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In a formerly unloved corner of London’s Victoria, a tired Edwardian building next to a bus station has been given a new lease of life. What used to be a nightclub pumping out house music now chimes with kitchen sounds and diners’ chatter. But this isn’t some monstrous outpost of a celebrity chef’s empire. The recently opened Market Hall Victoria offers a roof to eleven restaurants, three bars, and a coffee shop, and it’s proving very popular with people in a part of London that was losing its sparkle.
It’s part of a global trend of food halls that shows no sign of abating. More and more towns and cities are repurposing abandoned buildings and reinvigorating struggling retail spaces by finding permanent homes for clusters of pop up restaurants and former street food vendors and serving great food.
What are food halls?
Quite distinct from traditional food markets (which have also found renewed purpose with modern developments such as Markthal Rotterdam), food halls have become places for diners to find a wider choice of food and drink options, at a range of price points, all under the same roof. They provide a sense of permanence that street food stalls cannot always offer while serving up the same exciting food in an environment that is as comfortable as it is convivial. And they offer an alternative to the same old chain eateries that make every high street and mall look alike. Imagine a fleet of trendy food trucks has crashed through your local food court, and you’ll get the idea.
Simon Anderson, Market Halls’ COO, explains: “Food halls offer a dynamic, informal and interesting way of dining, that works for modern customers and appeals to single diners, couples, families and large groups. In an age when choice is king, we have the very best independent chefs all under one roof.”
Something like a food hall phenomenon
Food halls have evolved from well-heeled affairs in department stores like Harrods of London and Macy’s in New York, to something more cutting-edge and egalitarian. The quality is still there, but these places are primarily for meeting, eating and drinking rather than browsing and shopping.
In recent years the phenomenon has really taken off with places like Time Out Market in Lisbon, where the popular listings magazine Time Out transformed a neglected market hall into an exciting food destination for locals and tourists alike. A further five Time Out Markets will open in North America in 2019, while in Europe the model will be replicated in Prague and London’s Waterloo by 2021. Meanwhile, in the Italian city of Bologna, the FICO Eataly World food park takes things to another level. With educational installations on farming and food production across its 20 acres, as well as 40 restaurants and refreshment points, it has been dubbed "the Disneyland of food".
Whatever size or form they take, food halls are bringing greater choice to diners, but vendors get a great deal too, according to Simon Anderson of Market Halls in London: “We’ve worked very hard to lower the barrier of entry for our traders, so they can be up and trading at the fraction of the cost of opening a restaurant. Our sites are in areas of London where rent prices would traditionally be hugely prohibitive for small, independent traders. Another benefit that our traders enjoy is the group trading environment- there’s a great team spirit amongst the kitchens and everyone benefits from each other's existing customer bases and combined social media followers.”
New Food halls to open
More major food halls are slated to open next year. Following in Time Out’s footsteps, Vice will open its very own curated food hall under its Munchies banner in New Jersey in the spring. Across the water in Manhattan, brothers Ferran and Albert Adrià of El Bulli and Tickets fame will team up with Spanish-American chef José Andrés to open a Spanish themed food hall called Mercado Little Spain.
Back in London, the UK’s largest food hall will open in Oxford Circus in April. Following the success of Market Halls Victoria and Fulham, Market Halls West End will occupy the former home of defunct retail chain British Home Stores. As more retail activity migrates to the Internet, perhaps it’s a sign of the times that faltering chain stores are giving way to young, energetic businesses that promote social interaction around food and drink?
“Food Halls can bring life and reinvention to the high street, which have for so long been the domain of the ubiquitous chains,” says Simon Anderson. “People’s time is precious, they want new and exciting experiences and with food halls there’s always something different to try. For many, food is the new rock and roll and we provide the stage.”