Charleston gains its first food hall as food lovers flock to others across U.S.

Grand Central Market in Los Angeles.

The current food hall frenzy began with Eataly, the microcosm of Italian dining that Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich five years ago opened in New York City. Since then, modern markets, which generally include at least a few vendors offering creative, casual dishes, as well as a butcher, cheesemonger, coffee counter, raw bar, wine bar and bakery, have surfaced in a dozen U.S. cities. And this week, Charleston joins the club.

Located at The Cigar Factory, the new emporium deviates slightly from the standard model. Rather than feature a variety of independent vendors, the hall is 100 percent Indigo Road-owned, which makes it more like Eataly.

The project has three components: The Cedar Room, a private event space; Mercantile, encompassing a sandwich counter, cheese-and-charcuterie stand, cafe and bakery, as well as a retail area devoted to housewares and cookbooks; and Mash, a whiskey bar.

The project, which last night celebrated its grand opening with a private party, may hold the distinction of being Charleston’s first 21st-century food hall, but it won’t long reign as the city’s only food hall: Michael Shemtov of Butcher & Bee has announced plans for a 10,000-square-foot bazaar at 1505 King St.

The hall, known as Pacific Box & Crate Development, will be managed by Jonathan Ory, who’s relocating his supremely successful Bad Wolf Coffee from Chicago to the new building. Ory will be in charge of the four food stalls and shared prep kitchen.

“It’s kind of a culinary playground,” Shemtov says. “We want to make it flexible enough that you can have a ramen concept or an ice cream concept.”

Shemtov envisions the stalls attracting chefs looking to promote cookbooks, food truckers flirting with the idea of settling down and restaurateurs from elsewhere who want to test the waters before signing a lease in Charleston. As an example of a potential renter, Shemtov cites the man who painted the walls at Butcher & Bee. He’s always wanted to sell the sandwich that’s a speciality of his hometown in Mexico, at least for a little while.

“Our goal is to rotate these frequently,” Shemtov says.

The hall is scheduled to open in early 2017.

To mark the food hall era’s local arrival, we checked in with four food halls around the country already accommodating crowds.

Market: Krog Street Market

Location: Atlanta

Year opened: 2014

Square feet: 30,000

Number of vendors: 27

Select vendors: Yalla, a contemporary Middle Eastern food stall; Craft Izakaya; Xocolatl Small Batch Chocolate

Must-order item: “The Shroom Shire cheese steak at Fred’s Meat & Bread. It’s likely the best cheese steak on the planet, made with tender rib-eye meat and pumped full of garlic aioli and a tangy Worcestershire mushroom sauce.” — Evan Mah, food editor, Atlanta Magazine

When Krog Street opened in Tyler Perry’s former production studio, excitement was so intense that customers happily waited for an hour or more to place their orders. “You’d think every stall was handing out free iPhones,” Mah grumbles.

“The market was busier than we expected when it first opened,” admits Jennifer Johnson, one of the four co-owners of Yalla and Fred’s Meat and Bread. “The challenge of prepping, storing, cooking and serving food for two concepts out of a total of 1,000 square feet hit us hard.”

But the situation has settled down over the past 10 months. Weekends still draw a crush of humanity familiar from Black Friday sales, but Mah swears it’s possible to order, receive and eat a weekday lunch in under 20 minutes. And he believes the diversity of options is testament to the talent and energy that Atlantans say their city’s dining scene is rapidly accumulating.

“I think that developers might have underestimated their own project,” Mah says, referring to an inefficient seating scheme that gave way to skinny tables and high-tops.

Figuring out where people can put down their pints isn’t Johnson’s problem, a circumstance that she describes as freeing and frustrating. “Being in the restaurant business is not just about serving great food; it’s about providing a complete experience,” she says. “Krog Street Market provides a great experience, but it is hard for us to cede the control of that experience to others when we are used to being wholly responsible for it.”

Market: Grand Central Market

Location: Los Angeles

Year opened: 1917

Year renovated:2014

Square feet: 30,000

Number of vendors: 35

Select vendors: Belcampo Meat Co.; Bombo, Mark Peel’s seafood counter; Eggslut, a breakfast sandwich specialist

Must-order item: Pastrami sandwich at Wexler’s. “It is superb: yielding, succulent and almost impossibly rich; natural contours of the meat curling into the soft bread; the subtle tang of mustard; hints of smoke, garlic and clove.” — Jonathan Gold, restaurant critic, Los Angeles Times

Los Angelenos are constantly in their cars. But there’s no way to drive down the aisles of Grand Central Market, founded a few years before the Hollywood sign was affixed to Mount Lee.

“Los Angeles is both a very segregated city in its restaurants, and a city where you don’t have much of a pedestrian intermingling,” says Michael Oates Palmer, a television writer with a deep interest in food. “Grand Central Market breaks down both of those walls. There is much more a sense of community there. You go on a Saturday and while, yes, there are tourists, you also see families from all over the city, all backgrounds.”

In 1923, Grand Central Market shoppers could buy bread and cream doughnuts; horseradish; pickled fish; flowers and green beans. Now, the choices include falafel dressed with walnut-yogurt; tofu bratwurst; and wood-fired pizza topped with wild mushrooms. “Some might roll their eyes over the hipster newcomers, because Grand Central Market has existed for years, and now there’s a new wave,” Palmer says.

