Whether you consider food halls the next frontier of casual dining or nothing more than glorified mall food courts, there’s no denying that they’re changing the way the Washington area eats. Five have opened since the beginning of 2018, in communities as diverse as Annandale, Rockville and Brookland, and five more are planned to open by the end of 2019.
While each has its own flavor, they share some commonalities: on-trend cuisines from all parts of the globe; pop-ups that allow highly regarded chefs to show off a playful side; and colorful, imaginative food that will look perfect on your Instagram feed.
For groups, food halls are often a better option than restaurants. There’s no need for a reservation. The variety of vendors means there’s a better chance that everyone — those who don’t eat meat, can’t have dairy or just have conservative palates — can find something appetizing. And a few of these food halls are not only about eating and drinking, with drive-in movies, cooking classes and bingo nights offering reasons to hang out.
Carved out of a former billiards parlor, the Block is an Asian food hall that has taken its cues from similar culinary playgrounds in Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan. As the name implies, the hall serves as a 21st-century block party, where locals gather not just for drinks and dinner, but for a chance to display the latest gravity-defying, drip-painting dessert to their Instagram followers, who will immediately suffer from a serious case of FOMO. Block founder Arturo Mei is a genius in creating an attractive third space.
Essential orders: Since debuting in late 2016, the Block has lost its Thai street food vendor. I’ll miss its floating market soup, but, fortunately, Balo Kitchen remains on site. This comfort-food counter prepares many of the best plates here: smoked and sous-vide pork belly with fries; fried-chicken-thigh tacos wrapped in flaky roti canai flatbread; a deconstructed short rib pho French dip sandwich. The Block also does sweets well: Both SnoCream and Munch specialize in colorful, eye-popping treats, ideal for Instagramming or just, you know, eating. The latest addition is Mama Mei’s — yes, named for Mei’s mother — and it walks a fine line between Chinese-American fare and Southern cooking.
Adult beverages: The Block Bar occupies a sizable piece of real estate inside the chic warehouse-meets-picnic-grounds space. It’s a full bar with beer, wine, sangria and craft cocktails. The drink list moves from traditional tipples, such as Manhattans and sazeracs, to Asian-inspired creations, such as the peach soju mule, a riff on the Moscow mule.
Beyond eating and drinking: The hall has become a popular gathering spot for DJ nights, art socials and even ’90s-themed dance parties. Some will gather here on the weekend to watch a game in a homey space in the corner of the room. Or they will use the Block as the backdrop for their own influencer game, posing for selfies with a precarious tower of ice cream scoops or against the geometric “food hall” sign out front.
4221 John Marr Dr., Annandale, Va. — T.C.
Advertised as a place for “Asian fare with excitement,” Pike Kitchen serves up the greatest hits from Korea, Japan, Vietnam and elsewhere. Founder James Park has a sharp eye for food trends, whether they originate in Southeast Asia or in the immigrant communities of Los Angeles and New York. Both traditional and trendy eats are gathered under one roof here, scattered among the eight vendors that circle the boisterous dining area.
Essential orders: The best items are a fusion of Asian and American tastes and ingredients. Think chewy mochi doughnuts from Pike Bakery, a spicy Korean-style Hawaiian poke bowl from Bowl Play or K Street Food’s unorthodox tteokbokki, in which chewy Korean rice cakes swim in a sweetened sauce covered with stringy cheese. Among the traditional dishes, seek out K Street Food’s garlicky mandu-guk soup or Japomen’s shoyu ramen with its melt-in-your-mouth chashu pork. But mostly let your curiosity run wild. It will be rewarded.
Adult beverages: Pike Kitchen isn’t built for imbibing. You have one choice for alcohol, and the option is mentioned in the very name of the vendor, PK Chicken and Beer. Actually, PK Chicken has more than draft beer and a handful of imported bottles buried in ice by the counter. It also has a small line of sakes and Korean rice wines. But if you really want to get your drink on, you’ll have to hit a nearby bar afterward.
Beyond eating and drinking: Pike Kitchen is a family-friendly space, where you’ll find diners of all ages. The dining area mixes scattered two-tops with communal tables, so you can mingle with other customers if you feel so inclined. The proprietors make it easy to start a conversation, given their flatscreens don’t usually distract you by showing the game or the news. The TVs are often just marketing tools for the hall.
