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20 Years Later, Chelsea Market Is a Kaleidoscope of Culinary Choices

How it became the city's biggest and best food court

Robert Sietsema

Twenty years ago today, Chelsea Market opened its doors. It moved into the old Nabisco factory, an abandoned complex of around 20 buildings that fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, occupying an entire city block. The facility had been situated there since the late 19th century, to take advantage of the bargain lard the Meat Packing District could provide. Oreos, Lorna Doones, and Ritz Crackers were invented there.

The stated purpose of Chelsea Market was to provide raw materials and equipment for amateur and professional cooks, while furnishing sales, manufacturing, and warehouse space for fledgling culinary endeavors. A local steakhouse set up a butcher shop there, a wholesaler of imported Italian products peddled cheeses, charcuterie, and olive oil. There was a fresh-squeezed juice stall, decades before juice was to become all the rage.

There was also a Thai food store, an upstate dairy, an artisanal baker, and a shop selling knives and other kitchenware. A greengrocer offered a selection of unusual vegetables and fruits that were the envy of the city. The stores were retrofitted into the snaking space, the corridors of which were the original alleyways between buildings. The website evocatively called the design style, “the detritus of a lost industrial culture.”

Cable channels and other offices moved in upstairs, including Oxygen, the Food Network, and Google. Later, behemoth restaurants like Morimoto and Buddakan appeared, having their own exterior entrances. But initially, only a dribble of customers came and the halls of Chelsea Market often echoed emptily. But its devotees loved the place, because it provided one-stop shopping for that Sunday-evening dinner party, and buying things there was an exhilarating experience, since ghosts of cookies’ past still lingered.

A few years later, in an attempt to expand the tenancy, clothing sample sales were routinely held in the empty halls, and non-food establishments were invited in, including a bookstore, a children’s clothing store, and a branch of Anthropologie. For a while it looked like the place was turning into a suburban shopping mall — a direction, as we now know, that probably spelled death.

But the biggest change began a decade ago, when the food businesses still remaining began putting out counters in the corridors and selling prepared foods. Other places carved out part of their interiors for small cafes — establishing a coffee bar here, a sandwich counter there. The management obliged this new tendency by filling the passageways with tables and chairs, encouraging visitors to lunch and linger.

Many of the old food businesses continued to move out or drastically modify themselves. What was originally a dairy store evolved into a hamburger stand, and so forth. This was not a bad thing, but Chelsea Market was already well on the way to becoming principally a food court.

And soon the throngs arrived, many in tourist buses. They had no interest in buying a Thai eggplant or an aged bottle of balsamic. They wanted a well-frosted cupcake or a sausage in a bun dripping with mustard. Soon, many of the comfortable chairs and tables vanished, in order to move hordes of people in and out more efficiently.

So where does that leave us? The prepared foods of Chelsea Market’s de facto food court have become better and better. You can now get northern Chinese noodles every bit as spicy as you like, and excellent Mexican tacos that mimic those of San Diego. There are formidable sit-down restaurants. You can buy boiled lobsters that can be torn apart with your hands and eaten on the spot. There’s wonderful hummus at one place, and halvah close by.

In fact, Chelsea Market is now the city’s biggest and best food court, boasting over 40 stalls and a kaleidoscope of culinary choices. But can you blame me for still missing the old place?

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