina candle and get your nails done, there is now a golden calf, well, horse, with a scrawled mystical utterance: P.F. Chang’s.”

Panera and Barnes and Noble’s had attempted outposts but were forced to retreat when their business models didn’t account for its role as a public playground for the area’s youth who were as interested in their products as the mind-numbing careers they'd take on soon. So now, these chains are back and it’s all about ‘to-go’ with some upscale, ‘clean’ seating for the self-unaware. P.F. Chang’s has its place in the pantheon of American dining, which fits well within the late-night road trip snack or airport/travel quick eat milieu.


To chronicle this great infection, let’s remember when the first middle American, strip mall staple came to town: Chick-fil-a. Heralded on ‘The View,’ a personal guilty pleasure watch, as a homespun delight, the chain took off. Demand for middle American ‘simple joys’ soared amongst those proficient in Microsoft Excel and those afraid of direct eye contact (a.k.a. software engineers for tech giants like Microsoft). Now, instead of plopping a Lean Cuisine in the microwave or waiting online at the deli or going to CAVA, they can pick-up a meal with nostalgia as well as with corporate branding. They can be taken back to a simpler time when a trip to the Panera and the Barnes and Noble’s was the highlight of their month.

“To chronicle this great infection, let’s remember when the first middle American, strip mall staple came to town: Chick-fil-a.”

Now, they cram into subway cars, rot in front of a screen full of ‘cells,’ and participate in Zoom conferences where they are essentially acting as human furniture. I understand the appeal, but why in a city that has a rich arts scene?! Take it to San Fran or Austin or some other hub for gym rat nerds and anti-social social developers.


After all, Silicon Valley is responsible for the aesthetic transformation of Starbucks from indie sleaze to ‘new development’ in Bed-Stuy. It is only fair that the source of their jobs returns the favor by transforming their neighborhoods into mini outposts of Google Campus. The factory towns of yore got a rebrand, one that entices upper middle-class suburbanites turned urban brats into the antiseptic existence they crave.

“The factory towns of yore got a rebrand, one that entices upper middle-class suburbanites turned urban brats into the antiseptic existence they crave.”

I have noticed the phenomena take root in two neighborhoods: Union Square and the 86th & 3rd Industrial Complex (iykyk). At the former, a P.F. Changs, Panera, and Nutella café sit on a street rife with NYU students, dudes selling incense, and the growing number of upper east side families moving to the hip and trendy Union Square (eye roll).


Listen, I enjoy my fair share of ironic behavior and view some chains as kitsch rather than an assault on my sensibilities (aka I’m not a complete hater). For example, the East Village Dallas BBQ (RIP) was nothing short of iconic. Also, the IHOP near NYU is a rite of passage to anyone who’s suffered through a summer party in an AC-less cramped apartment. As someone who’s lived in ‘the South’ long enough to enjoy a Waffle House excursion and know which chain has the best sweet tea; I can appreciate a low brow gorge fest. However, don’t make a Taco Bell look like an Urgent Care. Bloomberg’s and Giuliani’s legacy, y’all!

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