Roaming Rooster Chicken Sandwiches. Photo courtesy of Roaming Rooster.
It wasn’t long ago if you were an aspiring chef who wanted people to remember, you got yourself a food truck and tossed your 20 flavors of mac and cheese. Up-and-coming talents are more likely to be found in a food hall these days. Or a place that calls itself.
The definition of food hall has been stretched in recent years – especially during the pandemic. While the term may be reminiscent of pioneers like the Eastern Market and Union Market in DC, it is now tossed around to describe different types of places. Some are tiny. Some have contactless lockers to take away. Some have incandescent restaurants. (Have you tried breaking into Caruso’s grocery store lately?) These next-generation food halls have one thing in common: they’re more full of bars, taquerias, and pizzerias than the butchers, cheese, and grocers of yore.
The sheer breadth of choices can be overwhelming. But the food can be delicious. Here is where to start.
1401 Pennsylvania Avenue, SE
Area: Capitol Hill / East Hill.
Open in: September.
Who is behind it: The Neighborhood Restaurant Group, which operates several restaurants and bars, including Navy Yards Bluejacket, Arlingtons Rustico, and Dupont Circles Iron Gate.
What you will find: A mixture of public-friendly stands (pizza in pieces, ice cream sundaes with frozen vanilla pudding) and lesser-known offers (a low-alcohol beer garden, a Scandinavian counter). Beyond that, there are DC cheerleading shops with district map onesies, neighborhood posters, and locally made bath salts and dog biscuits.
Number of providers: 11.
How it works: When dining in the cool mid-century space at the foot of a condominium, you have several options. You can walk to many of the counters (not all yet allow), order online, or grab a table where you can browse one of the menus, get full service, and pay on a tab. Collection and delivery are also possible.
Day scene: Many stands don’t open until 4 a.m. during the week. Still, the few options available – plus cameo, a café – lure lunchers to the many bar stools and green leather stalls. On weekends when everything opens early it’s a great place to hike.
Dinner goal: Caruso’s Grocery, the cozy Italian-American restaurant next to the Food Hall, is one of the hottest tables in town.
Best breakfast: Leni’s sausage and egg sandwich.
Best lunch / dinner: Slice Joint Square Pepper Pizza; Red Apron burgers and charcuterie; Baked sushi rolls from Ako, a sushi counter from the siblings behind the Gaithersburg, met Kenaki.
Best snack: Crystal shrimp dumplings and rolls from Yoko & Kota, the stand run by Maketto chef Erik Bruner-Yang.
Where (and what) to drink: Shelter is dedicated to low-alcohol brews and Show of Hands offers an imaginative drinks menu – including delicious preparations such as frozen Riesling with rum and lime.
Child-friendly food: Carnitas braised in queso and orange soda or crispy beef tacos from Hi-Fi Taco.
Dessert fix: Flights of three miniature ice cream cups made from frozen custard at the State Fair.
Park: Surrounded by many paid parking spaces on the street.
1280 Fourth Street, NE
Area: Union market.
Open in: September 2019.
Who is behind it: Edens, the developer who created the neighboring Union Market.
What you will find: The market, which took time to fill up, now has a vibrant range of Latin American vendors – local as well as imported talent from Colombia, Venezuela, Mexico and beyond.
Number of providers: 13.
How it works: Order in person from the individual shops or scan the QR codes that are located throughout the marketplace to order online. Some restaurants offer delivery services. If you stay nearby, you’ll find a variety of seating options: indoor and outdoor communal and individual tables, outdoor lounge seating for sipping and live music on weekends, and bars and restaurants with terraces.
Dinner goal: Cook “Juanma ”Barrientos’s The Michelin-starred Colombian hotspot El Cielo offers à la carte and a 20-course tasting menu ($ 228 per person).
Best breakfast: Do it for two: Visit President Biden – President Biden’s recognized Las Gemelas Taqueria for breakfast tacos on heirloom corn tortillas – we like green chorizo or carnitas and eggs. Then get your caffeine boost from Panamanian coffee company Café Unido, known for luxury geisha coffees and funky fermented broths.
Best lunch / dinner: The Pupusa Trio at La Casita – grilled to order and generously filled with fillings such as loroco flower, roast pork, beans and / or cheese; The spiced rotisserie chicken from the Peruvian Brothers with side dishes such as yuca fries and avocado quinoa salad – all with cold Cusqeña beer or a bottle of Peruvian wine from the pan-Latin wine shop Grand Cata.
Best snack: Fresh chips and guacamole and nueces (flavored peanuts with lime) from Las Gemelas; Pandebono (Colombian cheese bread) at Serenata.
Where (and what) to drink: It’s fun to browse the marketplace. Our ideal evening: (1) a fruity, fizzy cocktail in the Spritz by Serenata car outdoors, (2) a spicy pineapple margarita with togarashi salt in Serenata’s spacious indoor bar, (3) everything with mezcal from indoor / outdoor Las Gemelas Cocina Mexicana, paired with delicious crudos or a piece of pork belly rubbed with achiote and drizzled with honey.
Child-friendly food: Tequeños (crispy Venezuelan cheese sticks) and Latin American-style hot dogs from Mosaico by Arepa Zone.
Dessert fix: On a hot day, the all-natural Mexican paleta (popsicle) stand Jarabe Gourmet Pops is our go-to for flavors like watermelon lime and chocolate ganache. Looking for a cute gift? The artful Venezuelan salesman Arcay Chocolates is the way to go.
Park: Free outdoor parking around the Union Market district or an underground car park in La Cosecha (free for the first three hours).
4856 Cordell Ave., Bethesda
Area: Downtown Bethesda.
Open in: March.
Who is behind it: Steve Salis, the restaurateur who owns the Ted’s Bulletin faux diner chain and other casual eateries in and around DC.
What you will find: A take-away mini-food hall that is a distillation of Salis’ comfort-oriented concepts. See Ted’s “Pop Tarts” alongside pulled pork sandwiches from Federalist Pig grill destination, roast chicken from Honeymoon Chicken, and a short list of pastries from his Sidekick bakery in one place.
Number of providers: Four.
How it works: Order through the Food Hall app or website and collect your selection by scanning a QR code and opening a heated locker. (A member of staff is on hand to help.) You can also order delivery.
Day scene: Although there are a few things available for walk-in purchase, like cookies and drinks, this is a place to be – a vending machine for the 21st century. It looks like a sleek version of an airport locker room.
Best breakfast: Ted’s huge burrito, stuffed full of eggs and jalapeño / cheese sausage and topped with avocado crema and green chilli sauce. It is served all day.
Best lunch / dinner: Honeymoon sandwich with fried chicken; Ted’s Greek Salad; Federal pork ribs, wings and a smoked turkey sandwich.
Best snack: Honey Butter Slicked Dinner Rolls from Honeymoon.
Where (and what) to drink: The non-alcoholic product range includes canned lattes, canned water and subtly sweet fruit sodas.
Cooking at home: $ 50 brunch kits from Ted’s that include scrambled eggs; Bacon or sausage; Pancakes or french toast; and four pop tarts.
Child-friendly food: Wedge fries from Honeymoon, mac and cheese from Ted’s.
Dessert fix: These pop tarts can be pretty dry – have a salted chocolate chip cookie instead.
Park: There is a small, chargeable car park next door.
This article appears in the Washingtonian July 2021 issue.