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The Manhattan Food Court Manual

Critic Robert Sietsema prowls the city’s giant new dining campuses

Food courts constitute the most significant development in restaurant real estate this decade. Throw a dumpling in any direction in certain parts of town, and you're sure to hit one. Occupying outsize and under-utilized spaces, these tumultuous places generate relatively high rents for their developers, give restaurateurs a chance to test concepts without investing in an entire storefront, and offer consumers a much broader range of choices than a single restaurant could do. This is an especial advantage for picky eaters or patrons who prefer the colorful and noisy food court ambiance.

On the downside, sometimes the food isn't good or a good deal, and you find yourself paying a premium for novelty and selection while having to wait in long lines. In addition, food courts are generally not as comfortable as restaurants, offering insufficient seating and leaving you to scramble to find a place to eat. Still, everyone finds them convenient and fun to visit at least once in a while. Here is Eater's guide to Manhattan food courts, listed from south to north. Hours given are those for the entire food court; times may vary for individual stalls.


Hudson Eats

[Bottom: brisket from Mighty Quinn's and a squid salad from Blue Ribbon Sushi.]

Address: Brookfield Place, 200 Vesey St, 2nd floor

Phone: (212) 417-7000

Hours: Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Opened: June 2014

Area: 35,000 sq ft

Seating: This is one food court with more seating than most, accommodating 600 at booths, tables, and counters. You can also take your purchases and eat them in the Palm Court or, weather permitting, outside. Some of the most prized booths inside Hudson Eats feature glorious views of the Hudson River, best at sunset.

No. of vendors: 14

Alcohol: beer and wine

Observations: This food court is relatively luxurious, with big picture windows and lots of booth seating, and the food can be a cut above the usual food court fodder. Nevertheless, the place is mobbed with office workers and tourists at lunchtime on weekdays and at random times of the day on weekends. Go weekday evenings for a more relaxed experience, when specials are sometimes offered.

Three Great Choices: Mighty Quinn's beef brisket sandwich ($9.15), Northern Tiger's lamb dumplings with spicy sauce (6 for $8), Blue Ribbon's squid salad ($8)

List of Vendors: Black Seed (bagels), Blue Ribbon Sushi, Chop't (salads), Dig Inn (seasonal fare), Dos Toros (tacos and burritos), Little Muenster (grilled cheese), Mighty Quinn's (Texas BBQ), Northern Tiger (Northern Chinese), Num Pang (Cambodian sandwiches), Olive's (salads, sandwiches, soups), Skinny Pizza (ultra-thin crust), Sprinkles (cupcakes), Tartinery (French open-face sandwiches), Umami Burger


Gansevoort Market

[Bottom: Cappone's Gallo sandwich and a crepe from Crepe Sucre]

Address: 52 Gansevoort St

Phone: (212) 242-1701

Hours: 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., seven days

Opened: November 2014

Area: 8,000 sq ft

Seating: Sunny atrium area with mismatched chairs and tables, fairly well-spaced. Some stalls have counter seating; two tables outdoors on the sidewalk

No. of vendors: 21 (with 2 additional empty stalls)

Alcohol: none

Observations: This MePa yearling looks like the ancient warehouse that it once was with bare bricks and a distressed wood build-out, making it more handsome and comfortable than most food courts. Its patrons tend to be gallery-goers and families rather than office workers, and there's a pleasant, laid back atmosphere. However the turnover of tenants has been high, and sometimes the stall clerks and cooks seem glum at the apparent lack of traffic.

Three Great Choices: Myers of Keswick's full English breakfast (served till 4 p.m., $14); Cappone's gallo sandwich with mortadella, provolone, and eggplant caponata ($10); Crepe Sucre's eponymous crepe sucre ($4.50)

List of Vendors: Bagel Story, Bangkok Bar (Thai), Bruffin Café (sweet and savory pastries), Cappone's (Italian sandwiches), Champion Coffee, Crepe Sucre (sweet and savory crepes), Dana's Bakery (macarons), Donostia (Basque tapas), Ed's Lobster Bar (lobster rolls, chowders), Feel Food (bowls, salads, juices), Heermance Farm (fruits, prepared salads), Il Conte (pastas), Luzzo's (pizza), Meatball Guys, Mission Ceviche, M'o (gelato), Myers of Keswick (pastries, breakfasts), Palenque (Colombian), Tease NYC (teas), Tacombi (tacos), Terranean (Middle Eastern)


Grand Central Dining Concourse

[Bottom: matzo ball soup from Mendy's and a grandma slice from Two Boots]

Address: Grand Central Terminal Lower Level, 89 E 42nd St

Phone: (212) 340-2345

Hours: Monday through Thursday, 6:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Opened: October 1999

Area: 55,000 sq ft

Seating: Lots of seating at small tables and along semi-circular pews in the center, with a greater proportion of seats to dining counters than usual. Some establishments have captive dedicated seating

No. of vendors: 19

Alcohol: wine, beer, and mixed drinks (the latter inside the Two Boots bar)

Observations: The Grand Central Dining Concourse is both the oldest and the largest of the city's food courts. It can be off-puttingly crowded and even a bit seedy, with the average level of food quality slightly lower than most food courts. Despite the necessity of buyer beware, there are still plenty of good things to eat and a broader array of dining establishments than usual. For example, it's the only food court with Indian fare, a kosher deli, and a Shake Shack.

