Local Eating Place Observation: The Cuisine Diversity In The U.s.

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Introduction

American food can be described under many foodways, making it difficult to narrow down a food and tradition that is entirely American when so many cultures contribute to American food. In food courts and food halls, we can see the American social culture in all of it’s glory combining people of all backgrounds and histories coming together under one large roof, creating a literal melting pot.

From the booming food courts inside shopping malls from the 1980s and 1990s to modern day markets with local cuisine and taste, the diversity amongst the environment, the food itself and the people are a microcosm of America. No matter the diversity and background of the people or space itself, food halls and food courts bring people together of all kinds and creating a sense of community over a meal is an event as old as time.

Examining these spaces I aim to explore the evolution of society and the culture in which we currently live. To properly delve into these changes, it is necessary to see the environment and architecture of the food space, the variety of food served and how the space promotes social interaction and sharing of food in each venue. These differences amongst each food courts/halls shows the progression of social spaces and communities using a shared interest of food and how this represents a forever changing atmosphere for socialization amongst different people.

Background

Sharing meals amongst one another are a popular past-time. Markets and shopping centers as old as those like the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul are the foundation for food courts and halls. As industrialization and capitalism culture boomed during the early to mid 1900s, shopping malls and downtown city markets became the norm in America for a one-stop-shop place for most Americans’ needs. Some of the earliest instances are seen in this quote from Leigh Raper as “Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia had a spacious dining room, believed to be the largest in the city, that provided diners a place not just to eat but also to enjoy the store’s enormous pipe organ. Macy’s Herald Square in New York City offered white tablecloth meals.” (Raper) The idea of sharing a meal amongst the masses is a tradition long established, as the idea of a community space for food within shopping areas is an ideal home according to James W. Rouse.

In Raper’s article, it reads ““Jim Rouse wanted to create what he saw as community picnics,” Robert Rubenkonig, Rouse’s communications director, told Shopping Centers Today in 2004…He recognized that malls were the town centers of suburban sprawl: a gathering spot where people could linger, not just a shopping or dining destination. And, obviously, there is a real economic benefit to people with cash to spare lingering about—MarketWatch has noted that shoppers spend almost 20 percent more at a mall with a “good food court.”” (Raper)

The popularized idea of food courts came on strong in the 1970s and 1980s as suburban kids and families found an anchor for places of commune and vendors like Orange Julius, Hot Dog On A Stick and the well known Sbarro pizza and Panda Express became popular. In the 1990s, the idea of food courts grew expanding into college universities, hospitals, and airports. Malls even became hip to the idea of sit-down restaurants, now seen with California Pizza Kitchen, Cheesecake Factory, and The Melting Pot. In the modern day, the idea of food courts and food halls still exist but much more beyond the shopping mall.

Through grand modern bazaars like Eataly, the basement of New York City’s Plaza Hotel, The Zipper in Portland, and just recently Time Out Markets, these places all represent the most modern of food halls in America. Food courts/halls have even evolved to be taken outdoors with food truck “festivals” and “rodeos” acting as a pop-up, mobile food court. The idea that Rouse had as a “community picnic” still lives on in many forms and the idea of sharing a meal amongst all communities stays a tradition as old as time. To examine a typical suburban food court, to one of the most original food courts in Faneuil Hall to the modern day Time Out Market, the common idea of food bringing people together still reigns true.

Methods

I first observed a food court back home in my suburban neighborhood, the Emerald Square Mall food court in North Attleborough, Massachusetts. I chose this mall, hoping to better understand how a once-booming shopping mall and packed food court has evolved over the past 20 years of its operation. The Emerald Square Mall food court is a perfect example of the stereotypical, dying suburban food court narrative with old decor, typical fast-food vendors, and a (former) carousel in the middle of it all. While some malls with food courts within large cities flourish and evolve, Emerald Square seems to be aging as empty stores become more frequent and the typical 90s color palette gets even more stale as you get verbally harassed by Charley’s Philly Cheesesteak employees, shaking their samples in front of you whenever you make eye contact with them. I wish I was joking.

Lately, the suburban mall scene seems to be dying given the expanse of online shopping and this mall after taking countless trips to growing up, is really showing its decline in popularity. The décor is clearly representative of a 1990s built space with seating (formerly) surrounding a carousel, which has since been replaced by a virtual reality video game that seems better suited for an arcade. Colors are a specific element acknowledged in these visits where Emerald Square holds many gray, white, light greens and blues along with neon. The fast-food offered over the years of fast-food chains have interchanged yet stayed the same typically. Today, there are well known chain restaurants like Dunkin’ Donuts, Burger King, Charley’s Philly Cheesesteak, Papa Spyro’s Pizza, and UMI of Japan.

