If there is an architectural expression of New York’s current obsession with food, it is the food hall. Combining elements of the enclosed public markets of the 19th century with the food courts of the 1970s, today’s food halls constitute, as one writer observed, “the most significant development in restaurant real estate this decade.”
In contrast to the tightly choreographed space of a restaurant, in which architecture and food unite in support of a single chef’s vision, food halls bring together a vibrant mix of vendors, cuisines, and activities under one roof—a commingling of takeout counters and cafes, bars and grocers, kitchen suppliers and community hubs. For consumers, they offer options; for chefs and purveyors, they are incubators for new ideas; for developers, they are important amenities in a crowded marketplace.
The elasticity of the food hall model is more than just a gimmick. With land costs and storefront space in New York more expensive than ever, food halls can be seen as a necessary adaptation by chefs and purveyors, a way to reduce capital investments while sustaining the city as a dynamic culinary hub. Where food courts of the past were all about speed and value, today’s food halls feature “curated collections” of vendors that celebrate and foreground the sourcing of ingredients and the process of making. This reflects a desire on the part of owners and tenants alike to foster a certain attitude or aesthetic, allowing the popularity of a given site (and its potency as a space for experimentation) to transcend fads and outlast the explosive boom-bust cycle that can be triggered by the viral success of a particular dish.
For diners living in the age of #FOMO, food halls provide maximum flexibility for gatherings and display. Food halls allow eaters to mix and match, to try new things, to come and go as they please, and to offer a multiplicity of sources for posting to social media. There was a time when snagging a reservation for a hot restaurant was a marker of social currency. Today, it is the Instagram photo of the hottest new dish.
Food halls are more and more becoming places where neighbors and friends bump into each other unexpectedly, serving a function similar to the city’s bustling sidewalks. These types of casual interactions are what build a sense of community in a neighborhood over time, and add a sense of serendipity to urban life. At the same time, food halls are seen by some as totems of gentrification, spaces that, while open to all, may only seem welcoming to a few.
By exploring the design, function, and management of these spaces, the last set of tours in Open House New York’s The Final Mile series will examine what urban food halls can tell us about how we eat—and live—now.