The precursor of today’s urban food court was born in the suburbs at New Jersey’s Paramus Park Mall in 1974. It consisted of a handful of franchise establishments in mini-versions, some configured as counters, others as freestanding kiosks. Pioneered by the Rouse Company, it may have been inspired by the hawker courts of Singapore, first created in the 1950s to clean the streets of food carts. Well, the suburban shopping mall food court prospered into the new millennium as a sort of culinary oasis for shoppers, tenanted by well-known national chains intent on selling predictable fast food at reasonable prices.
Fast forward 40 years, and find the food court reconfigured in upscale urban fashion here in New York City, with more than a dozen recent examples and probably dozens more on the way. It seems you can’t build a project these days without including a gourmet food court, and disused spaces in key neighborhoods are being retrofitted in similar fashion as today’s real estate cash cows. But our modern mix of food businesses is far different than that of 1974 suburbia. Now, instead of aiming to refresh shoppers at bargain prices, Manhattan’s food courts are independent destinations intent on extracting the last possible pocket change from consumers, via a menu of small, stylish dishes that must be assembled into a full meal.
At Eater New York, we’ve watched in awe over the last few years as new food courts have popped up. The earliest were collections of ambitious would-be restaurateurs trying out their concepts at what must have been a lower investment level than renting a full storefront, or even buying a food truck. But now the formula has been manipulated so that a smaller proportion of stalls represent start-ups. Participants specializing in food-court operations are legion, and big-time players like Mario Batali, Whole Foods, and Claus Meyer have jumped into food courts, grandly rechristened "food halls" like something out of Harry Potter.
Urban food courts continue to evolve, refining the concept in search of maximum profitability. One of the latest permutations is the single-operator food court, in which one entity masterminds and runs a mix of food stalls, hoping to ramp up profits by creating the perfect combination of offerings. Examples include our two newest food courts, Union Fare and Great Northern Food Hall.
Union Fare is a "gastrohall," even though the food tends to be rather plain. It occupies a pair of midblock storefronts that extend between 17th and 18th streets just west of Union Square. Both were once part of the flagship Barnes & Noble store, constituting the less-valuable rear portions of that complex. If you can’t buy a physics textbook anymore, at least you can get a cheeseburger.
It's a 'gastrohall,' even though the food tends to be rather plain.
One storefront resembles a regular food court, with a couple of subdivided counters running up one wall, comprising seven distinct food areas. The opposite wall is configured with tables, registers, and grab-and-go items. Seating is comfortable and profuse by modern food court standards. Another storefront, acting as a café and oyster bar by night, provides more food court seating during the day. Predictably, one stall is devoted entirely to poke. So far, it has been the most popular. Listed on a menu scrawled on a hanging surfboard, the pokes are really just green salads with an ice cream scoop of cubed fish on top. They sport cutesy names like bonsai pipeline, hang ten, and the big island. All are priced at $12, plus tax.
The counter sections further in — which have no names, other than a single word scrawled in marker on brown paper — are devoted to salads, tacos, pizzas, and burgers. The cheeseburger called the "all American" seems like a good deal at $6, until you realize the patty is very small and the bun slightly stale. The size is midway between a slider and a regular burger. The other burgers on the menu deploy double patties, but cost considerably more. Pizzas ($8 to $14) are exceedingly thin crusted and small, though good tasting and deftly turned out by the pizzaiolo. One is not quite enough for a meal. Tacos tend to be tasty, too, but are overpriced at $4 each. Some have goofy fillings that don’t seem very Mexican (one example: baby back ribs, apple slaw, sweet chili).
A separate counter in the front window offers baked goods on one side and, on the other, a variety toasted cheese sandwiches and "smashes," which are essentially untoasted crostini, some with atypical toppings. It must be here that profits most need to be made, because in jockeying for casual, walk-in business, the offerings at both sides have been adjusted as the weeks have gone by. Thus, the baked goods section recently offered a series of flavored croissants, including one with a red velvet cake theme. Something that tasted like marshmallow oozed when you bit into it.
