Why America fell for fancy food halls.

The Food Court Is Dead. Long Live the Food Hall. Wait, What’s the Difference?

The Food Court Is Dead. Long Live the Food Hall. Wait, What’s the Difference?

The cities of today and tomorrow.
July 7 2017 5:58 AM

Artisanal Tacos on Paper Plates

Why America fell for the food hall.

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Brooklyn’s DeKalb Market Hall.

Shinya Suzuki/Flickr Creative Commons

In June, the venerable Katz’s Delicatessen, one of America’s oldest restaurants, opened its first satellite in 119 years. For the location, the proprietors chose the windowless basement of a shopping mall in Brooklyn, across from a Trader Joe’s and downstairs from a Target. The Katz’s outpost is the most famous of the three-dozen small businesses that make up the DeKalb Market Hall, the latest place my Slate colleagues and I go for lunch.

Henry Grabar Henry Grabar

Henry Grabar is a staff writer for Slate’s Moneybox.

What makes something a food court, and what makes it a food hall? One is the most discredited concept in 20th-century dining, while the other is the hottest new idea of the 21st: an open floor plan; fresh food prepared in front of your eyes; a post-industrial space, or at least one with high ceilings, exposed wiring, and hanging air ducts. Good-looking people hunched on long benches over small plates or perched on stools around dozens of tiny countertops. The accidental flash of a bad Instagram. The places brim with noise—perhaps even a kind of working sound, an occasional butcher’s chop, something left over from a more utilitarian period, or at least the roar of an espresso machine.

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Reduce this concept to the basics—a dozen quick-service restaurants sharing a space, a landlord, and maybe a seating area—and you have a food court. A food hall, in contrast, is a drafty and austere moniker for an age of raw interior design. No pleather or plastic here. What separates the former from the latter is “authenticity,” according to Matthew Fainchtein, a senior director for real estate giant Cushman & Wakefield in Los Angeles and a guy who makes food halls, not courts.

You’ve surely noticed that food halls are now everywhere. There are at least a few dozen of them in the United States, some of which are genuine evolutions of traditional public markets, some of which are new, and all of which aspire to appear—like a public market—to be a place where the emphasis is on production, not consumption. (Nowhere, save perhaps Yankee Stadium, will you eat a more expensive meal out of a cardboard box.) But that’s part of the charm, too: the no-nonsense emphasis on food. Forget the service. Forget the tables; you’re sharing. Forget the chair backs. Forget the metal silverware. And no, you can’t make a reservation.

I don’t want to stereotype the kind of millennials who frequent these places, but I think I get it. My friends like eating well, eating local, and eating ethically, even if they can’t really afford it, and I’ve lived with two separate guys who try not to eat meat unless they approve of its provenance. (One used to kill chickens with his hands; the other is from California.) Food hall observers also like to cite the youth’s penchant for social media, though I fail to see how the scrappy presentation of the food hall is more photogenic than the bravura plating of a nice restaurant. One stereotype that is definitely true, though, is that young people have neither the money nor the time to go out for a sit-down lunch. (Nose to the grindstone until your avocado piggy bank is full.) We’re also picky, and if you want to find something everyone can agree on, a food hall is a fine choice.

The concept appeals to chefs, many of whom don’t particularly care about music or wallpaper. In most cases, they still have to buy expensive kitchen supplies, build their own stalls, and pay fairly high rents. But economies of scale come into the contracting, and hassles like grease traps are taken care of. It’s a bit like owning a condo instead of a house, a Chicago food hall barbecue owner explained to the Chicago Tribune. Plus, the foot traffic is considered a solid bet. Even one runaway success among a hall’s vendors can send overflow customers and dining companions around the room. In its most low-cost iteration, a food hall can just be a low-cost, varied dining experience—that’s the reason the model flourishes in East Asia.

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Developers now view food halls as anchors, as the kind of attraction that can hold down a luxury rental tower or attract corporate office tenants. “The ultimate amenity,” explained Chris Jaskiewicz, the COO of the Gotham Organization, which operates both the Gotham West rental building and the eponymous food hall on its ground floor. Jaskiewicz says he was the first to come up with the idea to use a food hall to anchor a residential development, offering tenants the big-city equivalent of a dormitory cafeteria they can access without putting their boots on. It’s worked out so well he’s done it again in Downtown Brooklyn with the Ashland, a food hall in the base of a rental building just a few blocks from the DeKalb Market Hall.