Three Great Choices: Two Boots' fresh-mozzarella grandma slice ($4.25), Shake Shack's Shackburger ($5.19), Mendy's matzo ball soup ($5.50)

List of Vendors: Café Spice (Indian), Chirping Chicken (rotisserie), Dishes (panini, smoothies), Eata Pita (Middle Eastern), Feng Shui (Chinese), Frankies Dogs On The Go (hot dogs), Golden Krust (Jamaican), Hale and Hearty Soups, Irving Farm Coffee Roasters, Jacques Torres Ice Cream, Magnolia Bakery (cupcakes), Manhattan Chili Company, Mendy's Kosher Dairy (bagels, appetizing), Mendy's Kosher Deli (meats, soups), Shake Shack (burgers), Shiro of Japan (sushi), Thai Toon (pan-Asian), Tri Tip Grill (salads, sandwiches), Two Boots (pizza)


City Kitchen

Ramen from Kuro-Obi Robert Sietsema

[Clockwise from the top left: City Kitchen dining room, Whitmans burger, Dough's salted caramel chocolate doughnut, and ramen from Kuro-Obi.]

Address: 700 8th Ave, 2nd floor

Phone: (646) 863-0901

Hours: Sunday through Wednesday, 6:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Thursday through Saturday, 6:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m.

Opened: March 2015

Area: 4,000 sq ft

Seating: A few small tables pushed together in the center of the horseshoe-shaped space; stools by some counters, stools in the windows — really not much seating, but there's an overflow area that overlooks the adjacent hotel lobby.

No. of vendors: 8

Alcohol: beer

Observations: The relatively compact size and small number of vendors may be because this food court is close to Times Square, so space is at a premium. It's just off the lobby of the Row NYC Hotel, and the periodic inflow of tourist buses establishes the rhythm of the food court: empty one minute, mobbed the next. Decent sushi, great donuts, good burgers, and better-than-average tacos barely distract most visitors from the novel "shaved snow" ices.

Three Great Choices: Kuro-Obi's shiro classic Tokyo-style ramen ($12), Whitmans' upstate cheeseburger with fries ($13), Dough's salted caramel chocolate doughnut ($3)

List of Vendors: Azuki (sushi), Box (Lebanese), Dough (doughnuts), Gabriela's (Mexican), Kuro Obi (ramen), Luke's (seafood rolls), Whitmans (hamburgers), Wooly's Shaved Snow (frozen desserts).


Gotham West Market

[Clockwise from the top left: Gotham West dining room, tamale from Choza, El Colmado, and breakfast ramen from Ivan Ramen Slurp Shop.]

Address: 600 11th Ave

Phone: (212) 582-7940

Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 7 a.m. to midnight

Opened: November 2013

Area: 12,000 sq ft

Seating: Small wooden picnic tables in the center, backless and backed stools around round high tables, comfortable counter seating along several individual establishments

No. of vendors: 10

Alcohol: beer, wine, mixed drinks (Cannibal only)

Observations: Most counters at Gotham West stay open relatively late, which is a boon to those who want a quick bite after a movie or a show. Also, it's one of the few food courts where you can get a cocktail. Much interesting and high-quality food, with a certain amount of chef firepower, but fewer options overall than you might hope for. Located very far west in a neighborhood that feels like the frontier.

Three Great Choices: Choza Taqueria's tamale with poached egg ($4.36), Ivan Ramen Slurp Shop's breakfast ramen ($13), Cannibal's butcher's salad ($11)

List of Vendors: Ample Hills (ice cream), Indie Fresh (paleo, vegan), Blue Bottle (coffee), Cannibal (charcuterie, sandwiches), Choza Taqueria, El Colmado (tapas), Evelyn's Kitchen (cakes and cookies), Genuine Roadside (burgers, seafood), Ivan Ramen Slurp Shop (noodles, steamed bao), Uma Temakeria (hand rolls and sushi bowls)


Urbanspace Vanderbilt

[Clockwise from the top left: Urbanspace Vanderbilt, Asiadog, broccoli taco from No. 7, and a pizza from Roberta's.]

Address: 230 Park Ave (entrance at 45th St and Vanderbilt Ave)

Phone: (212) 529-9262

Hours: Monday through Friday, 6:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Opened: September 2015

Area: 12,000 sq ft

Seating: Low picnic tables crammed in the center; some counters have a few dedicated stools; a few high stools by the windows look out on Vanderbilt Ave.

