Artisanal movement reaches the food court scene

Eataly in New York has been wildly popular. It has another location in Chicago.
Charles Sykes/Associated Press/File 2010
Eataly in New York has been wildly popular. It has another location in Chicago.

NEW YORK — In Singapore’s equivalent of food courts, hawkers sell steaming bowls of noodles, giant crabs in pepper sauce, and slices of pungent durian. In Barcelona, patrons at the La Boqueria nibble finely aged ham and buy fresh produce to prepare at home.

And in the United States? Historically, its food courts have been a wasteland of spongy pretzels, greasy fried rice, and endless burgers.

But that was Food Court 1.0.


Recently, shoppers have witnessed a reboot of the food court, as sumptuous farmers markets-slash-gourmet eateries become increasingly common.

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‘‘They’re exciting, delicious, affordable, democratic places to eat,’’ says Stephen Werther, chief executive of Wink Retail Group, which has partnered with food personality Anthony Bourdain to create a New York food hall — today’s preferred nomenclature — featuring dishes from around the world. ‘‘It’s really just America catching up with some of the wonderful ways the rest of the world eats.’’

Bourdain joins other name-brand chefs such as Todd English, who opened a food hall in New York’s Plaza Hotel in 2010, and Mario Batali, whose Italian-themed Eataly, now in New York and Chicago, may be the best-known US food halls.

‘‘In history, markets and collective food areas have been around forever,’’ says Sam Oches, editor of QSR Magazine, which covers the quick-service and fast-casual dining industry. ‘‘What Mario Batali and Anthony Bourdain are doing is to brand it and make it something that’s a little bit bigger in terms of its scale and its exposure.’’

And that has paved the way for others, Ochs says. In Washington, retail developer Edens revived a vintage venue to create Union Market, a 40-artisan food hall. In Seattle, a high-end ‘‘shellfish deli’’ and other local vendors reside in Melrose Market in a renovated auto garage that smacks of cool. In Chicago, the French Market brings together more than 30 vendors.


Markets, of course, have been around for decades, even in the United States. Venues such as Seattle’s Pike Place Market and North Market in Columbus, Ohio, have long attracted tourists. And of course there is San Francisco’s Ferry Building Marketplace. But for most Americans, the food hall experience has mostly been limited to the mall food court, a pale imitation of what the rest of the world has long enjoyed.

The spate of new options caters to the country’s emerging culinary sophistication. When Sebastien Bensidoun opened his first market in a Chicago suburb 16 years ago, he says it nearly failed. But when he launched Chicago French Market in 2009, the country was ready, says Bensidoun, whose family is the largest operator of markets in and around Paris.

He now operates 16 markets in the Chicago area.

Bensidoun says he often receives calls from other regions asking him to open a market. Recent interest, he says, has come from Florida, California, and Texas. His next project, he says, will be a food hall in New York City.

Difficult times also have fostered the trend of multiple independent vendors in a communal space. At the same time large retailers have been reluctant to take on new spaces, smaller merchants have seen an opportunity to share rent, utilities, and other costs.


The mall food court still exists, “but it’s giving the consumer multiple different options,’’ says Jesse Tron, spokesman for the International Council of Shopping Centers, noting that healthier, more diverse options are increasingly common. Well-known chefs also are opening mall venues, Tron says, and even kiosks are used for things like sushi.

But true food halls probably will continue to represent the top of the food chain in communal eating.

‘‘Food halls are not a new idea,’’ Bourdain’s partner Werther says. ‘‘Food halls are a wonderful old idea whose time has come around again.’’