To add, on the first floor apart from the food court is a Bertucci’s Restaurant close to the parking lot. Within a typical shopping mall, located in the middle of a suburb, the casual chain restaurants in this food court are populated by anyone and everyone. During my visit on a Sunday afternoon it seems to be how elderly like to spend their time. I noticed mostly elderly, but plenty of families, kids, and teens roaming the food court. The population was diverse in age, with most being elderly coming from middle to low class background of Caucasian ethnicity, with Hispanic and African-American descent mixed in. This food space is inviting to anyone as even I have had my fair share of Burger King and pizza as a kid. The familiar food chains, cheap prices attract anyone to eat here who is looking for an “American” experience of fast, easy, and cheap.

The second place I went to is one of the first food halls/courts established and still well running since 1976, Faneuil Hall in downtown Boston. A truly unique concept built under old architecture and a unique layout for its time, Faneuil Hall is one of Boston’s most visited tourist attractions. The ways of entering can be from the North End, State street, or from Government Center. Approaching the packed area from any direction with extreme curiosity, you start to really familiarize yourself with the peculiar shopping plaza.

Like a typical, old school food hall, there are shopping outlets surrounding Faneuil Hall to help entice visitors to shop but rather the opposite is what makes Faneuil Hall so successful. Faneuil Hall and its extensive hallway of food is the center of the shopping rather than the other way around in a typical food court within a mall. The building, unsuspectingly looks to be another old establishment with it’s English country style market with expansions from Charles Bulfinch who added a Greek Revival styling such as pilasters and columns to the exterior (“The History of Faneuil Hall”). The building perceives you to think you are entering some sort of historical museum but turns out to be a giant hall of food vendors lining from front to back. While small vendors and the Uniqlo store surround Faneuil Hall, the heart of it are the unique local vendors where the variety of food is unbelievably expansive.

From American and vegetarian food to Indian and Vietnamese cuisine, there is an incredible amount of hustle and bustle throughout this long hall. The vendor spaces are creative and inviting with large benches for large parties and regular tables for small group seating. Each space seems like they are competing for business with beautiful plates of their best dishes on display. They also compete for peoples’ attention as eyes dart back and forth vigorously trying to keep pace with the crowd while getting a good idea for the food being served at each closely packed vendor. I’ve been here multiple times from special occasions at Ned Devine’s bar or just not knowing what I/others in my party want to eat so Faneuil’s versatility is fantastic.

The food served isn’t found to be of the highest quality, nor could it be thought of as fast food quality, but a quality similar to restaurant food; satisfying and good with great variety. Faneuil Hall is one of the first “food-centered” plazas to promote the idea of sharing and community amongst food, to experience as much of it as you can with quality food that is served quick and made to be an experience rather than a chore unlike a shopping mall’s food court.

The third place observed is the Time-Out Market Boston. A new food hall that takes after the artisan, upscale experience of a food hall after developing previous Time Out Markets in Portugal, New York City, London, Miami and other premiere locations. As a modern example of a food hall, this rich environment uses dark colors and a minimalist, industrial design and natural materials from wood grain to stone presenting each vendor in equal light with the similar booths, kitchens, and display. Wooden, old school cafeteria benches and tables that stretch the entirety of the space, promoting the idea of sharing and community. This smart-casual experience inside is contrasted with its fun, sophisticated use of outdoor seating and open greenspace to attract passersby to an inviting site. The dishes are truly creative, some served even in porcelain and wine presented in classy glasses.

The kitchens and artisan chefs are on display for everyone to marvel at as they make their food in a quick fashion. Time-Out Market take the core ideas of community amongst food using unique dishes and vendors that can satisfy any modern palette with outdoor seating and innovative spaces to heighten the community space. Despite the average dish here being around $20, I still managed to indulge grabbing a smoothie bowl at Revolution Health Kitchen, a donut from Union Square Donuts, and a pizza from Monti. All dishes were fantastic, using fresh ingredients and new flavors I wouldn’t have thought to try at any restaurant. Time Out caters more toward the upper and middle class of young professionals, the accessible and popular location with an atmosphere promoting the quality, interesting food with collaborative space show a shift of culture for genuine experiences and meals over the mall food courts of cheap, fast, and informal.

