As a suburban-born and -bred woman, I have fond (and not-so-fond) teenage memories of hanging out in the mall after school and grabbing snacks from the food court. My friends and I would regularly ruin the dinners our mothers had planned for us by feasting on big-as-your-head pizza slices from Sbarro's, the creamsicle-like slushies from Orange Julius, and giant chocolate chip cookies with macadamia nuts from Mrs. Field's. Though malls certainly still exist along with their various food courts, dining (and even shopping) in this fashion has fallen out of style. Fast-forward several decades, and suddenly the food court is seeing a re-emergence, but now they're called “food halls,” or better yet, “food collectives.”
Potato, potato. Regardless of what they are called, they'll always be food courts to me, though I must admit the quality has increased tenfold. These new courts are serving better food and are separate entities—no longer the appendages of massive shopping malls—but they share many of the same characteristics as their predecessors—namely, a tasty meal for a reasonable price.
The first food hall to open in New Orleans was St. Roch Market, and despite the controversy surrounding the original intent behind the building's renovation, this joint is definitely jumping. Try the fresh oysters or Coconut Shrimp Curry from Elysian Seafood, smoked brisket tacos at La Mezcla's, or a roasted eggplant wrap from Torshi. Wash it all down with a craft cocktail from The Mayhaw, or get your caffeine fix with a brew from Coast Roast Coffee. The possibilities seem endless, and it's fairly rare to find a dish that rises above $15! Just don't forget to end your feast with a key lime tart or slice of flourless chocolate cake from Bittersweet Confections.
Opened by the same folks who launched St. Roch, Auction House Market is the Warehouse District's answer to the daily lunch dilemma. Inside a renovated 120-year-old building that formerly housed Tinker Copper & Iron Works, this gorgeous food court sports a central bar that sits beneath a light well, surrounded by hanging plants perched on delicate brass and glass shelves. A few vendors from St. Roch are also at Auction House Market, like Coast Roast and Elysian Seafood, but they also feature flavors from the Pacific Rim (like sushi and poke) at Aloha Lei, flaky filled meat and vegetarian pies from Empanola, Indian-inspired “street food” from Tava, and for the health-conscious luncher, HappyJaxx. I certainly don't recall empanadas or sushi being served at my old food court … do you?
Finally, the most recent food hall to open in New Orleans is Pythian Market. This building that once served as the central hub of the African American community in the Crescent City has been renovated into apartments on its upper floors, and the entire ground floor has just opened as the city's third food hall. Several vendors, like 14 Parishes, Central City BBQ, and Little Fig, are offshoots from other established restaurants around town, but there's also seafood and cocktails from Cru, pizza from Meribo, rotisserie chicken from Poulet, and all things veggie from Squeezed.
Aside from great prices and a casual atmosphere, all of these food halls offer a good deal of variety, making dining out, especially in groups, a cinch. Your dining companion could want pasta while you're in the mood for hummus, yet you can still dine together and enjoy your lunch without a hassle. Who wants to join me for lunch?