1066 Rockville Pike, Rockville, Md. — T.C.
Before Ballston Common Mall was redeveloped into trendy Ballston Quarter, the lower level was the food court, full of fast food outlets and takeaway restaurants. The makeover has tweaked the formula: Instead of McDonald’s or Panera Bread, the restaurants include new fast-casual concepts from the brains behind D.C.’s acclaimed Himitsu and Timber Pizza. Instead of laminated plywood tables, customers sit in comfy leather club chairs and tall bar stools, or dine in a terraced outdoor courtyard. Overall, this ain’t the food court you remember.
Essential orders: The rock star here, for foodies chasing flavor or daredevils seeking heat, is Hot Lola’s, where Himitsu chef Kevin Tien adds Sichuan spices to the already fiery Nashville hot chicken sandwich. (The four levels go from “not hot” to “too hot.”) Other booths worth your time include brisket and ribs from Sloppy Mama’s BBQ, Korean rice bowls from Rice Crook and 10-inch personal pizzas from Turu’s by Timber Pizza, which resembles Timber’s farmers market setup more than its Petworth shop.
Adult beverages: In the middle of the space is the Ballston Service Station, a three-sided booth with 20 beers and ciders on tap — more than half were craft products from Virginia — and a half-dozen wines by the glass. Take $2 off draft beer and wine during happy hour, which runs from 4 to 7 p.m. on weekdays. Quarter Market recently changed its policy to allow customers to purchase drinks at the Service Station, or the stand-alone bars at Local Oyster or Copa Kitchen and Bar, and drink them anywhere on premises, including the terraced outdoor plaza.
Beyond eating and drinking: Between September and June (fingers crossed), the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals welcome the public to free, open practice sessions in the MedStar Capitals Iceplex, which sits atop Ballston Quarter’s parking garage. The renovated mall is also home to movie theaters and a cooking school, as well as an “Instagram Alley” full of colorful backdrops that will jazz up your social media photos.
4238 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va. — F.H.
Montgomery County is known for the Asian restaurants that fill the strip malls along Rockville Pike, but the Spot, which opened in August 2018, saves walking and driving time by putting multiple concepts under one roof in Rockville Town Square.
Essential orders: Watching the noodle experts at Mian hand-pulling noodles for the ramen can be hypnotizing, and the rich soups can be customized with a long list of ingredients, including duck, beef, tripe and pig ear. Cheers Cut is a chain specializing in Taiwanese chicken, beef and calamari fried in an extra-crispy breading. Finish at Alpaca Dessert for the famously delicious and photogenic bubble waffles stuffed with matcha or vanilla ice cream and topped with sprinkles and candy.
Adult beverages: The busy Spot Bar offers all manner of drinks. Bartenders speedily pour colorful shots (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Alabama Slammers, Pineapple Upside Down Cake), sweet cocktails (Green Appletini, Honeydew Margarita, Long Island Iced Tea), and IPAs (Flying Dog, Dogfish Head, Sierra Nevada). The real winner, though, is shots of soju, the flavored Korean spirit. Let bartenders guide you, or order a flight of three.
Beyond eating and drinking: The Spot regularly features live music on Saturdays, from stripped-down acoustic groups to full-power funk and rock bands. Watch the Spot’s Facebook page for details on a monthly open mic night.
255 N. Washington St., Rockville, Md. — F.H.
Rushed into the third level of Tysons Galleria, the same space that Mike Isabella surrendered last year as his restaurant empire started to crumble, Taste of Urbanspace has yet to establish a visual identity separate from the former Isabella Eatery. The new food hall looks much the same as the old one. But the (at present) six food vendors at Urbanspace are operating at a very high level, serving up a whole wide world of flavor.
Essential orders: Andy Brown turns out thin, crisp, excellent New York-style pies at his pizzeria that shares his name, where he sells them by the slice or as a whole round. Seng Luangrath, the chef behind Thip Khao, has a sister operation here, Sen Khao, which specializes in Laotian soups and sticky-rice dishes. Get the pho Lao som, a noodle soup that burns bright. Donburi, the third outlet dedicated to Japanese rice bowls, has a new offering: kake udon, a terrific bowl of sanuki udon noodles buried in a flavorful, tea-colored broth. Finish your visit with a slice of Lady M’s signature mille crepe cake with its sweet purr of light pastry cream.
