When it started out nearly 22 years ago, Chelsea Market aimed at providing warehousing and manufacturing facilities for small food-oriented businesses, many that would have retail outlets on the premises catering to professional and home cooks. For those of us who dabbled in the kitchen, it was paradise.
Wandering through the near-empty halls of the old Nabisco factory — where Oreos were invented — one could drop in on a butcher, an upstate dairy, a kitchenware concern, a shop selling groceries from Italy, an amazingly diverse fruit and vegetable stand, a Thai food store, and a bakery whose excellent loaves you could see being made through large plate glass windows. Planning a dinner party? Chelsea Market was your one-stop destination!
But as Chelsea Market grew into a tourist mecca, attracting gawkers more than serious cooks, a gradual change took place. Among the commercial establishments, old-timers disappeared, while those that remained trundled out counters peddling prepared foods. Soon, food court-type enclaves appeared as further spaces were carved out of the complex. Today, the old Nabisco factory is a de facto food court, offering around 40 distinct dining options, and those who once went there for fresh fish or a bottle of balsamic are often frightened away by the milling tourist hordes.
The volume of visitors most times of the day and the number of dining options guarantee that there is never enough seating, even though certain establishments have designated seating areas. So be prepared to wait in line for your goodies, and eat them standing up. To avoid these problems come before 11 a.m. or around 4 p.m. on weekdays, or after 6 p.m. on weekends.
Alternately, seek tables and chairs downstairs in the recently opened basement, dubbed Chelsea Local. There, find several of the original retail food businesses banished from the main floor, including the wonderful Buon Italia — selling a stunning range of Italian groceries as well as prepared snacks and sandwiches — as well as the original fruit and vegetable market. Also find the newly expanded public restrooms, which are magnificent compared to the original facilities.
The range of dining options and their general excellence suggest that Chelsea Market is now the best food court in Manhattan. Here is Eater’s recently updated guide, featuring the 10 best things to eat, determined after years of snacking.
Chelsea Market’s 10 best dishes
Adobada taco at Los Tacos No. 1
This ramshackle stall looks like something that was flown here from a beach in San Diego, and that’s more or less what the spare menu represents. One look at the twirling cylinder of dripping pork surmounted by a pineapple lets you know just what to order. Here we’d call it al pastor. This is one of the city’s most addictive tacos, and the excellent housemade tortillas keep pace. ($3.75)
Tingly cumin lamb soup at Very Fresh Noodles
Treading on the turf of Xi’an Famous Foods, but adding some impressive notions of its own, this Chinese handmade noodle shop turns out some amazing noodles. They’re of uneven width and thickness, having been hand-pulled, hand-slapped, and hand-torn. The soup is fiery as hell and richly flavored, with a nice sprinkle of Sichuan peppercorns. The formerly slim stall now has a more prominent and significantly larger location toward the Ninth Street entrance. ($12.86)
Hot dog at Dickson’s Farmstand Meats
This artisanal butcher has been gradually adding prepared foods to its roster, tucking things here and there around the shop, while most of the raw meats moved downstairs into a separate alcove. Rotisserie chickens, sandwiches, and roasted vegetables are available upstairs, but perhaps most beguiling are the gourmet hot dogs, which are large and assertively flavored. Raw onions are free, and so are a number of mustards and other condiments. Chili is available at extra cost, but none is needed. ($5.50)
Chocolate fudge milkshake at Creamline
Creamline was once the market’s dairy store, peddling the products of Ronnybrook Farms, with case after refrigerated case of milk and dozens of other dairy products. Gradually those cases dwindled down to a single one, and obscure items like quark disappeared completely. Now it’s a locally sourced hamburger joint with some stand-up seating. The burger and fries are decent, but the chocolate milkshakes are spectacular, a perfect way to consume all your calories for an entire meal. ($6.95)
Whole lobster at the Lobster Place
Name notwithstanding, the Lobster Place is one of the city’s best seafood markets, offering everything from line-caught ocean fish to sea urchins — spikes and all. Not too long ago, sushi counters and other prepared-foods areas were added all over the store, making it hopelessly labyrinthine. The most popular feature are the whole lobsters, offered deep in the interior in a variety of sizes, served steamed with drawn butter. (1 ¼ pounds to 3 ½ pounds, $30.95 to $86.95)
Sinatra at Cappone’s Salumeria
This Sicilian-themed sandwich stall was originally located at Gansevoort Market. It moved into a sunny space at the Chelsea Market next to some standing tables by windows that face 15th Street, complete with a secret side entrance onto the street that permits a fast exit after you finish your sandwich. Available on several types of bread, the Sinatra is a behemoth stuffed with Italian tuna, eggplant caponata, and fontina cheese. Get it on a focaccia; one sandwich feeds two people. ($12.50)
Cherry tart at Sarabeth’s
Sarabeth’s has become a formidable presence throughout the city — it has five locations including the Upper East Side original — but this small pastry shop with some nice seating at a communal table is the flagship, with the bakery visible next door. You can’t go wrong with the tart of the day, which in this case is latticed cherry with granulated sugar on top for a slight crunch. The cherries are deliriously tart. ($4.50)
Crostini at Corkbuzz
Halfway between the main entrances of Chelsea Market, Corkbuzz provides a little oasis of comfort, with padded stools along a bar, and a rear dining room that seems far away from the hubbub just outside the door. A decent selection of wines by the glass from around the world is complemented by charcuterie, cheeses, short dishes, and larger ones — mainly sandwiches and vegetarian platters. These three crostini are among the snacks (right to left): goat cheese honey, eggplant pesto puree, and ricotta with fig balsamic, a refreshing collection. ($11)
Jerk chicken at Tings
Tings is one of Chelsea Market’s newest stalls, featuring unreconstructed Jamaican fare like you might find in Flatbush. In this case, the jerk chicken is thickly coated with the traditional jerk spices, with allspice at the top of the heap. A quarter chicken comes with rice and peas in abundance, and a chopped mango relish. The hot sauce is way hot. Side dishes excel, too, especially the stewed greens, dotted with onions and sweet bell peppers. Oxtails, jerk salmon, and meat patties are also available. ($12)
Lavan at Miznon
The pitas at Miznon, an Israeli chain set down in Chelsea Market not long ago, are thick and fluffy. Slit, they’re used to make opulent sandwiches that include fillings like skate, steak and eggs, falafel, ratatouille, and our fave of cauliflower and tahini, dubbed lavan. One’s a meal, or two if you’re insanely hungry. Or side your sandwich with “run over potato” — spud flavored with garlic, scallion, and sour cream and pressed flat. Order at the counter, get a number on a pole, and sit in the bleachers or at a table to wait for delivery of your order. Wine and beer available. ($9)
Note: This is an updated version of a guide originally published in 2016.