Once the neon-lit, greasy hallmarks of the teenage repertoire, food courts around the country are starting to evolve into refined destinations for discerning eaters and drinkers. These bustling, open markets—often dubbed food halls—are getting increasingly serious about serving great beer, wine, coffee and cocktails, thanks in part to the success of places like Grand Central Market in Los Angeles. And as talented bartenders join the food hall ranks, they’re developing a drinks culture all their own.
Food halls generally open their doors before 9 a.m., and the bars within open shortly thereafter, positioning themselves as all-hours destinations for drinking. At places like Revival Café-Bar in Chicago’s Revival Food Hall, morning coffee service transitions to cocktails (many made with coffee) at 11 a.m. The cocktail menu, featuring classics and seasonal drinks, is available until the hall closes. “It was the vision of our owner who spent time traveling in Europe,” says bar manager Michael Huebner. “He enjoyed the idea of the café where you get your espresso in the morning being the same place you go for a cocktail in the afternoon and ring in the dusk hours.”
Craig Collins, the beverage director behind Austin’s upcoming Fareground, sees the laid-back atmosphere and early hours as a draw for tourists seeking local vibes. “They don’t have an issue getting a cocktail or beer at 11 a.m. That’s what they want to do on their holiday,” he says. At the same time, Collins recognizes the importance of shaping a beverage program that also speaks to locals. “Making sure the beverage program is broad enough to accommodate everybody’s needs is a fun challenge.”
Liz Dunn, the Seattle-based developer responsible for Seattle hubs Melrose Market and alleyway-style market Chophouse Row, echoes Collins’ sentiment. At Chophouse, James Beard Award-winning chef Matt Dillon runs the wine-focused Bar Ferdinand, where a seasonal menu features ingredients from fellow Chophouse residents. “We always put locals first,” she says.
And because food halls tend to have an inherently casual atmosphere, bar managers like Huebner are trying to echo those relaxed vibes in the drink offerings. There’s a specific clientele that seeks out cocktails lounges, Huebner says. The typical intimate bar model isn’t feasible in the casual atmosphere of a food hall. “If you tried to pick that up and drop it in the middle of this food hall, you’d have some frustrated bartenders and guests.”
Stuart Jensen similarly aimed to embrace a casual, low-key approach with Curio at Denver Central Market. “When we opened, we talked about our dress code and we were like ‘Let’s wear whatever we want,’ ” Jensen says. “Every one of the bartenders showed up in a vest with a bowtie and a pocket square, and we said, ‘No, we’re not going to be that place.’ ”
As these bars tow the line between cocktail bar, wine bar and beer hall, they provide patrons with more than just a diverse menu: They also offer physical flexibility. Rather than staying seated in one spot, visitors are encouraged to get up, drink in hand and wander. Sara Lopergolo, an architect behind Brooklyn’s beloved beer and food hall, Berg’n, was intentional about amplifying this physical freedom. “We wanted to keep the space as open as possible. All of that flow was really important,” she says.
That feeling extends to those working behind the bar too, as food hall bars give bartenders a chance to be a part of a community-oriented space, rooted in the cities they love. “A big part of the draw for me was being able to be part of something that has already become a neighborhood anchor and local hangout,” says Jensen.
Along the same lines, the market setting acts as a special kind of think-tank as bartenders are finding fresh inspiration from their nearby culinary colleagues. “It’s been a pleasure to collaborate with some award-winning chefs,” says Revival’s Huebner. “I tap those guys on the shoulder when I think they have something I could use in a cocktail.” As Fareground takes shape, Collins looks forward to the challenge of creating a beverage menu inspired by neighboring food stalls. “I get to play with seven talented chefs and balance beverage offerings so that each one of those partners has something to go great with what they’re offering on their menu that day,” he says.
The food hall craze feels less like a fleeting trend and more like a permanent fixture, as bartenders wager that what many people want is a quality drink in a comfortable space. “We’re offering great food and drinks in a casual environment,” says Collins. “I think people are going to hang out longer and enjoy more of both.”
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