Discussion

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These three spaces share the traits of fast casual dining, a medium between a sit-down restaurant and quick service restaurant/fast food. Fast casual is trending upwards growing in numbers as popular fast-casual dining sites like Chipotle, Shake Shack and Panera Bread have exploded in the past decade. An article about “Fast-Casual Nation” from Tim Carman for The Washington Post reads ““As a society, we are speeding up and moving toward speed-oriented food, which was fast food,” says Jonathan Maze, senior financial editor for Nation’s Restaurant News. “Now, we go to fast-casual restaurants.”…“Dual-income families, people having less time, people eating away from home more than ever” all inspired the movement, says Brett Schulman, chief executive officer of Cava, the fast-casual based in Washington. People were “also demanding higher quality as well as better nutrition profiles.”” (Carman) The history of food courts and the associated boom of fast food has came and while still strong, the trends of society are shifting to a fast-casual format.

A predecessor to this fast-casual shift can also be denoted in new trends to eat healthier. Nancy Gagliardi for Forbes gives evidence from Nielsen’s 2015 Global Health and Wellness survey that consumers are willing to pay more for products that boost health and weight loss. The spark in this trend is suggested to have come from the “increasing dynamic” of medicine and the idea that fresh and organic foods’ (while also being conscious of nutritional value) are better able to help sustain their health (Gagliardi). The well known stereotype and proven fact of fast food being unhealthy, along with the processed and manufactured methods behind the creation of fast food from factory to the takeout bag has been ingrained into today’s culture. Personally, whether fact or fiction, when I first heard as a kid that Taco Bell is “a grade above dog food” has always stuck in my head.

Given the history of America’s fancy for quick and easy dining options it’s easy to see the rise of the food court from the 1980s and 1990s. Fast-forward to present day with the rise of fast-casual dining, demand for healthier food and current youth culture. Being in the midst of this trending culture in a progressive city, the changes and wants of millenials are clear. They have desires for quality over quantity, rejection of big corporations and current politics, acceptance for all walks of life, minimalist attitudes while striving to overcome college debt and entranced in the pursuit of authenticity and truth, we come to places today like Time-Out Market. The stage is set for the fast-casual experience to take over.

As the shopping mall experience is dying, so aren’t the classic food courts consisting of largely fast food chains that homebodies know and love, but are not exactly what’s trending. Kate Taylor’s article for Business Insider about food court deaths’ reads “’You eat Sbarro not because you want Sbarro, but because it is the food that is available at the moment you want some food,’ Neil Irwin wrote at the time in The New York Times. ‘Other fast-food chains may offer mediocre food, but their real estate strategies are less exposed to the epic decline in foot traffic in the nation’s malls.’” (Taylor) The sad death is evident in malls like Emerald Square. The outdated decor’ and lighting, “unhealthy” fast-food vendors, and catering to a suburban crowd just shows that food courts are in worse shape than their broken neon signs.

It makes you wonder why places like Faneuil Hall who still can keep an old tradition fresh and running since 1976. To state the obvious, it clearly helps that it’s a prime location in the middle of downtown Boston surrounded by public transportation, businesses and many other tourist sites. But there are reasons why this market has evolved and thrived throughout the years.

Given this pursuit of a “genuine experience” amongst the younger generation, you can find practically any food you’re looking for in at least one vendor. The vendors are names you are not typically familiar with, advertising that they are from local backgrounds. Cooking on display gives a more quality, realistic attribute unlike the fast food restaurants, and playing to the fast-casual style of getting to see the food being made/assembled. The true magic of food halls and what makes Faneuil Hall so successful is the variety of cuisine offered.

People now-a-days are always out for an experience and tourists aim to soak up as much as they can. Food is a great medium for getting to know the local style and flavor in BBQ, Chinese, New England Seafood, Mexican, Desserts, and even custom mac and cheese bowls that you can try and more at Faneuil Hall. There are sit-down restaurants to appeal for a casual, local dining experience, bars for late-night, and the endless vendors to choose and eat from all day. The thing is with Faneuil Hall, not mentioning its location or shopping, you have a great selection of food in a fast-casual dining experience, but does not compromise in authenticity. The diversity of food complements the diversity of people that want to experience the history of faneuil hall and it’s interesting architecture to invite any and all to have a one of a kind food experience.

We can see the demand for fast casual dining as the boom for food courts came and went and more trendy places like Faneuil Hall still flourish for their unique diversity and experience. A refreshing, modern idea of fast-casual dining is that of Time Out Market, or rather smart-casual. Paul Freedman states in his book Ten Restaurants That Changed America, “Haute food and smart casual are based on novelty and eclecticism, not tradition; authenticity rather than elegance…a non exhaustive checklist of smart-casual attributes might include: open kitchens and open fires; unusual industrial, found, or designed space; artisanal beer and whiskey lists; comfort food; eclectic and even metacultural food; tasting menus; small plates; and a blurring of high and low cuisine” (Freedman 429).

