Are plates and waiters superfluous?

Seven Dials food market in Covent Garden, London

Nick on the growth of food halls, food carts, food trucks and food markets.

This week I would like to draw your attention to the emergence of what I believe can only be construed as an existential threat to restaurants themselves. I am talking about food courts and the recent opening of two close to each other in London’s West End.

The first is the rather pompously named Arcade Food Theatre, part of the modernisation of Centre Point, right by Tottenham Court Road station, that re-opened in August. The second is the even more recent opening of the Seven Dials Market that has opened in Covent Garden (pictured right).

Food markets operate as a collection of all your favourite food options. They tend to be operated by one company, for example KERB in the case of Seven Dials, for whom this is their largest and first permanent base to date. KERB began as a community of food trucks, initially in Camden Town before moving on to a series of outdoor food trucks which operate Wednesday to Friday lunchtimes in Granary Square, King’s Cross. They now run five markets across London.

Food halls work in exactly the same fashion but provide a roof over their customers’ heads. This is not the only advantage they provide: there is the variety of choice – although none to the best of my knowledge mimic the offer once available at the very first food court I ever saw. Operated by Lettuce Entertain You in Chicago, which incorporated a system that allowed you, as a party, to pool your separate food purchases and then to pay for them as one, using a single credit card.

These roofs provide the operators with two new advantages. The first is that it removes the negative of whether bad weather will affect demand; there is nothing worse than trying to eat something hot and tasty while you become increasingly soaked. And then there is the commercial attraction that the prospect of events can bring once customers can be sure of being safe and dry. These events take place in the evenings when food markets have tended to close. The website for Seven Dials promises that they can fit up to 40 diners in their private dining room in the space which during the day trades as the Market Bookshop.

The food courts can also be easier for their operators than restaurants because they do not really need to provide a full service in terms of washing up. Most customers are happy with a paper or plastic plate, paper napkins and utensils that can be recycled. This is a level of service no self-respecting restaurateur would be happy with.

Nor do they have to provide any kind of service. Orders are taken, payment is made and then customers’ orders are announced as ready, typically by shouting out the customer’s name or by the buzzing of some electrical device loaned to the customer. Whether their payment system then asks for a ‘service charge’, as was the case when Grace Dent visited The Arcade Food Theatre for The Guardian (see her 30 August article), is another matter. But saving on waiters and waitresses provides a huge fillip to the food halls’ bottom line.

There are many reasons for the rise and popularity of food trucks and food halls across the major cities of Europe, Asia and the US. (See my 2015 article on Portland, Oregon, for instance.) On our recent drive to a good lunch at Auberge Jean & Marie from Amsterdam airport we saw a large roadside sign which read ‘Joy is Asian Street Food'.

One contributing factor has been the massive increase in the popularity of spicy food. West Indian, Portuguese, Indian, all kinds of Asian cooking, African, Mexican – all of these styles, hardly known outside their origins 10 years ago, are today part and parcel of what modern diners are looking for. Food that can be cooked quickly, packaged to be taken away or eaten at tables close by, and designed to stimulate the young, and the not so young, today constitute what every new food hall has to offer.

Here is just part of the range of food cooked at Seven Dials Market: Jewish salt beef at Monty’s Deli; vegan food cooked by Club Mexicana; Japanese food by Nanban; steamed Chinese buns by Yum Bun; Yin, a rice expert; and El Polotte, who specialise in chicken wings. That is quite a range to choose from, collectively a choice of dishes far wider, and cooked with far more precision, than any restaurant kitchen could match at the price.

The emergence of Seven Dials Market is fascinating. It occupies a vast corner site, 24,000 sq ft, of prime, expensive Covent Garden real estate that originally opened in 1902. It was built with a steel-framed glass roof under which pallet-loads of bananas were stacked, floor to ceiling, to ripen. This warehouse then became a series of retail outlets before the management of Shaftesbury Estates thought it deserved something more suitable for our times.

They began to think of a food court and originally approaches were made to, and enthusiasm reciprocated by, Jonathan Downey, the man who so cleverly thought of Street Feast, the holding company that operates four large food halls, mainly in the east and south east of London. They were very keen on this space but their mix, which relies heavily on the sale of alcohol, rather put off the local council and the neighbours. Step forward Petra Barron from KERB.

This young, highly enthusiastic woman understood the building’s potential and quickly put together a team of keen, adventurous and diverse food operators. In this she was ably assisted by the architects Stiff + Trevillion, who as well as understanding the bones of this enormous building brought an input of colour into it. This is in contrast to the Arcade Food Theatre that to me lacks colour, particularly when the weather is cloudy outside.

So far this new market seems to have been hugely successful. On a recent Saturday, the counters calculated that 11,000 people entered the building. 'That does not mean the cooks had to deal with 11,000 customers', Barron was quick to point out, ‘but I have to say it was a very encouraging beginning.’

In the case of Seven Dials, potential boredom with what is on offer has been mitigated by the fact that the operators work on six-month licences which have to be mutually agreed for them to stay on.

And while the Arcade Food Theatre has chosen well, most notably Pophams for coffees and pastries, Lina Stores for pasta, the Hart brothers' Pastorcito for Mexican, and Oklava for modern Turkish/Cypriot dishes, Seven Dials does seem to have the edge. In particular, I was struck by what was on offer at the Pick & Cheese counter. Mixing the technology of Yo Sushi with a range of British cheeses, this clever format allows customers to choose their favoured plates of cheese. With a glass of wine, of course.

And for anybody with a memory almost as long as mine, this all takes place in the shadow of Neal’s Yard Dairy, right across Earlham Street, where Randolph Hodgson set the pace for the renaissance of British cheese, unpasteurised and pasteurised, in the early 1980s.

The Arcade Food Theatre 103 New Oxford Street, London WC1A 1DB

Seven Dials Market 35 Earlham Street, London WC2H 9LX