Calling them food halls hides the truth: trend-conscious food courts dot hipster America. High-rents are pushing out traditional restaurants, renting out society’s eating habits to affluent developers. Now, as traditional shopping centres fade, food halls absorb the commerce, commercialism and consumption that malls and food courts once housed. Whereas food courts explicitly displayed their mainstream ties through a predictable roster of popular chains, food halls build a façade of chef-driven gastronomy through trendy dishes that flatter foodies’ palates.
Although these spaces could be described as upscale food courts as they gather food sellers, dubbing them ‘food halls’ — a chiefly British term — imparts an exoticism that distances them from routine, mall-like, consumption. That doesn’t mean the American food hall has the same purpose as the British one. Whereas the British stores typically sell semi-prepared foods, the American food court —the contemporary food hall’s predecessor — serves up complete meals. Regardless of whether a shopper at Selfridge’s food hall looks for a loaf of bread or a cooked vegetable side dish, they intend to integrate this product into a larger meal. At a food court, however, the individual must select a single, finished meal. While the food court supports passive consumption, the food hall requires the shopper to become an actor in meal production. If America’s food hall layers the British version onto the food courts they replace, these new areas hide a consumer-driven attitude to food behind their façade of chef-y innovation.
At New York’s Chelsea Market, which opened in 1997 and helped prompt food hall mania, the shift away from wholesale to retail spaces demonstrates the tension between shopper participation and rote consumption. Housed in an office building for media companies, the market mixes small purveyors, local chains and high-street shops. Most of the retail is food-related, but not all of it. In between a seafood shop and a bar, there’s a pop-up space used for fashion sample sales. Next to Fat Witch Bakery, famous for their ultra-dense brownies, there’s an Anthropologie. Through the seemingly random combination of stores, Chelsea Market shows that their target customer isn’t interested only in eating; they’re interested in all kinds of consumption.
To bridge the gap between these seemingly diverse shops, the contemporary food hall requires a client who actively participates in hyper-connected digital society. Social media has trained the ideal shopper to connect divergent ideas and goods, allowing them to integrate into the consumerist culture the space presents. As businesses use platforms like Instagram to portray their brand’s lifestyle through photos, flawless manicures represent clothing stores and restaurants are their gorgeous dishes. Chelsea Market can thrive on blending food purveyors, lifestyle shops, and clothing stores because the space caters to a group for whom this combination of goods and ideas already exists.
Although contemporary consumption habits allow these stores to coexist, it’s the method of consumption that makes modern food halls the city equivalent of suburban food courts. In theory, these eating arenas allow a group of friends or family with divergent tastes to find a meal that will please each of them equally. As Michael Pollan points out in Cooked, the contemporary American meal has shifted from a single, cohesive dish the whole family enjoys to a piecemeal experience in which each family member attends to their own tastes. If this new meal format champions individuality, as Pollan scornfully suggests, plural food spaces, such as food halls, arise from this cultural change. Food halls may allow groups to eat together without requiring individuals to compromise their preferences, but this rarely streamlines the dining experience.
Unfortunately, it’s rarely easy to choose from an endless parade of options. You may not have to argue with your ramen-hating friend, but you still must negotiate between your noodle-slurping and taco-loving self. Choice suffocates as you wander amongst the custom slushie stand, healthy juice bar, and famous milkshake shoppe. You can customise your experience to your tastes, but first you must identify your most immediate desire. To do so you must confront the food hall’s sad truth: you can’t enjoy it all. As food trends lean toward excessive and indulgent dishes, a bite of cheesey-meaty poutine nullifies the desire for a crisp, gooey arancino. If money limits your mall experience, stomach space limits your enjoyment of the food hall.
Whereas the food court is an everyday space, the food hall, along with its nutritionally exclusive foodstuffs, is a destination. At the food court, choosing the burger today doesn’t exempt you from having a slice of pizza next week. Frequent visits make the dishes pleasingly ordinary and remove any exotic aura they once possessed. At the food hall, however, choosing one meal over another feels final. You don’t visit these spaces on a regular basis. Whether it’s a seasonal pop up, out of the way location, or must see in a foreign city, the food hall gains an irresistible aura through being an ‘other’, special space. The space and the atmosphere, in addition to the food, draws crowds.
Examined as a trendy gastronomic destination, the food hall possesses limited utility. Once the tacos go stale and the ramen turns cold, what allure will remain for these areas? It depends on how society chooses to integrate them into the fabric of their cities. New York has capitalised on the excitement of the short-time market to drive hype around these food spaces. Smorgasburg becomes an event because it’s associated with a seasonal ritual. On one hand, this allows for regular renewal, maintaining public interest. On the other hand, this heightens the tension regarding food choice, limiting its practical use in the New Yorker’s daily diet. It seems unlikely that these chef-drive gastronomy malls will survive in their current form. It’s just a matter of time until the food hall’s next form arrives.