Even as the trend teeters on saturation in big cities, there’s plenty to suggest that the mighty food hall has staying power. Fusing chef-driven casual dining and experiential retail, food halls uplift local and independent brands, personalities, and products by making them accessible in centralized locations. They’re convenient for city dwellers and cater to various tastes, an appealing prospect for tourists and families alike. But one element has largely remained scarce: full-service dining.
That may start to change, however, as the category matures and food halls look to lure more weekend and nighttime revelers with leisurely paced, service-oriented options.
The historic lack of full-serve dining mostly comes down to economics. Since vendor square footage is by nature limited, it pays off to aim for volume and speed, says Atlanta chef/restaurateur Anne Quatrano.
“Square footage is a higher-ticket item than at a freestanding concept, so we want to use it in the most efficient way,” says Quatrano, whose portfolio includes stalwart Bacchanalia and Star Provisions Market & Cafe, as well as W.H. Stiles Fish Camp and Pancake Social inside Atlanta’s sprawling Ponce City Market complex. “We have very high-end fine-dining, a retail store, casual fine-dining, and none of our models is as successful as [the food hall concepts], strictly from a fiscal perspective.”
Most Fish Camp customers order at the counter so they can take advantage of multiple vendors during their visit. About 20 percent—usually larger groups—sit down for full-service oysters and po’boys. Because Ponce City does considerable weekend business but lacks sit-down options, Quatrano hoped to make newcomer Pancake Social primarily full service, but staff shortages forced her to adapt.
“Right now, we’re operating almost exclusively counter service, with a full-service mentality,” she says. Customers often brave 45-minute waits before placing their order at the counter and taking a number. Servers take orders, run out and bus food, giving diners the option to close out or open another check, say, for a cappuccino or fresh-pressed juice—which a lot of guests do.
It would be easy to flip to full service should staffing availability improve; they’d simply add a host to manage the wait list and seating. For now, Quatrano relishes the visibility of such a high-traffic location as she gears up to open the second, of hopefully many, standalone Pancake Social locations.
Latinicity, the Chicago food hall from prolific restaurateur Richard Sandoval, houses one rotating full-service concept in addition to eight counter-serve stations that proffer street foods representing 14 South American countries. The multi-sensory hall, including café, bar, and lounge, can overwhelm first-timers, so a host stationed at the entrance briefly describes the offerings within.
The first full-service spot on rotation was a Jose Garces tapas spot called Pata Negra, which opened when the hall debuted in late 2015. Since last year, newcomer Pueblo has offered homespun Mexican dishes like tacos and mole enchiladas. As the debut U.S. restaurant from chef Pablo Salas (who has since opened Lona in Fort Lauderdale, Florida), Pueblo created visibility for the beloved Mexican chef, while also generating buzz for the broader food hall.
“Being open three-plus years, we’re open to opportunities and seeing what’s new,” says Latinicity’s executive chef and manager, Marcos Flores. “What’s nice is the rotating concept is flexible. It can be somebody already famous or somebody coming up.”
That’s because Latinicity’s own biggest challenge is visibility; the food hall is tucked on the third floor of the indoor Block 37 shopping and entertainment complex. Flores uses the slower summer months to innovate in time for the fall crush.
“Being upstairs in a mall that’s not the most popular one, it’s hard to bring people in,” Flores says. “When people see the space and come to the back with the huge windows and plants, they say, ‘Oh, my god, I didn’t know this was here.’ I hear that every single day. Once we have them, they always come back.”
When the Source Market + Food Hall opened in Denver in 2013, a food-and-retail collective in Denver’s then-gritty River North district was a novel concept. Since then retail and residential growth has exploded in the area. Following the recent completion of the Source Hotel and a second, adjacent market hall, developer Zeppelin Development is tinkering with the food hall again. It’s aiming for more of a neighborhood feel and day-to-night transitioning with concepts like centerpiece newcomer Isabel, a juice bar by day and cocktail bar by night.
One of the original tenants, full-service, wood-fired eatery Acorn, is getting a refresh, too. Acorn is expanding into the vacated Western Daughters Butcher Shoppe next door and increasing its bar footprint and adding seating.
“The first three and a half years were pretty phenomenal,” says Acorn proprietor Bryan Dayton, who also owns full-service Oak at Fourteenth and fast-casual Brider restaurants. “Back then, we were primarily a destination, but the neighborhood has changed a lot. We have more people wanting to pop in for a drink or late bite.”
Part of the butcher shop’s glass-enclosed walk-in cooler will transform into a wine wall that will open onto a stairway leading upstairs to the dining mezzanine. The rest will morph into an expanded open kitchen and dry-aging room for large-format beef and game birds. An adjacent, counter-service dessert bar will offer cookies and soft serve.
“This will give us a fresh start in the way the space is viewed and some of the way the menu is done,” he says. “We’re trying to look towards next 10–15 years.”