Food halls: The ‘big’ thing in NYC dining

New York foodies have never had it better.

New York foodies have never had it better.

Indoor food halls have become one of the hottest trends in the city’s culinary scene, giving New Yorkers and tourists alike an array of cuisines all under one roof.

Aside from the variety in foods, with anywhere from four to more than a dozen vendors in one space, the halls offer restaurateurs the option of branching out at a lower cost.

“It all comes down to the economics of the city right now,” said Julian Hitchcock, founder of The F+B Group and lead consultant and curator of Gotham West Market, a 10,000-square foot market located on 11th Avenue between 44th and 45th streets. “Retail rents are extremely high and food halls become an attractive option for restaurant operators who want to expand.”

The food halls range in size, anywhere from 9,000 to 50,000 square feet, and number of vendors. Some places have as few as nine vendors, while others boast up to 30 food stands. Most of the food courts are located indoors, although a few have outdoor terraces for the warmer months.

Seven food halls have opened in the past five years in the city, from Gotham West Market to Eataly near Madison Square Park, Plaza Food Hall at the Plaza, Gansevoort Market in the Meatpacking District, Hudson Eats at Brookfield Place in Battery Park City, Berg’n in Crown Heights and City Kitchen in Times Square.

And more are on the way. Eataly’s founder, Oscar Farinetti, has announced plans to open two more Eataly locations in Manhattan, while a Nordic-themed food hall is slated to open in Vanderbilt Hall inside Grand Central Station as soon as 2016.

Big-time chefs are also jumping on the food hall bandwagon; last week, Crain’s New York reported that restaurateur Danny Meyer of Shake Shack fame is exploring opening up a 40,000-square-foot food court at Hudson Yards, while TV star Anthony Bourdain is opening a food hall called Bourdain Market on Pier 57 at the Hudson River, according to the Commercial Observer.

Rent increases have hurt restaurants, prompting 82 of them to close in the first 10 months of 2014, according to a Zagat Survey.

That is double the number of the previous year making it harder for the mom-and-pop shops to remain open, which gives them the option of stands at food halls.

In midtown, rents for restaurants can start off at $250 per square foot.

Compared with stand-alone locales, food halls are a low-cost option with a big reward considering the high number of pedestrians.

Yet what sets NYC food halls apart is the quality of the cuisine offered. You will not find a Panda Express or Sbarro, but foodie-friendly establishments such as Black Seed Bagel in Hudson Eats and offshoots of restaurants, like Ilili Box in City Kitchen.

Jessica Fisher, manager of Ilili Box, said the food they serve at the food court is the same high-quality “prepared-from-scratch” fare as at the restaurant but offered at the food court at a “much lower price point” than at the brick-and-mortar restaurant. It might also be differently presented.

“The lamb at the restaurant might be a big piece of meat, but served in a lamb shawarma at Box,” she said.

Locals and tourists can enjoy fine dining without the hassle of restaurant reservations and many even offer deals to surrounding businesses. Ilili Box offers corporate discounts and gets lots of customers from workers at Microsoft, Bank of America, Viacom and other businesses with branches nearby.

Food courts are also the perfect solution for hardworking, time-pressed New Yorkers, she said.

“Food right now is grab and go. It’s not McDonald’s fast food but you still get your food in five minutes,” Fisher said.

Some diners prefer that many choices are offered instead of the same items on a menu at a sit-down site.

Blake Hilton, 26, who was recently dining at City Kitchen with his friend Desiree Azizoddin, 25, both doctoral students from Los Angeles, said they like food halls because “there are more options, we all want to eat different things.”

“We like the idea of individual things, we have enough chains,” Azizoddin said. “I really like that [the new style food courts] support independence and creativity. I wish there was more of that in this world.”

Although the concept of food halls are attractive to startups, most house established brand restaurants like Luke’s Lobsters, which see the potential of having a stand and not feel as if they’re infringing upon another chef’s space even if it is smaller than an actual restaurant.

“We’re really happy to be here. There’s such a good variety of food options, it doesn’t feel as if we’re competing with the neighboring vendors,” said Connor Rockefeller, manager at Luke’s Lobster. “All the vendors are established businesses in the city, everyone knows what they’re doing.”

Despite the food hall craze, similar venues exist throughout the country making it a not-so-new concept. But the draw is in the staying power and a little good food goes a long way.

“Amazing food halls have existed outside of this country for a very long time, we are finally catching up to the rest of the world,” Hitchcock said. “I don’t see food halls simply fading away. They cost a lot of money to build. Like any business, the good ones will stay and some will probably not make it.”

Karina E. Cuevas