There’s a Global Food-Court Revolution afoot, and it’s about to hit our shores, shopping malls, airports, subway stations, and corporate mega-structures. Chef Chang previews the next phase in the ongoing delicious-ization of everywhere.
By David Chang
I can never get behind food trends, so now I’d like to get in front of one: the re-invention of the food court.
I’ve always loved food courts, all of them, from the crappiest shopping-mall version to the king of all courts, at Changi Airport in Singapore. Some of my great food memories from childhood happened at Tysons Corner Center in Virginia, where I spent hours trapped in wonderfully painful indecision: Do I get the chicken sandwich at Chick-fil-a? The fries with special sauce at Jerry’s? The chow mein platter at Panda Express? Or maybe I should indulge my taste for real Italian food at Sbarro? I swear I wouldn’t have developed the palate I have today if it weren’t for the much maligned American food court. Talk shit about Cinnabon all you want, but the truth is, it’s fucking delicious. Now the food court is about to get even tastier—and a whole lot healthier and higher-end than a sugar bomb the size of a pizza.
That concept might sound weird to Americans, but elsewhere in the world, fancy food halls have long been culinary meccas. Mostly in Europe: Fauchon in Paris, Dallmayr in Munich, and the holiest of delicious temples, Peck in Milan. (Mario Carbone of Parm and Carbone introduced me to it, and seriously, it’s the best place ever created.) In 2010, New York got its first taste of this when Mario Batali opened a U.S. branch of Eataly, the Italian Thunderdome. Five years later there are Eatalys all over the planet, and now everyone wants to open a single-cuisine department store/food court. (The one I really want to see is a Singaporean hawker-stand concept. I need to get my chile crab and nasi lemak on.)
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I’m not just talking about malls. This is happening in all kinds of virgin terrain that defies conventional logic about culinary real estate. Imagine, for example, how much less depressing hospitals would be if they served great food in the cafeteria (a personal dream of mine). Or consider how the Japanese have made effective use of crappy locations and turned them into gastronomic gold mines. Whenever friends ask me where to eat in Tokyo, I reel off the usual list of ramen-yas and top sushi houses, but then I add a caveat: The best eating in Japan is in subway stations, basements, and department stores. They always think I’m being a dick and sending them on a fool’s errand. Silly Americans don’t believe that some of the finest eating in the world takes place in the concrete jungle underneath Tokyo, where there’s a labyrinth of excellent and well-known restaurants, bakeries, sweetshops, tea sellers, and grocers. The quality and sheer variety is staggering.
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I’m starting to see versions of this in more and more of our big cities, from the thirty-plus-vendor Grand Central Market in downtown L.A. to Gotham West Market in New York City, with its amazingly diverse spread of tacos, ramen, and everything in between. Another prime N.Y.C. example is Hudson Eats at Brookfield Place, the bustling new food court in Lower Manhattan near my editor’s office, where he worked on this column while eating an insanely good grilled cheese with butternut squash and sage brown butter from Little Muenster.
See? The new-wave food court is everywhere, even in the making of this page. I’m always saying that we’ve taken the traditional restaurant as far as it can go. The gastronomic future is everywhere else, starting just up the escalators from the Hot Topic, right across from the J.Crew.