NEW YORK — You’re in the Big Apple, you’re hungry and have a hankering for steak tacos. But your companions each want ramen, pizza, and a healthy salad. Solution? Head to one of the city’s bustling food halls where everyone eats what they want and you can still share the same table.
A food hall is one-stop shopping for eating. The concept isn’t new — Boston has a few food halls/markets and there are plans for more, including High Street Place in the Financial District and Time Out Market in the Fenway area. But their numbers are growing and they are improving. The selection of vendors isn’t haphazard; the word is “curated.” Developers prize variety, quality, novelty, and, of course, customer appeal. The “give ’em what they want” approach means food halls are rarely without sushi, ramen, tacos, pizza, salads, and grain bowls, smoothies and juices, coffee, doughnuts, and ice cream.
In addition to choice, food halls offer shelter. You’re protected from uncomfortable humidity in summer and frigid winds in winter. It’s like strolling a busy street market without getting your feet wet. And when you bite into those tacos next to a stranger slurping noodles, there’s even a feeling of community.
The best of the best, in my opinion, is the 20-year-old Chelsea Market . A full block long with almost 50 food vendors, it’s a gastronomic playground. Eat baked goods at Sarabeth’s Bakery and Amy’s Bread, hummus dishes at Dizengoff, and, at Miznon, the only US outpost of the Israeli restaurant, pita sandwiches, such as za’atar omelet, lamb kebab, and wild mushrooms, and its famous (baby) heads of roasted cauliflower. Another Israeli import: the best halva around and freshly ground tahini at Seed + Mill. Get grilled cheese sandwiches at Saxelby Cheesemongers, and steamed lobster and raw oysters at the Lobster Place. Yes, there are also brownies, crepes, sausages, banh mi, and noodles. At 3 p.m. on a hot summer day, the longest line was, not surprisingly, for L’Arte del Gelato; second longest, Los Tacos No. 1.
Next on my list is DeKalb Market Hall in Brooklyn, where over three dozen vendors serve up burgers, kebabs, noodles, dumplings, tacos, Italian subs, ice cream, and more. There are morning pastries and breads at Cafe D’Avignon; jerk chicken from Likkle More Jerk; brisket and ribs at Fletcher’s Brooklyn Barbecue; and Steve’s Authentic Key Lime Pie. One of the big attractions is Katz’s Deli, the only branch of the iconic 130-year-old Lower East Side institution. Wrap your hands around a three-quarter-pound, 2½-inch-tall pile of hot pastrami or corned beef on rye. (Sticker shock warning: it’s $20-plus for a sandwich, but it’s a meal for two.) You won’t go thirsty either: check out the more than 100 cold beers at Craft + Carry.
Third place goes to Urbanspace Vanderbilt , a lively eatery with a Coney Island vibe in midtown. An eating frenzy at lunchtime, what’s not to love when there’s pizza from Roberta’s (of Brooklyn fame), complete with a wood-burning oven and pizza makers twirling dough; lobster rolls and “chowdah” at Red Hook Lobster Pound; burgers, hot dogs, and shakes at Hard Times Sundaes; and doughnuts from Dough. You can grab veggie bowls and pita pockets at Mimi’s Hummus and Greek-style gyros and salads at Amali Mou. If you have a few minutes to spare, watch the cooks at Mr. Bing make jianbing, the popular Chinese breakfast street food. They spread batter on a round griddle, brush it with egg, flip it, add hoisin, chili paste, scallions, cilantro, wonton chips for crunch, and your choice of duck, pork, chicken, or other fillings, fold, slice, and pack it to go.
For a grand location but ho-hum food hall, there’s the Nordic inspired Great Northern Food Hall in Grand Central Station. Best bets are pastries and breads at Meyers Bageri; open-face Danish rye sandwiches at Open Rye, with toppings such as roast beef with horseradish remoulade and smoked salmon with sliced radishes and herb mayo; and Nordic-style cocktails at The Bar.
Turnstyle Underground Market is not only underground but it’s connected to the 59th Street Columbus Circle subway station. No fare required. First stop, Bolivian Llama Party for saltenas (”Not an Empanada!”) which are Bolivian-style baked turnovers filled with a tasty stew. Start digging in with a knife and fork (they’re saucy!) and when you feel emboldened, eat it like a hand pie, pouring on the piquant green sauce, made with cilantro, parsley, and jalapeno. Gimmicky but fun are waffle cones filled with fried chicken chunks at Chick’nCone with six different sauce options. Everything down under is eaten to the rumble of distant subway trains.
For dessert, make a beeline for Mochidoki. The “mochi” are beautifully colored pucks of slightly chewy rice dough wrapped ice cream. The jewel-like sweets come in more than 15 flavors, including Passion Fruit, Lychee Colada, Salted Caramel, and Matcha Green Tea.
For a ritzier subterranean experience, walk a few blocks east to The Plaza Food Hall . At this sweet-lovers’ paradise feast on Lady M’s crepe cakes, Billy’s Bakery cupcakes, William Greenberg’s cookies (including Black & Whites), and Frannie’s YoArt (frozen yogurt and candy store combo). For savory options, consider open-face sandwiches at Tartinery, lobster rolls from Luke’s Lobster, and tasty bowls at Chi Dumpling & Noodles.
In the once gang- and gangster-dominated but gentrifying Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, Gotham West Market boasts a satisfying mix of foods, including noodle dishes at Ivan Ramen Slurp Shop; rotisserie chicken salad bowls (like the super Phunky Chicken salad) at Whirlybird + greens; Spanish tapas at El Colmado; and good ol’ burgers and sweet potato fries at Genuine Roadside. Save room for Ample Hills Creamery’s luscious ice cream, with to-die-for flavors like Salted Crack’d Caramel, Hell’s Kitchen Sink (dark chocolate Guinness ice cream with spiced brownies and toffee pieces), and Ooey Gooey Butter Cake, containing chunks of the custardy St. Louis classic.
Back in the Meatpacking District, a block from Chelsea Market, is the petite Gansevoort Market , which has a rugged, woodsy feel. Here you can eat cereal (or have your favorites mixed into ice cream) and sip a smoothie from a carved-out fruit bowl. Simply Hooked makes fish and chips, fish sandwiches, and tacos using only sustainable Northeast fish, including Atlantic pollock, spiny dogfish, and Acadian redfish. Another seafood option is Mission Ceviche for Peruvian-style bowls featuring citrus-marinated fish with various accompaniments.
There are many other food halls scattered throughout the city’s boroughs for wherever you might find yourself hungry. If you can’t decide what to eat, graze from vendor to vendor in the course of one meal, kind of like a progressive dinner party. No one’s watching. You can even start with dessert.
Lisa Zwirn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.