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Public Consumption: San Francisco Gets on Food Trend as Old as Civilization 

Tuesday, Oct 28 2014
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Like most ambitious young chefs, Scott Peterson and Ted Wilson dream of someday opening their own restaurant in San Francisco. At their food concept Fine & Rare, you can get seasonal, sustainable seafood like house-smoked salmon or cod sausages; they hope to one day turn it into a small restaurant paired with a wine shop. Over the past three years, the duo has worked catering jobs, set up a tent at Off the Grid's mobile food gatherings, and looked for a restaurant space to call their own.

But finding and securing a lease on a restaurant is difficult to impossible in a city with rising commercial rents and the densest collection of restaurants in the country. After a few false starts, Peterson and Wilson connected with Tidewater Capital, owner of the long-shuttered Hollywood Billiards building at Sixth and Market. The 4,000-square-foot space had fallen into disrepair; Tidewater plans to tear it down and erect condos in the next two years.

So in the meantime, Peterson and Wilson decided to build a European-style food hall in the cavernous room, a "super pop-up" that would last as long as the building's developers were navigating San Francisco's labyrinthine permitting and approval process. Like roommates banding together to save on rent, the two recruited their food-vendor friends to set up stalls alongside Fine & Rare, giving all of them a chance to test the brick-and-mortar business in a space no one would be able to afford on his or her own. They call it The Hall.

The place is cozy and welcoming, with café lights and side-by-side wooden stands that showcase everything from Raj + Singh Indian food to pho from Little Green Cyclo. Thanks to their bar of local beer and wine supplied by Anchor Spirits, the place is as busy at happy hour as it is at lunch. Diners eat at long, picnic-style communal tables or outside on the patio alongside the street circus that still happens every day on that stretch of sidewalk on that stretch of Market Street.

One of the first vendors to sign on was The Whole Beast, the popular catering company that has brought lamb poutine, gyros, and other whole-animal cooking to events like Off the Grid's Picnic at the Presidio, corporate catering gigs, and festivals like Hardly Strictly Bluegrass and Eat Real. Owner John Fink sees The Hall as a way to find a new audience and experiment with things like charcuterie plates and smoked turkey tails that he's not able to try at his catering gigs. Plus, it's a space he'd never be able to afford on his own. "We just got our smoker so we're going to be smoking [meat] on Market Street. That's just bragging rights for life," he says.

Meats on the fire, strangers gathering, communities formed for the purposes of feeding: We've seen this before. Ancient civilization started with agriculture, but modern civilization, you might say, started with the second part of that equation: the part where everyone got together to trade or sell the goods they'd just discovered how to grow. These active little cores of community and commerce gave birth to and were reinforced by cities. The Greeks called it the agora.

The marketplace spread culture and ideas throughout the world, one agora at a time. The United States, however, has never quite embraced the public market. While most of the world's major cities have soaring buildings selling everything from fresh produce to street food, the closest American analog has been the exhausted pizza and mysterious orange chicken of the mall food court.

This is changing. Market halls are making serious inroads in American cities. Five of these food halls will open in San Francisco in the next six months, an extension of a trend that's happening all over the country. They vary in their makeup — the food might come from stands or steam trays; they might resemble food courts or supermarket cafes — but they all offer diners more choice than a traditional restaurant. Now if you want tacos and your friend wants sushi, you can have both. And instead of coming from a national chain and made with questionable ingredients, the food is often local and sustainably grown.

A convergence of market forces and national food trends has made this happen: the growth of farmers markets and increased diner interest in where their food comes from; the small plates trend, which weaned people off the entrée and got them used to tapas-style eating; the rise of food trucks, pop-ups, and other avenues for talented chefs who can't or won't go the traditional brick-and-mortar route; the large, empty spaces in dense urban areas that once housed businesses that didn't survive the recession, and now can be "activated," in real estate talk, thanks to a recovering economy.

But we're talking about San Francisco in 2014 and that means that we're also talking about the great change it is undergoing. The city is becoming denser: The cranes are moving again, and more than 10,000 residential units are scheduled to open in the city, most of them centered in the downtown core, and most of them with ground-floor retail space that needs to be filled. The tech boom is bringing more single Millennials, and their eclectic eating habits, into the city. Developers see all this — and the success that retailers like Whole Foods have found with grab-and-go and prepared foods — and are opening new market halls that fit the needs of the evolving city and its eaters.

Just as it made financial sense for medieval vendors to band together and sell in a centralized place, the same aggregation impulse is happening again thanks to San Francisco's prohibitive prices. If food trucks were individual merchants with their carts, market halls are the new agora. And with them, San Francisco is one step closer to the European-style city it's always aspired to be.

The Hall takes inspiration from spaces like 331 Cortland, a sliver of a market on Bernal Heights that packs five vendors into about a thousand square feet. The building's owner, Debra Resnik, had an empty storefront in 2008 and didn't know what to do with it in the midst of the recession. She hit on the idea of a place where people could incubate small culinary businesses — a training ground for small food vendors. 331 Cortland has been home to several businesses, including Bernal Cutlery, which opened a storefront in the Mission last year, but its most famous alum is Ichi Sushi. The now-insanely popular Mission omakase spot started as a counter selling sushi-grade fish and Japanese deli items, including the shiso pesto noodle salad it's still known for.


About The Author

Anna Roth

Anna Roth

Anna Roth is SF Weekly's former Food & Drink Editor and author of West Coast Road Eats: The Best Road Food From San Diego to the Canadian Border.

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