Take a look at the current restaurant options at One Fulton Square in downtown Flushing — a mixed-use development home to luxe condos, retail, and a hotel — and you’ll get a good idea of what’s in store for the neighborhood’s future.
Located on Prince Street between 39th and Roosevelt avenues, the glossy development built by F&T Group in 2014 houses over a dozen restaurant and bars — a combination of new places like Korean fried chicken restaurant the Coop, outposts of well-liked New York restaurants like Spot Dessert Bar, and some large Asian chains, like Malaysia’s enormously popular fast-casual company Papparich, which planted its first East Coast location inside the complex. The modern center is also home to one of the city’s most revered upscale restaurants. Sichuan restaurant Guan Fu landed a glowing three-star review in the Times in 2017, one of the few Chinese restaurants in the history of the paper to do so.
These new restaurant options are a sharp contrast to Flushing’s reputation as a haven for “cheap eats” and Chinese hawker stalls. Instead, they’re representative of a rapidly evolving dining scene — one that caters to a growing population of young Asian students with disposable incomes, as well as to a wealthier and more diverse wave of Chinese residents moving into the area’s high-end real estate developments. Demand has risen for restaurants that serve food from different regions of China, and there’s now an audience for ones that combine elements from multiple Asian cuisines, too. The new crew of restaurants also places far more emphasis on contemporary decor and theatrical presentations, like pork ribs in birdcages or a Barbie doll wearing a dress made of meat, driven in part by social media.
Much of the shift has been fueled by a real estate boom that began years ago, when developers set their eyes on downtown Flushing’s unparalleled density. It’s the city’s largest Chinatown and home to one of the busiest intersections in all of NYC, at Main Street and Roosevelt Avenue.
But the growth has also had a cost. The changes inflated rental rates and flooded the market with an overwhelming supply of dining options — sometimes forcing out the original, immigrant-run restaurants that put Flushing’s dining scene on the map.
Flushing began as a Dutch colony in the 1600s, and its demographics changed several times before becoming predominantly Chinese. By the 1970s, a wave of Taiwanese immigrants propelled the neighborhood’s first Chinatown, and by the 1990s, people from mainland China arrived, further establishing it as a center for Asian-American commerce in New York.
Some say the new set of dining options simply reflects yet another change in the population and specifically, downtown Flushing’s more recent status as a destination. Like the rest of New York, the neighborhood’s character has changed dramatically over the years, in part due to real estate development. Colliers International broker Jonathan Plotkin estimates that there’s about 3 million square feet in the development pipeline, much of it backed by F&T Group.
Here, the person driving much of the dining lineup for new developments is Helen Lee, the executive vice president of F&T. The company built One Fulton Square and is also behind two other sprawling mixed-use projects, Flushing Commons and Tangram, which are still under development. Between the latter two properties, Lee is responsible for choosing tenants for more than 300,000 square feet of retail space under development, much of which will be dedicated to restaurants. At Flushing Commons, an open-air plaza full of outdoor cafes and restaurants is in the works, while at Tangram, an indoor mall, food hall, and beer garden are planned. F&T is also behind Queens Crossing, a 2007 development that Lee renovated in 2016, adding a new food court and giving it the trendier label of “food hall.”
Her developments — along with more than a dozen new properties in the area — mean a whole new crowd of Flushing locals. At Tangram, prices for a two-bedroom apartment start at $1.2 million; at Sky View Parc towers nearby, they’re currently available for sale starting at about $830,000. By comparison, the typical home in overall Flushing is a two-bedroom that sells for $485,000, according to the Times.
Lee thinks the restaurants she’s choosing better fit Flushing’s changing population, she says, adding that she’s trying to change the cheap eats reputation. Modern Asian restaurants, including non-Chinese ones, that feel in line with current New York dining trends are a priority. New residents moving into F&T buildings prefer eating in a “nice environment” a step above historic Flushing hawker stands, Lee argues, meaning more seating and stylish decor. She says she carefully vets each restaurant before bringing it on, ensuring that diners will get a quality meal when they dine at F&T projects.
And the new line-up, she says, has to bring something that doesn’t already exist in downtown Flushing. “We’re not just thinking about things in a singular way, but in an overarching masterplan perspective,” Lee says.
