Before COVID-19 crept into town like an unwanted tourist, food courts were a major feature of the dining landscape in New York. They were a perfect meeting between smaller, newer food operations and the lower square footage (and cheaper rents) that these spaces often entailed. But the very communality that food halls championed, which often required patrons to crowd in and sit close together, were their downfall when the pandemic approached. Now, many are closed, and others have reopened with fewer vendors, limited hours, and strict rules enforced, challenging their community-minded, gathering-place aspirations.
There was no one game plan for these food courts once the virus appeared. Most closed completely to in-person visits during the mid-March lockdown, some switching to takeout and delivery. The ground-level Essex Market stayed open because of its status as a food market, with prepared-food sprinkled throughout, but the passageways are too narrow for my comfort. Before the pandemic, Dekalb Market Hall had been one of the best examples of the real estate genre, but it, too, closed down. By July a few plucky tenants had put tables out in front on Albee Square, though the operations had trouble efficiently ferrying food from the downstairs food court. Dekalb and the Essex Crossing complex are now more fully opened. Meanwhile, food halls like Gansevoort Market and the Pennsy closed permanently.
Yet the city’s foremost food court, Chelsea Market, with around 30 prepared-food vendors at its pre-pandemic high point, currently has about two-thirds of those operating, albeit some on a limited schedule. I went on four separate days recently to check out the scene, and to eat broadly around the stalls and make recommendations.
Chelsea Market has responded better to pandemic dining than most other food courts. Inside, limited traffic is allowed to flow from east to west though the block-long space — a collection of former Nabisco factory buildings — overseen by red-shirted docents who prevent pedestrians moving against the flow, advise on what’s open and where to eat it, and enforce social distancing and mask wearing. I counted 10 of these staffers on my most recent visit.
Ample outdoor seating has been provided along 15th and 16th streets, with a combination of round tables and picnic tables, each in its own heated and isolated niche. There are 60 of these niches in all, and dining in them is a joy, though it all feels slightly surreal: the metal footbridge swooping overhead, the red-glowing heaters, and fellow diners visible but mute in their adjacent pods. On my weekday and weeknight visits it was easy to snag a table, but on the weekends, it is more difficult. So go early or late (just before noon or after 7:30 p.m.) on weekends. Some establishments offer outdoor ordering access via windows or dedicated doors.
Even with places like Num Pang sandwich shop and Creamline (home of the boozy milkshake) still apparently closed, there are plenty of food choices. Here are the five best things I ate, in ranked order, plus one dessert.
5. Jerk chicken at Tings ($13.50) — This Jamaican counter with easy access through a side door on 15th Street offers a beguiling steam table of island specialties, including oxtails, bread pudding, curry goat, vegan ital stew, meat and veggie patties, and greens. It grills a fine version of jerk chicken, with allspice on top of the spice heap and a nicely blackened skin, as is traditional. The bird is served with copious rice and peas, but further sides are up to you at additional expense; I find the mac and cheese especially good.
4. Maine lobster roll at Lobster Place ($18.50) — Though its restaurant offshoot, Cull & Pistol, is currently closed, the fish market, historically one of the best in the city, remains open, with a black-curtained order counter, lending a funereal air, in the rear. For smaller appetites or snacks there are exemplary chowders and raw oysters, as well as sushi, but consider the lobster roll. It boasts very little mayo and bursts with the fluffy flesh of the red crustacean. And for winter dining, it can be served warm.
3. Chicken gochujang at Kimbap Lab ($13.50) — While the collection of food establishments has remained nearly static during the last year at Chelsea Market, a notable new arrival is located downstairs: a mini food hall related to the Pearl River store upstairs. It has four counters, of which Kimbap Lab turns out bibimbap bowls and the nori rolls called kimbap, the latter deposited in a bento with other dishes. My chicken gochujang consisted of poultry strips bathed in spicy red sauce with rice, dried seaweed, and raw vegetables, a feast packed with flavor even before adding the cups of gochujang and a very spicy cabbage kimchi.
2. Ceviche especial at Los Mariscos ($6.75) — This offshoot of the adjacent Los Tacos No. 1 has its own entrance on 15th Street. Step inside and feel for a moment like you’re standing in a Mexican Pacific beach town, with its array of seafood tacos, ceviches, and aguachiles, as well as Ensenada-style raw clams and oysters. The ceviche especial is a prize, a selection of lime-marinated shrimp, clams, scallops, and octopus mounted on a crisp tostada, with a bonus of ripe avocado dropped on top. Spoon on the fiery red or green salsa. Margaritas and beer are available.
1. Pork dan dan mian at Very Fresh Noodles ($13.25) — True to its name, the noodles are indeed very fresh, and the counter — surmounted by a flashy neon sign — turns out a dan dan nearly unique in the city. For one thing, it’s not made with floppy, soft noodles, but with firm ones in copious quantity, and the sauce, less beany than most, is fortified with plenty of chiles, as well as the expected Sichuan peppercorns. You could share this bowl with another person and still stanch your hunger, but both diners will go away with gloriously burning mouths. A vegan version is available, and it’s damn good, too.
And now for dessert:
Ginger pecan tart at Sarabeth’s ($6) — With several locations in Manhattan, Sarabeth’s is celebrated for its brunches, breakfasts, and lunches, but most especially for its delicate baked goods, both savory and sweet, which are baked here in Chelsea Market. King of the heap is this ginger pecan tart, which resembles its more conventional cousin, the pecan pie — only this is better due to its gingery pungency, and is knocked like a baseball for a home run by a chocolate-laced pie crust.