Urban Hawker | Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist
Urban Hawker | Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist
Imagine a table where one person is pulling steaming noodles from a bowl of ramen while dining companions beside them dig a spoon into rich tres leches and let shimmering oil from a corn tortilla run down to their wrist. The world at the end of your fork—or chopsticks.
Food halls were once touted as a way to travel the world without ever leaving your city. Simply sample street food and other quick-service dishes from several different countries all under one roof. But the more is more approach to these multicultural dining destinations seems to be making way for a more specific culinary route by delivering a deep dive into the cuisine of a particular region or country.
Take NorthRidge Eats. This Los Angeles outpost dedicated to Asian fare serves Northern Thai-style larb and tom kha gai alongside spicy tuna hand rolls and chirashi bowls. Meanwhile, when Alkebulan debuts in NYC in the coming months, it’ll showcase dishes from several African countries. Of course all of these places contain multitudes, with an incredible diversity of food within each continent, so visitors will still find a vast array of dishes and cuisine styles. But this is decidedly different from the globe-trotting setup at the food halls of yore (ahem, barely a decade ago).
About a decade ago, Oscar Farinetti wanted to bring Italy’s vast culinary profile together with a market where you can pick up bottles of wine made from Tuscan grapes in one aisle and savor a scoop of gelato studded with Sicilian pistachios before heading out the door.
That was Farinetti’s idea for Eataly, which the founder originally sketched on the back of a napkin, and in 2007 he made his vision a reality with a first location in Turin, Italy. The Italian market now boasts eight locations stateside and 41 others around the world, many of which display the initial drawing of his plan for a grocery store with a series of restaurants inside.
“It is certainly an exciting time to see how our concept has evolved here in the United States,” says Raffaele Piarulli, the chief operating officer of Eataly North America. “New chefs and food halls are bringing a high level of knowledge about different cultures that is often hard to access by broader audiences.”
That market style laid the groundwork for food halls like La Cosecha, a 14-vendor market in DC focused on Latin America. There, explore grab-and-go food kiosks, full-service restaurants and bars, and shops selling everything from award-winning Venezuelan chocolate to clothing and leather goods made by local artists.
It’s not just about what’s lining the shelves or coming out of the kitchen that makes the place special. “For centuries, marketplaces have been places for conversation as well as commerce,” says La Cosecha spokesperson Norma Morales Perez. The space has quickly developed a deeper meaning for the community.
When La Cosecha debuted in 2019, founders envisioned it as a gathering place for the growing Hispanic population in DC and across the country. With more than 10 Latin American countries represented in the market, it’s morphed into a setting for people to learn about the culture and traditions of these countries.
“La Cosecha is a discovery destination—a variety of sights, sounds, and tastes all in one place,” Perez says. To further that mission, La Cosecha regularly partners with nearby Latin American embassies to host events like live music, cooking classes, and temporary art exhibitions to educate DC residents.
A similar desire to share his culture is what inspired KF Seetoh to open Urban Hawker in NYC earlier this year. The space is designed to mimic a classic hawker center like you’d find in Singapore—a collection of hundreds of street food stalls where each vendor shells out a single dish like Hainanese chicken rice or roti john, a Singapore-style omelet sandwich.
Singapore is famous for its globe-trotting dishes influenced by the likes of China and India. Variety is baked into the city’s culinary identity. “There’s no such thing as a Singaporean restaurant,” Seetoh says, “there’s only the hawker center.”
“I needed to curate a menu that represents the cross section of flavors that makes up our culinary fabric in Singapore,” he explains. “There are so many different influences, so the stalls can only represent a small cross section.”
He landed on 17 food stalls, many run by vendors who moved to the U.S. to serve dishes that have been passed down for generations. The space’s general manager Larry Reutens said he’s seen people tear up while ordering homestyle recipes they haven’t tasted in years since leaving Singapore.
While offering a taste of home is rewarding, Seetoh says he also wanted the food hall to serve as a worldly lesson for those unable to hop on a plane to Singapore. His favorite way to see the world and learn more about others is through eating each destination’s signature dish—and that’s exactly what he’s hoping to provide at Urban Hawker.
“That’s the way I like to eat,” Seetoh says. “It helps me understand a little bit more about them. Then my world becomes smaller and a little bit more delicious.”