Union Fare has a confused atmosphere about it
The toasted cheese sandwiches, offered on a separate menu card, are pretty good; the classic ($6) is not a bad deal but a bit small and strange with its mixture of half cheddar, half American cheese. (Is the American a cost-cutting measure?) The sandwiches are fabricated by first toasting two slices of bread, and then melting the cheese in a convection oven.
The same counter also offers lobster rolls as an afterthought to the aforementioned smashes. One of the stranger smashes ($6 to $13) tops the slices with smooshed peas, prosciutto, cantaloupe balls, and mint. The best features burrata with a few halved cherry tomatoes, olive oil, and balsamic.
The concept of a café with a food court attached is not a bad one, but Union Fare has a confused atmosphere about it, and the more normal offerings like burgers and pizzas lack the appeal and value that they need. Plus, there are no registers at most counters, so acquiring your lunch requires standing in one line to order and another to pay for it.
Another new single-operator food court is found at Grand Central, this time the brainchild of Danish chef Claus Meyer, who’s best known as the co-founder of foraging trendsetter Noma. It’s part of his gargantuan presence in the terminal, which also includes a bakery/coffee bar/grocery, hot dog stand, and upscale restaurant. Called Great Northern Food Hall, the court occupies half of Vanderbilt Hall, a space opening onto 42nd Street that was once a railway waiting room but more recently the site of a Christmas village. This usage seems permanent, with an expensive build-out. Two bars occupy one side of the room, faced with handsome blue tiles. Four free-standing booths encompassing cash registers, display cases, sales counters, and prep areas are connected via a series of aerial lighting girders. The effect is like being backstage at a theater.
Step into the court for the first time and feel confused. It’s hard to immediately identify exactly what the booths are specializing in, since each flaunts so many seemingly unrelated products, and the names of the booths are as unrevealing as those on Ikea products. Of the two bars, one specializes in mixed drinks (though, perversely, no aquavit), while the other dispenses beer, porridges, and grain bowls — a head-scratching combination if ever there were one, though, obviously, grains are the basis of all three.
The most prominent island, dubbed Open Rye, features smørrebrød, the smorgasbord snacks based on a single slice of dense, dark, and fragrant rye bread. The precariously piled toppings deploy almost every Danish product you can think of, including boiled eggs, smoked fish, dill fronds, caviar, wacky fruit jams, pates, cream cheese, pickles, beef tartar, etc., etc. Priced at $6 each, there are ten choices, and it would take three to make a satisfying meal. These are not light snacks, and only a diner with a steady hand can maneuver the smørrebrød mouthward without spilling the ingredients. That said, some were good, including one featuring sliced potatoes, pickled pearl onions, and potato chips, and another piled with shredded beets, pork skin, and a pressed pork roll called rullepolse.
Great Northern is one of the most interesting food courts in town
Almanak features salads and smoothies, while Brownsville Roasters — referencing one of Brooklyn’s economically challenged communities, where Meyer hopes to establish a restaurant — sells coffee, breakfast and dessert pastries, and assorted snacks that include chocolates and nuts. Meyers Bageri covers a bewildering range, with a diverse roster that goes from warm conventional sandwiches to cold ones, from pizzas to cinnamon rolls and other breakfast treats, from off-the-wall tarts of an extremely creative and picturesque sort, to designer sodas.
Though the place is initially befuddling, there are some excellent eats to be discovered, and in many ways Great Northern is the most interesting food court in town. Highlights of several visits, most from the Bageri, included a hot pastrami sandwich with bitter greens, mushroom mayonnaise, and crisp shallots ($12); a sea buckthorn meringue tart with funny orange berries that really looked like a seascape ($7); and a slice of potato pizza (sold by weight) that didn’t seem very Danish, but was good nonetheless. Lately, some of the best seating in the food court has been sequestered into a full-service café, so if you want to sit, order, and eat in relative comfort, nothing’s stopping you.
Other Food Hall Reviews from Robert Sietsema:
- Manhattan Food Court Manual
- The Pennsy Arrives with a Bang, Chef Street With a Whimper
- Is Chelsea Market the City’s Best Food Court?
- Seven Great Things to Eat at Columbus Circle’s Turnstyle Food Court
- With Some Strange Notions of its Own, Whole Foods Williamsburg Joins Food Court Mania