Case in point: She and co-owner Todd Leong opened Leaf Bar & Lounge to meet a gap in the local craft cocktail scene, which, up until 2015, was virtually nonexistent. It sits on top of the Hyatt hotel attached to One Fulton Square, with loungey chairs and a rustic look that recalls downtown Manhattan bars. And she brought on Korean fried chicken restaurant the Coop and Malaysian brand Papparich, which serves Malaysian staples like roti canai, to fill food niches she felt the neighborhood lacked.
At the yet-to-open Tangram, the choices lean even more international: Brazilian steakhouses, French-Moroccan restaurants, and classic Italian joints have expressed interest, Lee says. Over at Flushing Commons, she brought in global hot pot sensation Hai Di Lao — a move she says “solidified Flushing as the hot pot capital of New York.”
“Eating is a huge social activity for Asian people,” she says. “With Flushing trying to solidify itself as a culinary destination, we want to make sure we have something to offer everyone.”
But with so many new food options flooding the market, local business owners wonder if there’s enough demand to sustain them.
The rise in food courts like New World Mall and New York Food Court on Roosevelt Avenue has given diners dozens of low-priced options that compete fiercely with full-service restaurants. New real estate developments add even more supply to an already highly competitive market, says James Chen, who runs a local food delivery service called Flushing Food. Chen, who also designs and prints menus for the neighborhood’s restaurants, says many of the mom-and-pop shops he’s worked with for years are closing or being forced out of the community for reasons like increased competition and high rents.
“A lot of people thought that with all these new developments that’s happening in Flushing, it would generate more business for the local existing businesses,” Chen says. “But in reality, it’s the complete opposite.”
The real estate boom also increased the neighborhood’s property values, bringing restaurant rents up with it. Chen says that even the small, 250-square-foot food court spaces are commanding rates as high as $12,000, or about $48 per square foot — a number he calls “insane.” For comparison, food hall spaces in New York City usually cost up to $8,000 per month for 200 to 300 square feet of space.
Outside the food courts, it’s common for landlords to ask for $225 to $250 per square foot in the busiest corridors downtown, comparable to the $150 to $300 landlords ask on Park Avenue South near Union Square in Manhattan, according to Daniel D. DePasquale of Winick Realty Group.
“The reason [landlords] do that is because there’s no place like Flushing,” DePasquale says. “The density is absolutely tremendous.”
To meet higher rents, restaurant owners are pressured to raise menu prices, but Chen says the stifling competition makes it difficult to do so; they risk losing customers to other places that are selling the same food for less. As a result, several long-standing favorites, like Szechuan Gourmet and Spicy and Tasty, have closed. Both were open since at least the early 2000s; both shuttered recently, despite the critical acclaim they received.
Plus, mammoth global brands like Hai Di Lao can easily overtake smaller local restaurants that have little to no marketing budgets, says John Choe, executive director of the Greater Flushing Chamber of Commerce. He says even newer restaurants are feeling the heat, like high-end cafe Presso Coffee, which lasted less than two years.
“On Prince Street right now, between 38th and Roosevelt, you will see three to four vacant storefronts, which used to be thriving restaurants,” he says. “You used to never see vacant storefronts, and now you do.”
Still, overall, the Chamber of Commerce sees a wider variety of dining options as a positive for the community, especially since new restaurants open the market up to different diners, potentially ones who live outside the neighborhood.
Lee of F&T acknowledges that independently owned mom-and-pop shops are struggling, but remains set on diversifying Flushing’s restaurant scene. “Like everywhere else in this city, businesses need to react and innovate if they want to thrive,” she says.
Several organizations are trying to help older-generation restaurants survive in the increasingly crowded market. The Chamber of Commerce has an initiative called “Made in Flushing” that assists restaurateurs in setting up Facebook and Instagram pages, aiming to reach a larger audience online. The Flushing BID, a nonprofit advocate for the local business community, is putting together a restaurant guide to market the Flushing dining scene to people in other boroughs. It’s also planning a food festival later this year.
Meanwhile, restaurant owners like Fei Li, who runs Miss Li Henan Cuisine, are adding new items to their menus. In Li’s case, she’s hoping changes attract more than just Flushing’s Chinese diners, who have become “picky” because they have so many options, she says.
“In the long-term,” Choe says, “only the restaurants that are innovating and adapting to the new and changing market will survive.”