Adult beverages: Taste of Urbanspace opened in December without a liquor license, but the food hall has one now. Several vendors have quickly expanded their menus to add beer, wine, sake and other beverages. Buttermilk biscuit haven Stomping Ground even has wine on tap as well as a compact cocktail list that nonetheless incorporates a broad spectrum of spirits. Donburi now has beer and sake, while Andy’s Pizza has a carefully curated beer list, at once deep and funky, heavy on the products from Virginia breweries.
Beyond eating and drinking: You’re in a mall, so you can walk off your meal with a few laps around Tysons Galleria, gawking at the luxuries that may be beyond your budget. But should you have the bank, the mall will be happy to take it from you, with a $10,000 Cartier watch or a $1,000 Prada bucket bag. The Taste of Urbanspace vendors offer frequent happy hour specials to entice diners to a mall they might otherwise avoid.
2001 International Dr., McLean, Va. — T.C.
Tastemakers is more than a place to dine on freshly made bao buns or jerk chicken: The Brookland warehouse is a working commercial kitchen, home to around four dozen start-ups and food trucks. The seven rotating stalls in the food hall include familiar names such as Bullfrog Bagels and Captain Cookie and the Milkman, but also some only-at-Tastemakers vendors.
Essential orders: The best eating and drinking options depend on when you arrive. Bullfrog Bagels opens at 7 a.m. on weekdays (8 a.m. on weekends); pair them with nitrogen-infused draft coffee from the nearby Alchemist stand. (Both close at 1 p.m.) Around lunch, you’ll probably be drawn to Stupid Burger. A collaboration between Rob Miller (founder of the Ball or Nothing meatball truck) and Jorge Pimentel (previously of Sabor’a Street), this stand specializes in imaginative burgers, including the umami-rich Cow-Boy: an all-beef patty topped with beef brisket, cheese and rich marrow butter.
Adult beverages: Most of the seats at Tastemakers are found at Benjamin’s on Franklin, a cozy bar where local beers are on tap and local spirits are featured in the classic cocktails. There’s a long bar, group tables and stools arranged around glass-topped wine barrels, and a wide selection of books to peruse while waiting for your food.
Beyond eating and drinking: Tastemakers is making itself a destination for the Brookland community and, in particular, its young families. Tuesday’s bingo night finds almost as many kids present as adults, while Sunday movies include “The Karate Kid” and “Shrek.” For adults, Tastemakers takes advantage of its members to offer cooking classes, skills workshops and wine tastings.
2800 10th St. NE. — F.H.
The closest thing in Washington to such famous foodie destinations as Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market or New York’s Chelsea Market, Union Market is home to dozens of stalls selling prepared foods and meat or fish you can take home to cook yourself, as well as shops that stock hostess gifts and sharpen dull knifes. The market opened to acclaim in 2012, and has been a zoo on weekends ever since.
Essential orders: Union Market has a mix of permanent and pop-up vendors. Among the favorites are Buffalo and Bergen, a soda counter known for New York-style bagels and knishes; Philly Wing Fry, celebrity chef Kwame Onwuachi’s spot for gourmet cheesesteaks, Buffalo wings and seasoned fries; and Red Apron Butchery, a butcher shop that also slings housemade half-smokes, meatball subs and chorizo burgers.
Adult beverages: Multiple vendors within Union Market sell alcohol to drink on-site: Charcuterie specialists La Jambe offers French wine, for example, while Red Apron pairs meat with excellent craft beers. (Its taps are selected by the team behind ChurchKey and the Sovereign.) The best choice, however, is outside the market: Suburbia’s converted Airstream trailer pours frozen cocktails, beers and rosé in a garden filled with picnic tables and games.
Beyond eating and drinking: Union Market is a hive of activities, including cooking classes in its test kitchen, music festivals in its Dock 5 space and a summerlong drive-in movie series.
1309 Fifth St. NW. — F.H.