The food hall is the biggest culinary trend to hit Houston in years. Like the mall courts of yore, these large, open spaces feature multiple concepts side by side, along with shared seating. But unlike the typical offerings at those mall spots, the cuisine here is chef-driven; the ambience, inviting.
Our food halls take inspiration from revered urban food markets like St. Roch in New Orleans, Chelsea in New York, and Reading Terminal in Philadelphia, but with more emphasis on providing counter-service meals, and, usually, less emphasis on selling produce. The model is perfect for Houston's diverse eaters, who crave nothing so much as variety.
All of our food halls have opened up in just the past few years, starting with downtown’s Conservatory (which recently shuttered but will be reborn in EaDo and in the Galleria area). Each has its own character, from the lunch-rush-friendly Understory inside downtown's tunnel system to the hip and friendly Politan Row in Rice Village. And more are on the way.
In our book the best thing about visiting a food hall is the buzz in the air, the way it awakens all of your senses. Stand in the middle of one and close your eyes: You'll hear chattering over at the two-tops, a spatula slicing against a hot flat top, a chef calling out an order. Breathe in, and you'll smell an enticing combination of cuisines, all flowing together into one delicious mix.
Maybe you’ll order a taco with some sashimi and a boba tea. Maybe you’ll get a burger, and your buddy will get some pho. Either way, you’ll probably make a mental note about something you didn’t try that you’ll be going back for, on your lunch break, perhaps, or with a date for a meal and a couple of glasses of wine—these days food halls have good booze programs, too.
Chances are that by eating at a food hall, you’re supporting young talent looking for greater exposure in Houston’s crowded culinary field. A few of the food halls—Bravery, Conservatory, and Politan especially—operate with a chef-incubator model. Their cooks learn how to run a business in a controlled space where creativity is encouraged, with hopes of one day turning their concepts into standalone brick-and- mortar establishments. For patrons it’s a chance to get to know a chef’s work before she or he blows up.
By their very nature, these culinary attractions are always changing. Vendors sign on for a few years at most, and the sheer number of stalls means there’s turnover happening somewhere. So you can do lunch or dinner at a food hall as often as you like and never have the same dish twice. There’s always something new to experience, and that, of course, is the point. —Timothy Malcolm