No. of vendors: 21

Alcohol: beer and wine

Observations: The operator is Urbanspace, a company known for its outdoor temporary food courts, and this place reflects that accumulated knowledge, with virtually no wasted space and a list of vendors that skews toward participants with brick-and-mortar establishments and a few ambitious companies that concentrate their efforts on food courts. The place is absurdly crowded at lunch on weekdays; avoid that time and go on a Saturday or Sunday. The food court has lots of vegetarian options.

Three great choices: No. 7 Veggie's double decker broccoli taco ($6); AsiaDog's banh-mi style frankfurter ($5.05); Roberta's Axl Rosenberg pizza, with hot soppressata, mushrooms, garlic, and jalapenos  ($12/$17)

List of Vendors: A.B. Biagi (gelato), Amali Mou (Greek), AsiaDog (frankfurters), Bar Suzette (crepes and burger), Dough (Doughnuts), Bangkok Bar (Thai), Delaney Chicken (fried chicken sandwiches), Hong Kong Street Cart (Pan-Asian), La Palapa (tacos), Maiden Lane (canned seafood), Mayhem & Stout (braised meat sandwiches), Mimi's Hummus (Middle Eastern), No. 7 Veggie (vegetarian tacos and burgers), Ovenly (bakery), Red Hook Lobster Pound (lobsters rolls, chowders, raw oysters), Roberta's (pizza), Sigmund's (pretzels and pretzel sandwiches), Sips & Bites (soups, salads, toasts), Takumi Taco (Japanese-Mexican fusion), Toby's Estate (coffee), Two Tablespoons (vegetarian bowls).


The Plaza Food Hall

The Plaza Food Hall Robert Sietsema

[Top: The dining room.  Bottom: entrance, and cheesecake from Lady M.]

Address: 1 W 59th St

Phone: (212) 986-9260

Hours: Monday through Saturday, 8 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Opened: June 2010

Area: 32,000 sq ft

Seating: Low tables amid greenery, high tables with high-backed stools, captive seating inside some semi-walled-off spaces. But as with the other food courts, not enough seating at peak hours.

No. of vendors: 21

Alcohol: wine and beer

Observations: This is probably the most opulent food court you're likely to see, with lots of bakeries that make great sandwiches and pastries, wine bars, coffee and tea houses, and an unusual mix of tenants for a food court, with little straining at hipsterism. You have a chance to blow $300 on caviar, though there are some bargains to be had, too. The biggest drawback (or maybe advantage) is that the space seems more European than American. There are a few unexpected cheesy elements here, too.

Three Great Choices: Chi Noodle Bar's pho ($15), Pain Avignon's tomato quiche with a side salad ($10), Lady M's cheesecake ($7)

List of Vendors: Billy's Bakery (cupcakes, pies), Chi Noodle Bar (dim sum), Epicerie Boulud (sausages, salads), FP Patisserie (pastries), Kusmi Tea, Lady M (pastries, cheesecakes), La Maison du Chocolat, Luke's Lobster (seafood rolls, chowders), No. 7 Sub (hero sandwiches), Olma Caviar Boutique & Bar, Ora di Pasta, Pain D'Avignon (sandwiches, salads, quiches), Piada (flatbread sandwiches, small plates), Pizza Rollio, Sabi Sushi, Tartinery (French open-face sandwiches), Todd English Food Hall (pizza, pasta, raw bar), Vin Sur Vingt (wine bar), Vive la Crepe, William Greenberg Desserts, YoArt Frozen Yogurt Boutique


Conclusions

In our visits and revisits to these seven food courts, we discovered that most of them were not as popular as they had been during their opening weeks. In fact, several yawned half-empty during peak weekday lunch periods. One employee of Gotham West confided that the daytime patronage depended on what was going on at the nearby Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum. Smaller and nearer to Times Square, City Kitchen fills up when buses of high school students pull up before Broadway theater performances, and then the kids flock to the Wooly's shaved snow counter, which, along with the Shake Shack in the Grand Central Dining Concourse, had some of the longest lines we encountered. The rapid turnover of stalls at some food courts suggests that maybe the phenomenon is not as durable as we might imagine, and at least two courts have curtailed their hours over what they were at the outset. Ivan Ramen Slurp Shop, for example, is no longer serving breakfast. A vendor at Hudson Eats revealed: "This place is simply dead during most times of the day. Everyone descends at lunch, but in the morning there's no traffic to speak of."

The best food is to be found at the Plaza Food Hall and Gotham West Market. The worst food overall is at the Grand Central Dining Concourse. Urbanspace Vanderbilt and the Plaza Food Hall are currently tied for most popular, with Hudson Eats a close second. The best seating by far is at Hudson Eats. The saddest food court — but also the most relaxing — is Gansevoort Market, which will move out in mid-2016 to make way for the revamped Pastis.

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