The new wave was initiated by owner Adele Yellin, whose late husband foresaw Grand Central becoming a downtown draw. Starting in 2012, when nearly half of the market spaces were vacant, Yellin began upgrading the facility, extending market hours, allowing more liquor licenses and actively recruiting vendors. “I’ll be criticized no matter what; I’ll be accused of destroying the market,” she told the L.A. Weekly in response to complaints about gentrification.

As the paper pointed out, worries about the market’s soul date back decades. In 1987, the L.A. Times wondered, “Can quarter-a-loaf bread buyers co-exist with the La Salsa clientele when that quintessential yuppie taco stand opens?”

With rents rising, Grand Central may no longer play the role it did before the advent of dollar stores and Walmart-equipped suburbs. But Palmer says coexistence remains a watchword at the market: “I find that usually one goes with multiple friends, where you can each get whatever you’re craving and still eat all together.”

Market: Union Market

Location: Washington, D.C.

Year opened: 1931

Year renovated: 2012

Square feet: 13,500

Number of vendors: 40

Select vendors: Rappahannock Oyster Co.; Red Apron Butchery; D.C. Empanadas

Must-order item: “The smoked egg salad (with smoked jalapenos) at Neopol Savory Smokery, which transforms a childhood staple into something woodsy, dark and deep.” — Tim Carman, $20 Diner, Washington Post

Like Grand Central Market, Union Market was around for the nation’s first food hall heyday: It opened in 1931 with 700 indoor stalls, a cafe and elevators. Also like Grand Central, its revival is awakening city residents to the potential of a neighborhood previously dismissed as dull at best, and dangerous at worst.

Yet despite the market’s massive popularity, some food industry insiders say the concept hasn’t entirely cohered. Carman, who considers himself as a fan, described Union Market as “eccentric” in a June 2014 review: “Between the crowds, the weird hours, the random assortment of goods and services and the nonstop circling, I sometimes feel like I’ve stepped off a Tilt-A-Whirl after my third margarita,” he wrote.

Another seasoned observer of the city’s culinary scene frets about the high prices, especially since many of them are assigned to items that haven’t met expectations: “A lot of meats at the barbecue spot are pretty mediocre; the upmarket soda fountain has so-so bagels and eh knishes; the Lebanese bakery is OK; the lox purveyor is fair,” says the eater, who asked not to be identified because dissing one’s hometown in another city’s newspaper is touchy territory.

At Union Market, though, prepared food doesn’t dominate. EDENS, the South Carolina-based developer behind the project, stressed retail from the start: “We wanted people to know that they could come to the market not just to get the food, but everything they would need for cooking at home,” EDENS president Jodie McLean told Bon Appetit. At anchor store Salt & Sundry, shoppers can buy flasks, dishtowels, candles and, straight from Charleston, Jack Rudy tonic.

Market: St. Roch Market

Location: New Orleans

Year opened: 1875

Year renovated: 2015

Square feet: 8,000

Number of vendors: 13, plus pop-ups

Select vendors: Coast Roast Coffee; The Mayhaw, a cocktail bar; Koreole, serving Korean-Creole dishes

Must-order item: Juice NOLA’s kale salad. “If you’re going to incite controversy, you might as well serve the most culturally divisive leafy green this side of the cannabis plant. The local kale is julienned and tossed with grated hard cheese, currants and sunflower seeds in a lemony vinaigrette. It’s a balanced, altogether excellent salad.” — Brett Anderson, NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune.

The food hall now occupying one of New Orleans’ historic neighborhood markets very nearly came to Charleston. Owners Will Donaldson and Barre Tanguis sniffed around the city before learning that The Cigar Factory project was in the works.

Since opening this spring, the market has attracted an average of 37,500 customers a month. “The biggest surprise for me was the steady amount of new customers that keep coming to the market,” says Tunde Wey, who prepares Nigerian food at his stand, LAGOS. “The community remains impressed with the diversity of choice, which can either be paralyzing or fun.”

But St. Roch has also attracted controversy, the basis of which was encapsulated in pink-and-blue paint illicitly applied to the building in May: “Yuppy = bad.”

“I was frankly surprised by how controversial it was,” Todd Price, The Times-Picayune’s food writer, says.”Gentrification is an issue in New Orleans, but I didn’t anticipate the anger that would be directed at the market.”

Tanguis suspects the grand appearance of the building, which would have seemed less out-of-step in the 19th century, is partly to blame.

“You can go to Captain Sal’s and get a $9 po-boy,” Tanguis this summer told The Times-Picayune. “Or you can get a $9 po-boy here. But because our building is better looking, it’s perceived as being expensive.”

Still, the owners say they’ve made adjustments to the market, such as grouping together beans and rice so shoppers can find the staples they’re seeking; communicating with the neighborhood through printed fliers instead of social media; accepting SNAP and inaugurating an apprenticeship program for young people from the area.

Interestingly in light of the class-based aspersions, St. Roch is in many ways the most ad hoc of the new crop of food halls. Rather than install well-known names (Sean Brock, for example, is opening another Minero at Atlanta’s forthcoming Ponce City Market), St. Roch recruited food hobbyists and pop-up chefs like Wey, signing them all to one-year leases.

“It’s giving cooks a chance to develop a business,” Price says. “It fulfills the same role as a food truck, without the mechanical issues.”