The hall that started it all, though, is probably Eataly, which the Italian businessman Oscar Farinetti opened in a shuttered vermouth factory in Turin in 2007. A franchise owned by a group including the chef Mario Batali opened in New York in 2010 and set off a frenzy. There are now a couple dozen Eatalys around the world, including five in the United States, and commercial real estate brokers are displaying a relatedly bullish attitude about food halls at large. Industry experts see the number of U.S. food halls multiplying over the next five years, as developers race to cash in on the craze.

If it all looks familiar, it’s because the food hall is the child of two American classics: the aforementioned food court and the old public market, a staple of civic space of the early 20th-century city. Built to provide street-market chaos with sanitary, weatherproof organization, the best of these buildings served as unifying emblems of their cities until well after the age of supermarkets was underway. A handful of them survived, notably Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market, Cleveland’s West Side Market, and Los Angeles’ Grand Central Market.* All of them were once places where people shopped for groceries to take home, and each has moved a varying distance away from that point.

The West Side Market is unusual in that it is in fact public, owned by the city of Cleveland. It’s a place where people come to buy groceries, and it’s thriving: The vacancy rate fell from 40 percent in 2009 to 2 percent in 2015. Reading Terminal Market, at the heart of Center City Philadelphia, has made a deliberate effort to maintain this function. No place in Philadelphia accepts more food stamps. Regular grocery shopping—as opposed to the expensive specialty products that lure people to Eataly—continues to be an important part of the experience, as it is at Eastern Market in Washington. That gives Reading the feeling of a genuine public space, where people of different means go to complete different objectives. Some people go just for the ambiance.

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Compare that with Grand Central Market, in Los Angeles, which was once such a model of working-class diversity that it was featured in a United States Information Agency propaganda film to fight the impression that America was a racist country. The Yellin family, which purchased the market in the 1980s, intended to revive its role as a downtown stalwart and gave it a higher-brow upgrade. By the Great Recession, though, vacancy was at 40 percent.

The market has finally caught fire; it is a must-visit Los Angeles destination for the Wallpaper set, thanks to spots like Eggslut and Wexler’s. But as part of that makeover, a handful of older businesses—a liquor store, an apothecary—have been pushed out in favor of more sophisticated offerings. In a great essay in Los Angeles magazine, Jesse Katz writes of feeling uneasy with how appealing the product of this cycle of regeneration and displacement is:

I enjoy seeing the market so full of life, the city’s exuberant food scene converging with downtown’s comeback, but I also find myself feeling uneasy about how much I like it. I liked the old market, too, but maybe I liked the idea of it more than the reality. A food hall that does not feed the imagination is at risk of becoming mummified. And yet if I like today’s reality more—I join friends here, I bring out-of-towners—I am perhaps less than enchanted with my socioeconomics having been the catalyst for the upgrade: the market reengineered to appeal to people like me, our expectations and tastes.

It’s not for me to say if the old version of Grand Central Market was worth preserving, or is even worth feeling nostalgic for. Looking forward, at the spate of food halls under construction, it seems unlikely that any of them would attempt to play that old civic role, to provide a space for farmers markets or other low-margin vendors. That kind of responsibility is inherited.

It’s hard to generalize in part because the food hall plays two different functions. In ultra–high rent cities such as New York or London (where an East Asian food hall called Bang Bang Oriental opens on Monday), a food hall can serve as an incubator or a refuge for aspiring chefs. Reading Terminal Market turns out the same.

In other places, though, food halls cater to a sense of see-what-looks-good whimsy that finds no foothold in the average American city. Most metropolises have precious few blocks with cheap, older storefront spaces and heavy pedestrian traffic. Food halls such as Lenexa Public Market outside Kansas City, Kansas, offer refreshing relief from the American chain store formula but assume the same concentrating function as malls (and sometimes are even set within them). For chefs, they reduce the risk of not selling any food by concentrating all the customers. For customers, they reduce the risk of not finding anything good by concentrating all the food. What produces that coveted feeling of authenticity is the sense food halls are genuine public space; more accurately, they are born of its absence.

Correction, July 7, 2017: This article originally misidentified Los Angeles’ Grand Central Market as Grand Terminal Market. (Return.)

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