If the Moorestown and Cherry Hill malls were people, Moorestown would play the role of the little sister with an inferiority complex. The malls, which share PREIT as their corporate parent, opened in quick succession in the early 1960s and inhabit parcels less than five miles apart on Route 38. But Cherry Hill basks in its glory as the first modern mall in the Northeast, as well as one of the ten biggest in the country.

The retail center that regularly lures shoppers from Philadelphia recently underwent a $220 million renovation that brought it a Nordstrom -- ranked as the nation's top luxury retailer in a survey by the Luxury Institute -- and several high-profile national chain restaurants whose power lunches, enviable wine cellars and valet parking restored any gild that had faded since its last major remodeling in the 1990s.

During this time, Moorestown Mall underwent a beautification to its exterior yet couldn't manage to lure Nordstrom when it came courting, and vacancies began to accumulate through the recession and post-recession period. Though they both occupy affluent suburban communities and share many of the same stores, Cherry Hill boasts a Coach and an Henri Bendel while Moorestown supports a dollar mart and a wig shop. Put simply, Cherry Hill was originally designed as a fashion center; Moorestown, a family-friendly destination, and to this day, it's just not cool to hang out there. 

But that's likely to change over the coming months, now that not one but two of Philadelphia's most desirable chefs are committing to Moorestown and aren't ashamed to admit it. 

"There are so many great plans in store for the Moorestown Mall now, including the Osteria project just next door, and we wanted to be a part of that," says Iron Chef Jose Garces, who's opening the fifth location of his festive Mexican cantina, Distrito, in the mall. "We are excited to be a part of this fundamental shift toward offering high-quality, thoughtful food at places where that wasn't always a priority, like casinos, stadiums, malls.... PREIT is leading the charge on this culinary front and we are proud to be their partner." 

When it opens early next year, Distrito will join the first location of Marc Vetri's Osteria outside Philadelphia. Vetri's partner, Jeff Benjamin, agrees there's no shame in helping to transform a mall that's underperforming and notes that shoppers and diners should expect to see more high-end food offerings in malls of the future.
"We're happy to be the first someplace and let others come," says Benjamin, a Cherry Hill resident who attributes some of that mall's success to its strong retail and restaurant anchors.

He finds that despite the sluggish economy, suburban restaurants stay full. "People are eating out," he says. "Developers see the economic impact of having a full mall and are saying to themselves, 'We kinda need to get a better offering than a food court.'"

PREIT president and CEO Joe Coradino says popular mall restaurants attract crowds that tend to stay and shop, so to that end, managers try to cultivate an experience for patrons rather than a simple shopping trip. At Moorestown, PREIT is also adding a steakhouse and a spa, upgrading its movie theater with first-of-its kind technology and comfort, and negotiating with additional celebrity chefs and retailers. He says this approach worked in Cherry Hill, whose key measurement for a mall's quality rose 50 percent after the renovation.

"Studies have proven that shoppers who dine at a mall stay longer, are more likely to spend money and spend more money," says Coradino. "(At Moorestown) we are really going to create something that we think ... will serve as a model for creating a truly differentiated shopping experience by merging best in ... local, artisan-owned restaurants, regional boutique- and unique-to-mall retail, a state-of-the-art theater, and an award-winning spa."

But while Moorestown's new restaurant tenants clearly believe in Coradino's vision, they needed his company to meet certain demands before they bought in entirely.

"I can say unequivocally we wouldn't have gone into it without a liquor license," says Benjamin, "and we told the town that."

Until earlier this year, Moorestown was a dry municipality and technically still is. But under pressure from PREIT, town leaders allowed for an exception that awarded the mall – and the mall only – four liquor licenses, for which PREIT paid $4 million.

"Having a liquor license plays an important part in creating the Distrito experience that everyone knows and loves. As Distrito will introduce the town's only premium tequila bar, it will give the people of Moorestown a fun, lively spot to hang out," Garces says.

But even the most fashionable malls are still, well, malls. So Benjamin says his team insisted on having doors that open to the outside and front-facing facades to catch the attention of drivers on Route 38. That, plus the fact that many of Vetri's dinner patrons come from South Jersey, assures Benjamin that his engagement may help transform the Moorestown Mall from a pauper to a princess.