Food halls are, suddenly, everywhere. Britain’s largest, the 800-seat Market Hall West End, recently opened in London and inspired by other great examples, too, such as Altrincham Market House, Liverpool’s Duke Street, Sheffield’s Kommune, this format – communal dining where you choose from multiple independent kitchens – will surge in 2020.
Every clued-up town wants a hip food hall. But are we ready to embrace bustling, ultra-casual eating? To share tables with (yikes!) strangers? Not always, I find. Here, then, are my 10 food hall rules.
1. Food halls are (usually) no-bookings venues. That is one way to keep prices low, by not employing staff to allocate tables. Some people, however, think themselves above the democratic, first-come, first-served nature of that beast. They commandeer tables by draping bags and coats everywhere, grab chairs as you go to sit (‘we’re expecting people!’), and tigerishly defend their space. If there is nowhere else to sit? Ignore them and plonk yourself down. You want a guaranteed table? Go to a restaurant. This is not how a food hall works. You cannot hold seats for late mates.
2. Those yet to find a table can be as bad; whole families hovering passive-aggressively behind you as you eat or, even, nudging you to ask ‘are you off?’. Nothing makes me linger over my pint more. If you are looking for a seat, circulate. Relax, rather than projecting your frustration on those trying to enjoy their food.
3. Long queues kill the vibe. Be decisive when ordering. Read the menu first. Don’t stand there quizzing staff for pointers, tasting endless beers or run back to your table to renegotiate an order. People behind you will be staring daggers into the back of your skull.
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4. Exponents of European-style family dining, many food halls have play areas or outdoor spaces. That is where your kids should play. Not under my feet at the bar or between the tables as the runners try to deliver food. This is not a crèche. See also, dogs.
5. Conducting a bellowed conversation over 10 tables about how many chips ‘we’ need… is not on.
6. This is not a restaurant. The runners are busy. If you cannot get someone’s attention to get water, napkins, ketchup etc. then, rather than getting irate, help yourself at the stations dotted around. Again, that is why your main is £11 not £18. Muck in.
7. Do not leave carnage in your wake. Use any bins. If you smash a glass, tell someone. If you spill food, mop up. No-one expects a forensic clean-down, but consider the food hall a lightly staffed social experiment. If we don’t respect it, it will become a dump.
8. At communal tables, a little pass-the-salt small-talk with your neighbours is inevitable. But read the signals. People are here to see friends, not make new ones. Pass the time, don’t pester. Gobby bores who subject others to their endless opinions would, ideally, be barred. On that front…
9. The golden rule about what people are eating around you is to mind your own business. Sceptically asking strangers, ‘what is that?’; telling them what they should have ordered; or how ‘bloody steak turns my stomach’ is a no-no. There is no polite response.
10. Despite their adventurous rep, people often opt for familiar pizzas and burgers in food halls. They’re quick, easy options in busy places when the choice is overwhelming. Fight that urge. Calmly consider all the menus and show gastro-solidarity with kitchens doing arepa, chaat or ceviche. Otherwise, food halls will become as bland as the high streets they should be an alternative to.
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Do you like dining at food halls? Leave a comment below...
Tony Naylor writes for Restaurant magazine and The Guardian.