All these ideas are incorporated into Time-Out Market with context in Freedman’s book, state that “smart-casual food” is a future trend of American restaurants. Time-Out Market showcases this new trend as soon as you enter seeing the architecture. Rachel Blumental for Eater.com says “The architecture is meant to blend with the building’s original Art Deco design. Before 401 Park, it was the Landmark Center, and before that, it was a Sears, Roebuck and Company warehouse.” (Blumenthal) This space utilizes this warehouse atmosphere to its advantage using old concrete columns and stone along with woodgrain blended in, all lit by dark ambient light inviting a minimalist rustic design. The dark atmosphere is interesting in comparison to other food halls that are exciting and full of light.

From the outside, you see this inviting place to chat and socialize amongst the lawn but also a place where you feel a business casual attire is fitting for the darker, inside atmosphere. This atmosphere and architecture creates an informal, authentic feel and advertises it’s food as “the best a city has to offer.” The vendors are forward-thinking as it shows all open kitchens with gourmet chefs to let you know that what you’re getting, really seems to be the best of the best, that is approachable and done quickly. An article by Joe Gose about food courts “maturing” into food halls reads ““Food halls are a place where there’s life and there’s buzz,” said David LaPierre, vice chairman of the global retail services team at CBRE,a commercial real estate services firm. “It’s a real social environment where people want to be.””(Gose)

The reviews on Yelp portray exactly what kind of people that go here. Vicky R. says “This is the kind of place that makes me feel healthy just stepping inside.” and Julie N. says “You can also order online and just pick up, which is convenient if you’re in a rush and don’t have time to wait out the lunch crush.”. To complement it’s daytime hours, its nightlife is equally bustling acting as bar, social space, with dinner plates and late night food to satisfy a younger crowd. The food speaks for itself with local restaurants and chefs serving fresh product advertised throughout the space. The food hall cleverly uses informality through its simple decor and grand picture-esque plates to convey authenticity.

David Strasser speaks in Carman’s article ““I think the key to fast-casual is simplicity,” Strasser adds, “and I think the key to success in fine-dining is complexity”” (Carman). Freedman adds from his book saying “Informality has the advantage of costing less, and in addition is thought to convey authenticity” (Freedman 431). In this case, Time-Out celebrates this upscale, dark atmosphere but also understands its architecture is simple and inviting, the space is sociable and the food is approachable yet diverse using informality and a forward-thinking mindset to convey authenticity.

In all of these spaces, the food obviously reigns king for the reason people still keep food courts and food halls alive. As mentioned, in pursuit of an experience, there is no more of a diverse place for food tasting and testing like a food hall/food court. This diversity represents why so many different people come to food halls and food courts. Much like America itself, these melting pots allows people of all races and backgrounds a place to be accepted and communicate over a meal. The promotion of sharing tables within small spaces in an open room promotes ethnicity and diversity over a selection of food that is as diverse as America itself.

The selections are endless, the atmosphere is inviting, and the people are one of a kind making these spaces some of the most important to America’s culture. While Faneuil Hall takes the cultural foods and showcases them in their own grand light, modern applications like Time-Out give fusion and experimental foods a place to shine. Throwing out tradition and giving a spotlight for food that is experimental and different is equally as important for food that gives the foundation. Nori sushi tacos at Gogo Ya and burritos and Vietnamese cuisine mixed at Ms. Clucks Deluxe, these new foods continue to push the boundaries of social norms and explore what great things can be made when two cultures collide.

Food courts and food halls in America are great way to visualize how many differing cultures come together and connect over a shared community. The history of these spaces like the booming food courts and the rise of fast-casual dining and youth culture, the spaces of food courts and food halls continue to evolve over time. This change is only necessary as society progresses and people change. These changes are seen in the environment and architecture of the space, the types of food served and how the space promotes social interaction throughout the space all representing the core values of food courts and food halls. While limited to the fact that Time-Out Market has only been open for a month with few visits compared to my visits at Faneuil Hall and Emerald Square, the vibe changes frequently at Time-Out depending on the day and given how new food halls like Time Out are.

Future directions for this might include how modern food halls compare to one another as many are popping up in major cities, and what they do different to compete and stay afloat? Understand what the future plans are for mall food courts would be interesting to development, to stick with their fast food model or to adapt a food hall, similar to Faneuil Hall? While I believe Faneuil Hall stays busy, it could be interesting to research how the food there has changed over time and how they manage to keep up with trends. Food courts and food halls all provide a space for community and diversity to take place and to be accepted. As we progress in society, understanding differences between cultures can be as easy as trying different food and that’s exactly what food courts and food halls excel at, pushing social boundaries and introducing one another to new traditions.

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