It wasn’t long ago that if you were an up-and-coming chef looking to get on people’s minds, you’d get a food truck and start slinging your 20 flavors of mac and cheese. Nowadays, rising talents are more likely to be found in a food hall. Or a place that calls itself one.
The definition of food hall has been stretched in recent years—especially during the pandemic. While the term may call to mind pioneers like DC’s Eastern Market and Union Market, it’s now thrown around to describe several types of places. Some are tiny. Some have contact-free takeout lockers. Some have white-hot restaurants. (Tried to get into Caruso’s Grocery lately?) One thing these next-gen food halls do have in common: They’re more apt to be packed with bars and taquerias and pizza shops than with the butchers and cheesemongers and grocers of old.
The sheer breadth of choices can be overwhelming. But the eating can be delicious. Here’s where to start.
1401 Pennsylvania Ave., SE
Neighborhood: Capitol Hill/Hill East.
Opened in: September.
Who’s behind it: The Neighborhood Restaurant Group, which runs several restaurants and bars, including Navy Yard’s Bluejacket, Arlington’s Rustico, and Dupont Circle’s Iron Gate.
What you’ll find: A mix of crowd-pleasing stands (by-the-slice pizza, frozen-custard sundaes) and lesser-seen offerings (a low-alcohol beer garden, a Scandinavian counter). In back, a shop cheerleads for DC with District-map onesies, neighborhood posters, and locally made bath salts and dog biscuits.
Number of vendors: 11.
How it works: If you’re dining in at the midcentury-cool space, which is at the base of a condo building, you have a couple options. You can walk up to many of the counters (not all allow it yet), order online, or grab a table, where you can graze off any of the menus, get full service, and pay on one tab. Pickup and delivery are also available.
Daytime scene: Many stalls don’t open until 4 during the week. Still, the handful of available options—plus Cameo, a coffee shop—draw lunchgoers to the many barstools and green-leather booths. On the weekend, when everything opens early, it’s a great wandering spot.
Dinner destination: Caruso’s Grocery, the snug Italian American restaurant attached to the food hall, is one of the hottest tables in town.
Best breakfast: Leni’s bratwurst-and-egg sandwich.
Best lunch/dinner: Square pepperoni pizza from Slice Joint; burgers and charcuterie from Red Apron; gussied-up sushi rolls from Ako, a sushi counter from the siblings behind the Gaithersburg hit Kenaki.
Best snack: Crystal-shrimp dumplings and buns from Yoko & Kota, the stand that’s run by Maketto chef Erik Bruner-Yang.
Kid-friendly eats: Queso and orange-soda-braised carnitas or crunchy beef tacos from Hi-Fi Taco.
Dessert fix: Flights of three miniature frozen-custard sundaes at State Fair.
Parking: Surrounded by lots of metered street parking.
1280 Fourth St., NE
Neighborhood: Union Market.
Opened in: September 2019.
Who’s behind it: Edens, the developer that created neighboring Union Market.
What you’ll find: The market, which took some time to fill out, now has a vibrant lineup of Latin merchants—local as well as imported talents from Colombia, Venezuela, Mexico, and beyond.
Number of vendors: 13.
How it works: Order in person at the individual businesses or scan QR codes located throughout the marketplace to order online. Some restaurants offer delivery. If you’re sticking around, you’ll find a variety of seating: communal and individual tables indoors and out, alfresco lounge seating for sipping and listening to live music on weekends, and bars and restaurants with patios.
Dinner destination: Chef “Juanma” Barrientos’s Michelin-starred Colombian hot spot, El Cielo, offers à la carte and a 20-odd-course tasting menu ($228 a person).
Best breakfast: Make it a twofer: Drop by President Biden–approved Las Gemelas Taqueria for breakfast tacos on heirloom-corn tortillas—we like green chorizo or carnitas and eggs. Then get your caffeine fix from Panamanian coffee company Café Unido, known for luxe Geisha coffees and funky fermented brews.
Best lunch/dinner: The pupusa trio at La Casita—griddled to order and stuffed generously with fillings such as loroco flower, fried pork, beans, and/or cheese; Peruvian Brothers’ spiced rotisserie chicken, with sides including yuca fries and avocado-quinoa salad—all matched with cold Cusqeña beer or a bottle of Peruvian wine from pan-Latin wine shop Grand Cata.
Best snack: Fresh chips and guacamole and nueces (spiced peanuts with lime) from Las Gemelas; pandebono (Colombian cheese bread) at Serenata.
Where (and what) to drink: It’s fun to barhop around the marketplace. Our ideal evening: (1) a fruity, effervescent cocktail at the outdoor Spritz by Serenata cart, (2) a spiced-pineapple margarita with togarashi salt at Serenata’s spacious indoor bar, (3) anything with mezcal from indoor/outdoor Las Gemelas Cocina Mexicana, paired with delicious crudos or a slab of achiote-rubbed pork belly drizzled with honey.
Kid-friendly eats: Tequeños (crispy Venezuelan cheese sticks) and Latin-style hot dogs from Mosaico by Arepa Zone.
Dessert fix: On a hot day, all-natural Mexican paleta (popsicle) stand Jarabe Gourmet Pops is our stop for flavors such as watermelon-lime and chocolate ganache. Looking for a sweet gift? Artful Venezuelan vendor Arcay Chocolates is the way to go.
Parking: Free outdoor parking around the Union Market district, or an underground lot at La Cosecha (first three hours free).
4856 Cordell Ave., Bethesda
Neighborhood: Downtown Bethesda.
Opened in: March.
Who’s behind it: Steve Salis, the restaurateur who owns the faux-diner chainlet Ted’s Bulletin and other casual places in and around DC.
What you’ll find: A takeout-only mini food hall that’s a distillation of Salis’s comfort-minded concepts. So you’ll see “pop-tarts” from Ted’s next to pulled-pork sandwiches from barbecue destination Federalist Pig, fried chicken from Honeymoon Chicken, and a short list of pastries courtesy of his Sidekick bakery, all in one place.
Number of vendors: Four.
How it works: Order through the food hall’s app or site, then pick up your selections by scanning a QR code and opening a heated locker. (A staffer is on hand to help.) You can also get delivery.
Daytime scene: Though a few things are available for walk-in buying, such as cookies and drinks, this is an in-and-out place—an automat for the 21st century. It looks like a slick version of an airport locker room.
Best breakfast: Ted’s giant burrito, crammed with eggs and jalapeño/cheese sausage and topped with avocado crema and green-chili sauce. It’s served all day.
Best lunch/dinner: Honeymoon’s slaw-topped fried-chicken sandwich; Ted’s Greek salad; Federalist Pig’s ribs, wings, and smoked-turkey sandwich.
Best snack: Honey-butter-slicked dinner rolls from Honeymoon.
Where (and what) to drink: The zero-alcohol lineup includes canned lattes, boxed water, and subtly sweet fruit sodas.
To cook at home: $50 brunch kits from Ted’s, which include scrambled eggs; bacon or sausage; pancakes or French toast; and four pop tarts.
Kid-friendly eats: Wedge fries from Honeymoon, mac and cheese from Ted’s.
Dessert fix: Those pop-tarts can be pretty dry—grab a salted chocolate-chip cookie instead.
Parking: There’s a small metered lot next door.
This article appears in the July 2021 issue of Washingtonian.