Britain's food halls are bigger than ever – and with a twist

The depths of Covid looked like they had dented our appetite for mass communal dining, but the market is stronger than ever

For the new iteration of Arcade, JKS have overhauled the traders and the ordering system

“Hopefully the experience is vastly improved,” says Karam Sethi, co-owner of restaurant group JKS, as he prowls the hugely popular new Arcade Food Hall. JKS, the group behind Michelin-starred Indian restaurant Gymkhana and the beloved Sri Lankan Hoppers, among others, are responsible for some of London’s best new restaurants in recent years. 

But the Arcade is their biggest challenge yet. 

Occupying a large, stylish space below Centre Point at Tottenham Court Road, Arcade is a food hall with several different traders operating beneath one roof. Under previous management, as the Arcade Food Theatre, it was an expensive flop. For the new venture to succeed, Sethi needs 10,000 visitors a week, which he plans to achieve by offering something for everyone. 

“The space should suit all occasions,” he says. “You can come here and have a one-plate meal, or a grazing set-up from multiple venues. The spirit of the brands is food hall-esque, inspired by street foods of their countries of origin. We’re trying to do food that’s familiar but original. Everything has to be fast, casual and accessible.”  

Before the pandemic you could hardly move around a British city without wandering into a hall a bit like this. These hangars for the hungry had popped up from Liverpool to London Bridge, large rooms where different traders would set up and replicate a market feel. They were the evolution of the street food scene that arose a decade earlier. 

Whatever you wanted to call them – market halls, food arcades, street food markets – at their best they offered a vision of casual dining fit for the 21st century: lively and bustling, with something for every dietary restriction or culinary preference. 

The reality often failed to live up to the promise. This was particularly the case in central London, where the punitive economics of a large indoor venue made it more difficult to recreate the accessible fun of similar projects elsewhere, such as Liverpool’s Duke Street Market or Sheffield’s Cutlery Works, the self-described “largest food hall in the north”. 

Eataly in Broadgate, London

Arcade was especially weird. You would find a table, sit, then everyone would hop up and head to different stalls – Casa do Frango for piri-piri chicken, Soho stalwart Lina Stores for pasta – where you would order and pay, before returning to the communal table to wait to be called for your food. The effect was of being in a large hospital waiting room with more meat smells and less attentive service. 

The reviews – for Arcade and elsewhere – were scathing. Even before Covid, it felt like the market moment might have passed. When it was reported, mid-pandemic, that Market Halls, another operator with several sites across London, was on the verge of bankruptcy, nobody was surprised. 

For the new iteration of Arcade, JKS have overhauled the traders and the ordering system. You are now greeted and shown to a table, where you order using a QR code. The food is brought to you. Among the nine kitchens there is northern Indian street food, Indonesian plates and smash burgers and fried chicken sandwiches. On a separate mezzanine floor is Plaza Khao Gaeng, a southern Thai restaurant that feels – thanks to its shutters and cobalt-blue tables – surprisingly like being in Thailand. There is no pasta. 

“It’s all going well so far,” says Sethi. “The smash burgers are proving popular. So far only two customers have asked us to take it back to how it was before.”

JKS are not the only operators betting that this style of dining has a future beyond Covid. During the pandemic Market Halls closed its Fulham branch, but has since resurrected existing locations in Victoria and Oxford Street, and opened a new site in Canary Wharf. Over at Broadgate, Eataly, the international Italian food market group, is marking a year of operation in London which has seen more than 1.8m visitors. Alongside a shop selling Italian produce, there are counters for pizza, pasta, patisserie, coffee and wine. 

What distinguishes these new markets is that the traders are part of one family, or in Eataly’s case, a single business. Previously, halls have tended to act more like traditional landlords, charging retailers a premium for a pitch. They lay on the footfall, but the punters do the rest. For every successful operator, others have had their fingers burnt. Partly for this reason not everyone is keen on the format.

“We got close but never did it,” says James Elliot, co-founder of Pizza Pilgrims, which has sixteen pizzerias across London, and one in Oxford. “[Food markets] are street food 2.0, with the glorious addition of toilets, espresso martinis and a roof. It’s quite easy and low risk to get involved, but you are at the mercy of the trade the halls can muster and how it splits between traders. As a business you don’t really have any value in the lease, and commissions can be quite high, too.” 

None of which is to say they can’t be an opportunity for local businesses to find new customers without the overheads of their own sites. In the northwest, Nick Johnson’s Market Operations has expanded rapidly over the past decade and now runs three venues: Altrincham Market House, Picturedrome in Macclesfield and Manchester’s Mackie Mayor. 

“People have always said it’s a ‘concept', but it’s not," Johnson says. "It’s just people sitting in a single space and enjoying each other’s company while eating food. I really don’t like the term ‘food hall’. What we really are, which is informal dining, is hard to define. [Our venues] are the equivalent of a town square in a Mediterranean town, and they have been taken to heart by the local communities. It’s about making great food accessible. We’re very non-denominational. We have dogs, and families with newborn kids, and families with grandparents. Post pandemic, people craved other people. They’d missed the delightful chaos of the company of others.” 

The depths of Covid, with their screens and masks and social distancing, looked like they had dented Britain’s appetite for mass communal dining. Judging by the happy buzz at the Arcade, reports of their death were premature. For boozy nights out, or family meals, or mixing and matching dishes from all over the world, the market is stronger than ever.