Heaving with gourmet fare curated from around the globe, NYC’s upscale gastro-emporiums are redefining the humble food court – they’re typically un-American but so very New York.
New Yorkers love to feel like they have options. One kind of peanut butter is fine but 15 varieties is better, particularly if you can grind the nuts from scratch and add organic oil flown in from Argentina. The simple act of making small daily choices is, in New York, elevated to obsession. New Yorkers are the CEOs of their own lives.
This fixation on variety, on endless possibilities at every single moment, is behind a trend that has swept the city over the past few years: food courts. Not the plastic shopping-mall kind, filled with Starbucks and sad-looking Chinese buffets but food courts – like art galleries – that compress an entire galaxy of culinary pleasures into a single, exquisitely detailed space.
The trend started in 2010 with the opening of Eataly, a high-end emporium dedicated to all things Italian. It received an infusion of hipster credibility with the launch of Brooklyn’s Smorgasburg, an outdoor market where everything is artisan and lovingly crafted.
Many of the food courts that have opened since manage a mix of these two extremes – they are finely curated but somehow spontaneous, offering different cuisines and jumbles of communal seating. Visiting them is to catch a glimpse of the city in miniature.
There are many such establishments in New York already – Berg’n in Brooklyn, Gotham West Market in Hell’s Kitchen, Gansevoort Market in the Meatpacking District, City Kitchen in Times Square and Riis Park Beach Bazaar on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. More locations are slated to open, including one curated by American chef Anthony Bourdain.
In other words, there are many choices offering many ever-expanding choices. No wonder New Yorkers are excited. Here’s a guide to five good places to start.
No New York City food experience would be complete without a foray into Brooklyn. Berg’n, in the vibrant Crown Heights neighbourhood, is a brand-new “beer hall” designed by the people behind Smorgasburg, the weekly hipster food bazaar that sees dozens of temporary stalls erected by the East River in Williamsburg. Berg’n, tucked away beside an old red-brick Heinz factory, is a permanent but minimalist affair with long communal tables arranged before a Western-style bar offering dozens of drafts, cans and bottles with names such as Victory Summer Love and North Coast Old Rasputin.
Mostly, this is a space designed for serious night crowds; it heaves from happy hour onwards. But lunch is good for a quieter retreat as the many freelance creatives hunkered over laptops will attest.
Four food options line the wall: barbecue, shawarma, Vietnamese and Asia Dog,
which infuses the all-American hot dog with the flavours of bánh mì and house-made kimchi. Everything on offer is delicious and scrupulously healthy, much of it filled with kale. When asked how the iced tea with cardamom and rosewater is sweetened, for example, the server at Samesa assures a patron that “it’s only honey” and a modest amount at that: “We try to make things as non-American as possible here.”
899 Bergen Street, Brooklyn
“It was a hotel then a bank,” says a white-aproned worker, describing the ornate building on the western side of Madison Square Park. “Right before this it was a toy store – from toys to Italian food!” When Eataly, the brainchild of businessman Oscar Farinetti, opened in 2010, the queues stretched around the block for weeks. Five years on it remains the most celebrated emporium in the city: 4600 square metres of delicious edibles, from Caprese salad to giant wheels of Parmigiano.
Eataly is part supermarket and part food court. Its aisles offer enough variety for an entire grocery run – and around them different dining stations dedicated to thin-crust pizza, vegetarian cuisine or espresso. Businessmen on power lunches brush shoulders with old dames lugging shopping bags in La Piazza, the central hall. Tourists wander past egg bucatini while trying not to drool. Others line up for Baci di Dama, hazelnut cookies sandwiched together with chocolate.
The selection here is so overwhelming, it’s not unusual to hear people asking staff for recommendations like a plea for help. Pointing to the Carne del Giorno bar, one attendant advises “the prime rib panino” (peppery, delectable). Prices can be steep but it’s a testament to Eataly’s charms that you barely even notice. This is what grocery shopping should be like.
200 Fifth Avenue
Gotham West Market
Where exactly is Gotham West Market? It depends on who you ask. Long-time New Yorkers will tell you it’s in an industrial backwater, otherwise known as 11th Avenue, west of Times Square. Property developers will tell you it’s in boomtown: just look at those glittering high-rises springing up on every block, filled with young professionals.
But Gotham West Market is best understood as a ready-made community hangout. Its chic polished-concrete cavern offers people who have chosen to live in the sky a place to unwind. There’s a café at the end peddling Blue Bottle Coffee and long communal tables stacked with Scrabble and Pictionary. Lawyers watch football on a TV by the ramen bar while PR executives work the photo booth next to Choza Taqueria, a taco shop that also opens for breakfast (try the tamales and poached eggs). Ben Gilreath, a local investment banker, says the ambience is “mesmerising – part Disney, part Lawrence of Arabia”.
When asked to elaborate, he orders another glass of Rioja from the tapas bar and waves his arm around as though it’s perfectly obvious.
The lighting is low and the music is loud. The best flavour at Ample Hills Creamery, a Brooklyn-based company that draws its name from a poem by Walt Whitman, is The Munchies: pretzel-infused ice-cream with Ritz crackers, M&M’s and Kettle potato chips.
It could be a motto: why choose one thing when you can have it all?
600 11th Avenue
At the turn of last century, the cobblestoned Gansevoort Street was home to an open-air farmers’ market that one magazine described in 1888 as “pandemonium”. Things today are a little more subdued in the Meatpacking District: instead of frozen turkeys and slaughtered calves, you’ll find Diane von Furstenberg and Helmut Lang. But the market – or a modern version of it, buffed and sanitised – is now reimagined as an international bazaar.
Gansevoort Market occupies a warehouse space of exposed brick walls, artfully weathered, with a seating area arranged around a skylight and several gnarled trees. Wooden tables press up against stalls selling Thai food, meatballs, sushi and Cornish pasties. There are outposts of several notable New York businesses, including Champion – a terrific coffee roaster based out of Brooklyn – and Tacombi, a Mexican eatery from SoHo known for its blue food vans. Some of the offerings are faddish; tiger-nut horchata is “like almond milk but a root vegetable”, explains one server. But the selection is varied enough to satisfy even the most discerning palate.
Also, it’s hard to beat Gansevoort Market for sheer convenience. The High Line is just down the block, along with the new and unmissable Whitney Museum of American Art, now one of New York’s loveliest attractions.
52 Gansevoort Street
After walking through the doors of Le District, it takes mere seconds to understand that it’s French. There’s the music, for starters – an insistent soundtrack of singers such as Camille. Then there are the food-station names – Rotisserie, Charcuterie, Poissonnerie – and a tendency for everything, right down to the roast beef, to look like a work of art.
At Le District, nothing is out of place. Madeleines are individually wrapped; apple galettes are flaky perfection; the chocolate mousse bar opens at precisely four o’clock. There are better cheese shops in the city (Murray’s foremost among them) but it’s doubtful that a better Napoleon (mille-feuille) could be found anywhere on the continent.
Plenty of seating in the modernist dining room makes this an ideal lunch spot in Lower Manhattan, a neighbourhood not known for its food.
On-site restaurant Beaubourg offers croque-monsieur and moules-frites (mussels in a white wine broth served with French fries). But another option, popular among the regulars, is “grab-and-go” casse-croûte, or snacks. Fill a picnic basket with pâté and baguettes then head out the door to the edge of the Hudson River. Slightly north is Nelson A. Rockefeller Park, offering views across to New Jersey.
Brookfield Place, 225 Liberty Street
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