Americans clamoring for better food served with less fuss are finding the answer in a European tradition. Food halls, the grown-up, more-diverse cousin of the mall food court, are trending in the U.S., revitalizing buildings and drawing in diners with ramen kiosks, French pastry shops and Jewish delis, all clustered around common dining rooms.
“It reflects the way younger consumers are looking to eat out,” says Meherwan Irani, the James Beard Award-nominated chef and restaurateur behind the brick-and-mortar Indian street-food concept Chai Pani.
Food halls, he adds, have provided diners easier access to a growing category of healthier fast-casual dining. Irani’s own foray into that category is the bustling Botiwalla, which he opened in Atlanta’s Ponce City Market Central Food Hall.
Courtesy of Jamestown
Courtesy of Jamestown
It’s a trend followed by many top chefs who are searching for a way to capitalize on a shift toward faster food with more flavor than frills. “The grab-and-go types of options are going to continue to grow and evolve, and food halls are a perfect way to capture that shift,” says Irani.
Botiwalla evokes the energy of late nights in India, where grills kept cold during the day — in deference to vegetarian Hindus — emerge in a haze of sizzling meat and revelry.
It’s a similar spirit to what pervades modern food halls, which foster convivial dining and the sort of freedom, flexibility and buzzing energy that comes from having so many food operations gathered together.
“It’s a wonderful energy,” said Irani. “People are coming to the market to have this experiential discovery.”
Ponce City Market has revitalized a goliath former Sears, Roebuck & Co., with 300,000 of its 2.1 million square feet devoted to retail shops and restaurants, the remainder to residential flats and loft-like office space.
At the heart is a hive of about two dozen restaurant concepts and food shops, many driven by pedigreed chefs with recognizable names, like chef Hugh Acheson, who owns Spiller Park Coffee. Sean Brock, of Husk fame, has a casual-Mexican concept called Minero.
In part driven by similar big names, Atlanta’s food hall inventory is growing. New York City, however, is arguably food hall central, with dozens of warrens of eclectic food dotting the city.
The 20-year-old Chelsea Market occupies a former Oreo factory in the Meatpacking District, and sprawls an entire city block. There, you can buy sushi from famed Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto or browse a book store.
In Midtown Manhattan, The Plaza Food Hall spans 32,000 subterranean square feet below the Plaza Hotel. There, Daniel Boulud’s Épicerie Boulud serves charcuterie, soups and baked goods. Chef Todd English has nine diverse food stations, including a dumpling bar, a taqueria and a wine bar.
Customers are thrilled by cheaper access to big-name chefs, but food halls are also a boon for the chefs, who can test new concepts with lower operating costs, says Trevor Sherman, the Plaza’s food and beverage director.
“It gives them freedom to explore their creative side, as well as try new dishes," he says. "Where rent is higher in a brick-and-mortar establishment, food halls levy multiple tenants to keep costs down, and communal areas offer a lower overhead for the chef.”
Not all food halls are anchored by big-name culinary stars. At St. Roch Market in New Orleans, a food hall built in a Hurricane Katrina-ravaged former open-air market, up-and-coming chefs sell avocado toast, Haitian food and fresh-caught seafood in a cohesively designed, airy space.
Restaurant ownership is an inherently speculative business, and food halls defray the start-up costs of the gamble, says St. Roch Market CEO Will Donaldson, who adds that he takes care of everything from tax filing to plumbing so chefs can focus on food and innovation rather than plunging toilets.
"We take away the annoying bits and let people focus on what they're good at," he adds.
As a result, St. Roch has become somewhat of a business incubator, one which Travel + Leisure Magazine calls one of the world’s best food halls.
St. Roch has some turnover, with up to two restaurants replaced with new ventures each year, Donaldson says. “But 90 percent of that turnover is because individuals used the platform for what it was designed for, and are off doing the next thing because of it,” he explains.
For his part, Irani plans to stick with food halls, in which he plans to open more Botiwalla eateries.
“Great chefs around the country are coming up with fast-casual concepts with the potential for growth, simply because of the emergence of food halls, and I think it’s a very important niche in fast-casual dining,” he says. “Food halls encourage chefs to try new concepts they might not have otherwise experimented with. I think the dining public only benefits when chefs try something new.”