When Urbanspace Vanderbilt debuted in September 2015, it was one of the city’s most appealing food courts so far. With 12,000 square feet and 21 vendors, it offered a broader and more interesting selection than similar establishments, incorporated an alcohol component, and occupied a distinguished but underutilized space along a historic walkway north of Grand Central Station.
The Vanderbilt vendors included a mix of places related to permanent storefront operations, as well as some that started out as pop ups, food carts, and Smorgasburg stalls. It also saw the dawn of companies established specifically to exploit food court spaces.
But the selection at Urbanspace Vanderbilt had a random and uncurated quality, including one counter specializing in canned seafood and another that offered pretzel sandwiches, both now gone. There were other problems, too, including crowding, insufficient seating, scarce alcohol, and an early closing time.
At its brand-new food court, Urbanspace at 570 Lex at Lexington Avenue and 51st Street in the lobby of the 1931 General Electric Building, Urbanspace remedies some of those problems. With its pink stone façade and Art Deco bas reliefs, the structure has been deemed “sumptuous” by the AIA Guide to New York City. Sixteen vendors arranged in a horseshoe occupy the lobby of the bi-level premises. At about the same floor space but with fewer vendors, the place feels more spacious and the crowds move more freely, though overcrowding at lunchtime can still be a problem.
Clearly, Urbanspace’s knowledge of how to lay out a food court has advanced. While the seating on the main floor remains limited to a few tables and standing counters, an upstairs mezzanine offers ample seating, some with great views. The stalls also seem wider and shallower, allowing those who linger indecisively to not be in the way of customers who go straight for what they want.
There are problems with Urbanspace, too. A full meal there will probably cost you $15 to $20, which seems expensive for a food court. And stall personnel sometimes seem undertrained for a stressful and difficult job. The bottleneck is now upon entering the single revolving front door. Likely the architects never imagined this heavy usage for the ground floor and mezzanine.
But at least the mix of vendors, listed and explained below, has evolved. This selection seems more carefully selected, perhaps targeted at those prone to see food courts as destinations rather than conveniences. According to Urbanspace CEO Eldon Scott, as quoted by The Real Deal, the new food court represents “a different mix of users but a similar concept.”
Bushwick favorite and food court stalwart Roberta’s anchors the rear of the main floor, slinging the usual eight- and 12-inch pizzas with novel topping combinations. Another holdover is Takumi Taco, which serves Japanese tacos and other fusion fare. But many vendors are food court newcomers, calculated to whet the public appetite with products not found at other food halls.
Widening its narrow focus and market ubiquity, the Red Hook Lobster people spin off Rockway Clam Bar, while La Pecora Blanco specializes in Italian salads and sandwiches. Bao by Kaya peddles Taiwanese dumplings, buns, and popcorn chicken, while Top Hops mainly pours tap and bottled beer in a central island that guarantees easy access. At the new Urbanspace at 570 Lex, alcohol is easier to acquire, and a later closing time (11 p.m. as opposed to 9 p.m. at Urban Vanderbilt), means that the place can function as a local bar, especially given the comfortable seating upstairs.
The prime spots just inside the front door are held down by Go Fish, a new “concept” aimed at food court spaces but peddling the usual carryout sushi, and Little Collins, one of many Australian-style coffee shops based here, with a storefront a few blocks north. Indeed, some of the more interesting vendors represent established restaurants that seem to be at least partly intent on diversifying out of independent real estate into food courts.
Middle Eastern micro-cafe Taim has a stall serving a broader menu than its West Village original. Trapizzino has probably never generated the amount of foot traffic it needs in Little Italy for its stuffed Roman pockets, but in this setting it may have found its perfect venue. Similarly, Dorado is a fish taco purveyor that has a single store in Greenwich Village that’s never gained much traction; maybe the Urbanspace location will be more productive for the Boston chain.
Bobwhite is a small fried chicken café in Alphabet City that recently pulled out of its second location in the West Village. It’s hard not to see the new Urbanspace counter as a second experiment on how a small local establishment might more successfully expand.
Top 5 Dishes to Try
I went on three consecutive visits recently, and grazed at most of the stalls, sometimes more than once. Here are the five best things I ate, in ranked order.
1. Cold tongue trapizzino at Trapizzino
Is eating offal like veal tongue a challenge to most diners? The organ is soft and supple, the pungent salsa verde appropriately mossy, and the slotted bread soaks up the juices and makes the thing easy to eat so that no drips escape. $7.50
2. Israeli breakfast at Taim
Eating breakfast the way they do in other parts of the world is always fun, and this omnibus collection of Middle Eastern viands is irresistible, the perfect amount of food. It includes hummus laked with tahini, a boiled egg, feta cheese, tabouli, pickles, and chopped salad, with a freshly baked za’atar bread. $12
3. Chicken sandwich and french fries at Bobwhite
The menu at Bobwhite is limited to a couple of chicken sandwiches and two sides. Topped with sweet pickle chips, the regular fried chicken sandwich ($7.95) is smallish, and it needs the incredible twice-cooked fries to make a full meal. $11.90 for both
4. “Lil’ Stinker” pizza at Roberta’s
The best of Roberta’s pies are the most quirky. The eight-inch pizza shown here, known as the Lil’ Stinker, features tomato, mozzarella, parmigiana, onion, pepperoncini, and a double charge of garlic. The effect is spicy, and slightly sweet, and one pie is enough for a light meal. $12
5. Avocado smash at Little Collins
There’s not really much of a food prep area at food court coffee bar Little Collins, but the small space turns out an opulent avocado toast. It piles lots of avocado on good, thick bread, scatters it with toasted pumpkin seeds, and adds an egg poached as you watch in a small pan of water. $11.25