Food halls have been earning major hype over the past decade or so, with new hotspots seemingly springing up every week. Some are housed in gorgeous purpose-built structures, while others fill rehabbed spaces in empty warehouses or department stores.
They’re paradise for the indecisive food-lover: you can take a nibble here and a nibble there until you’ve sated your belly and your curiosity. That’s our kind of meal.
When it comes to grub, travellers are often tantalised by the call of colourful food markets or street food vendors, but with more investment in dynamic concept spaces and innovative international cuisine, food halls should not be underestimated.
Just what is the difference between a food hall and a food market? While there’s plenty of overlap, a food hall focuses on prepared foods, while a market trades largely in raw ingredients. Frequently you’ll find the two side by side. A food hall bears resemblance to a traditional mall food court (some are even in malls), but with better design sense and fewer lacklustre chains.
Here are some of our favourite spots to stop for a bite or 10.
Harrods, London, UK
The grande dame of them all, Harrods’ opulent Art Nouveau-style food hall is where London’s gentry (or their servants) have done their shopping for going on 200 years. At the heart of the palatial Harrods department store, everything in the hall seems to gleam, from the marble of the oyster bar and the tall arched mirrors behind the bakery counter to the hand-carved ice sculptures of the fish department.
Indulge your inner aristocrat with heaped spoonfuls of caviar, bubbling platters of lobster thermidor, cut crystal bowls piled with ice cream, or tiny, shattery little macarons that taste of a 19th-century duchess’s perfume.
Must eat: Squeeze into the stunning black-and-white oyster bar for a plate of wild Scottish oysters.
Takashimaya, Tokyo, Japan
Beneath Tokyo’s grand department stores are the depachika, colossal temples to Japan’s love of food. Combining the words for department store (depāto) and basement (chika), these depachika are worlds unto themselves, selling on average more than 30,000 different items. Look for sushi rolls, takoyaki (savoury round pancakes stuffed with chopped octopus), cold noodle salads, wedges of layered omelets and jewel-like bento boxes of fish and vegetables.
This is also the place to find exquisite little mochi (rice cakes), light-as-air Japanese cheesecake and soft-serve ice cream in flavours from chocolate to cherry blossom. The depachika in the Shinjuku branch of the Takashimaya store is particularly exquisite – grab your food and head to the rooftop picnic garden for a serene spot with endless views across the city.
Must eat: Gobble up trays of sashimi from fish that were swimming this morning, plus hybrid French-Japanese pastries like green tea eclairs.
Grand Central Market, Los Angeles, USA
The beating heart of the Downtown Los Angeles renaissance, this 100-year-old food hall embodies the glorious diversity of the city. Think Jewish delis hawking pastrami on rye sitting cheek by jowl with old-school Chinese-American wonton soup joints and hipster breweries slinging punnily named IPAs. The clientele is equally diverse – camera-toting tourists jostle construction workers and wannabe actors.
Expect lines if you hit the hanger-like space at prime brunch or lunchtime, especially at perennially trendy spots like Eggslut, home of Instagram’s favourite egg sandwich.
Must eat: Gorge on pupusas, thick corn tortillas stuffed with meat, cheese, beans and other fillings and griddled till they’re crisp on the outside and gooey on the inside at Sarita’s Pupuseria.
Food Garden, Tijuana, Mexico
If the phrase ‘mall food court’ makes you think of greasy fast food burgers and limp pizza, Food Garden in Tijuana’s Plaza Rio will make you banish the idea completely. This is a different creature entirely, with 11,000 sq ft of gourmet regional and international treats, with reclaimed wood tables and high industrial ceilings.
You’ll want to sample a bit of everything: nibble a grilled octopus taco, down a couple of slices of sausage toast at a traditional Basque pintxos (tapas) stall, slurp up a bowl of porky tonkatsu ramen. Then top things off with a sweet crêpe or a cerveza (or hey, both).
Must eat: Breakfast on chilaquiles, the much-loved Mexican dish of fried corn tortillas drenched in salsa and topped with cheese, beans, avocado, eggs and more, at Los Chilaquiles.
Time Out Market, Lisbon, Portugal
Hip Lisbonites chow down at communal tables in this airy food hall, inside the fin de siècle Mercado da Ribeira. Wander around and assemble a meal from the 30-plus stalls, many of which specialise in classic Portuguese fare with a modern twist – think squid ink croquettes, preserved sardines with vegetables, garlicky steamed clams and charcoal-roasted chicken. Seating is hard to come by during peak hours, so order a sangria and be patient.
Must eat: Nibble warm, flaky pastéis de nata, tarts filled with egg yolk custard and baked until the tops are scorched with deep-brown caramel spots.
Markthal, Rotterdam, The Netherlands
Worth a visit for the architecture alone, this soaring horseshoe-shaped building’s interior arch is covered with an enormous tile mosaic of foodstuffs – 10-foot-high avocados, anyone?! Grapes the size of VW buses?! After you’ve gawped for a while, settle in for some warming Dutch dishes – wedges of appeltaart with whipped cream and a cup of strong black coffee, savoury bitterballen (beef and gravy croquettes), crunchy plates of kibbeling (bite-sized bits of fried fish). Alternatively, go for the dozens of international cuisines on offer, from Turkish kebabs to sushi.
Must eat: Snack on hot, sugary stroopwafels – two thin waffles sandwiching a gooey caramel filling.
Maxwell Road Hawker Centre, Singapore
Singapore is famous for its hawker centres, semi-covered food courts designed to herd street food vendors into centralised locations. To eat here, know the etiquette. First claim a table using an object, from an umbrella to a packet of tissues. Then make the rounds, ordering dishes from any number of vendors. They’ll deliver the food right to you.
Classic hawker centre dishes include hot salty bowls of wonton noodles, thick chewy popiah (a kind of fresh spring roll) and ‘carrot cake’ (squares of steamed radish cake stir-fried with eggs, pork and green onions). Wash it all down with the kind of juice you won’t find at your local supermarket – soursop, salted plum, sugarcane, star fruit. Oh, and the hawker centres are subsidised by the government, so they’re shockingly affordable.
Must eat: Chow down on Hainanese chicken rice (poached chicken served with rice fragrant with ginger, garlic and Pandan leaves) at the famous Tian Tian Chicken Rice stall.
Ponce City Market, Atlanta, USA
Opened in a 1920s-era Sears headquarters, and the largest brick building in the Southeast, this vast hall is heaven for Southern foodies. The offerings are both regional – fried chicken biscuits, Gulf oysters, double-stacked burgers – and international, from Indian street food to South African sausages. In Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward neighbourhood, it’s part of a mixed-use development crowned with a rooftop amusement park. When you’re done eating, head up there for mini golf, carnival games, a beer garden and outstanding sunset views.
Must eat: A Puerto Rican-inspired sandwich stuffed with ham and pork belly at El Super Pan, plus a side of maduros (sweet sautéed plantains) and a hibiscus sweet tea.