It was almost a decade ago that food halls began to dot the urban landscape, utilizing spare spaces to provide smaller and more affordable real estate to restaurateurs. By now we have so many that their success is not assured and the graveyard of innovative food courts is now crowded with tombstones. Remember the Deco, Berg’n, Todd English at the Plaza, and the Pennsy?
As new food halls continue to arrive, competition has become more fierce with owners testing new formulae, such as the food hall mainly restricted to Singaporean fare called Urban Hawker earlier this fall, followed by Olly Olly Market in far west Chelsea which comes by way of a Chicago hospitality group. For now, the food hall boasts a total of 11 food counters, including a handful not yet up and running.
The name — silly but easy to remember — is half of a Victorian-era children’s chant (“Olly olly, oxen free”) shouted to bring players home after a game of hide and seek. Occupying part of the ground floor of the Starrett-Lehigh Building, once the site of Martha Stewart’s empire, the space would be super desirable — except for its difficult-to-find location. The building is situated between 11th Avenue and the West Side Highway and is inaccessible from the West other than a narrow sidewalk. From the east, it is many blocks from the subway and the signs in the window are easy to miss.
In the usual urban food court style, much of the seating is at counters and standing tables, except for Bar Avant, occupying the largest space in the food court. It offers more comfortable seating than elsewhere around the hall, reinforcing the idea that many food halls seem to be cocktail bars with a food court attached.
The advertised hours are 7 a.m. to 8 p.m, weekdays only for now, though most of the stalls don’t open till 11 a.m., and some close around 4 p.m. at the moment — which is strange because much of the traffic to the region’s art galleries and the nearby High Line is on weekends. A friend and I arrived at 2 p.m. and ate our way around the hall in a clockwise direction. Here’s what we found shortly after opening week. (We’ve italicized the stalls that aren’t open yet.)
JM Bakery: Not listed on the Olly Olly website, no activity visible, though pots and pans hang in an adjacent bakery space.
Pen ‘n’ Coop: Describing itself as a “new food concept” of “Italian street food with an American twist,” it focuses on porchetta and rotisserie chicken sandwiches, with additional menus of salads, snacks, and sides. On a long crusty roll, the PEN sandwich ($14) featured porchetta sliced thin, bolstered with broccoli rabe pesto, cracklings, caramelized onions, and mild cherry peppers, making for a tasty sandwich with the meat playing a minor role.
Pizza Friendly Pizza: Though this pizzeria comes from Chicago, the style is labeled Sicilian as opposed to Chicago-style, with seven square pies displayed on the counter, with slices that are thick and bready. Alas, by the time they’re reheated that crust is dry. A Sunday gravy slice ($6) had almost no meat, while a white anchovy slice had a single Spanish anchovy filet, which had virtually no effect on the flavor of the slice.
Forsyth Fire Escape: This LES tenement pop-up turned food-court counter has generated far more excitement than the other places, and by the time we arrived, it was sold out of its single offering: a pernil burrito with a scallion pancake substituted for a flour tortilla ($14).
Ploo: Not a very appetizing name, but this well-managed counter concentrates on four tacos ($5.98 to $7.50) on single small tortillas. We tried all four, which had elaborate toppings that tended to soak the tortillas and make them fall apart. Grab a fork. The “tongue-in-cheek” was the best, with shredded beef from tongues and cheeks, avocado salsa, onion, and cilantro, making a sloppy but delicious mess.
Untenanted Stall With No Sign: Appliances gleam in the empty space, with no hint of possible usage.
Shmackwich: A guy on a ladder was installing a sign for this unopened spot. On the web the same name appears as a ghost kitchen delivering sandwiches inside a restaurant on Carmine Street, specializing in wagyu chop cheese.
See Food: This long counter has ovens and fryers behind it, but no activity yet, and no listing on the Olly Olly website.
DdoBar By Joomak: This spinoff of Korean Chinese restaurant Joomak Banjum specializes in little fried tofu pouches, something like Japanese inari sushi, which here is called a yubu tart. We tried four out of 12 listed ($5 to $7 each), and found two — “original egg” (filled with egg salad) and pork belly — to be truly delicious; two others filled with yellowtail and spicy tuna weren’t as good since the pouch distracted from the raw fish. The stall has ambitious plans, but the larger dishes on the signboard, including chicken kangjung and DdoBar Caesar salad, were not yet available. The earl gray soft serve ($6) was the best thing we tried all afternoon.
Blue Boy Coffee & Goods: According to the website, this counter will feature pastries, salads, pastas, grain bowls, and juices, but for now it is not up and running, except for a coffee operation mounted on the end of the adjacent cocktail bar.
Bar Avant: By the mid-afternoon, the two-sided cocktail bar was thronged, with most patrons drinking rather than eating. At afternoon’s end, we slid into a pair of adjacent stools and ordered cocktails ($15 to $20) from a list of 17: avant negroni (gentian-flavored suze, gin, aromatized wine) and yellow cocktail (gin, suze, yellow chartreuse, yuzu sake). The flavors were all over the place, but both were pleasant enough.
Though open a week, Olly Olly is a half-finished food court. The food was promising, but self-consciously unusual, neglecting crowd-pleasing classics like burgers, fried chicken sandwiches, and lobster rolls, that might draw in more office workers or tourists. Meanwhile, I’d have to return to check out this fast-selling-out burrito I’ve been hearing so much about. My first visit had me thinking, in a city with so many food courts, will the offbeat Olly Olly succeed in the long run, or end up in the food court graveyard?