Take a drive along the downtown streets of most Southern cities, and you’re bound to spot beautiful brick buildings around almost every corner. But too often these architectural gems carry just a whisper of their heyday splendor. But for some of these forgotten buildings, the windows that have been dark for years are being illuminated once more. These grand buildings are being given new life, and a major driving force behind this revitalization is the South’s love of—and talent for—good food and good community.
In recent years, food halls have exploded across the Southern food scene. Reminiscent of the classic mall food court, these halls feature a variety of restaurant options sharing a common dining space. But make no mistake—this isn’t food court fare. Each concept is unique and helmed by a chef, not a fast food franchisee. From biscuit bakers to cheese mongers and artisanal coffee roasters, these food hall vendors share an intense passion for the food they create. And from New Orleans’ St. Roch Market to Raleigh’s upcoming Transfer Co. Food Hall, many of these new food destinations are finding their homes in historic buildings that deserve a second chance.
“The market is like an icon,” says Will Donaldson, co-founder of St. Roch Market. “It was built back in 1875 as an open-air market, and was enclosed during a renovation around the 1930s. Architecturally, it’s phenomenal. People just don’t build things like this anymore.” The food hall, which now features retro schoolhouse lights and classic columns modeled after its 1930s look, hosted a handful of businesses over the decades—at one time a Chinese restaurant and later a popular seafood market—before being damaged during Hurricane Katrina. The building sat vacant for nearly a decade before Will and fellow co-founder Barre Tanguis reopened it in 2015.
Now, the market is part of a burgeoning small-business renaissance in the St. Roch neighborhood. “A new tech company is moving in nearby,” Barre says. “People are starting to move in, local businesses are kicking up. There’s a new supermarket, a climbing gym, a jazz club, and we’re just starting to see all of these various pieces that build a successful neighborhood coming together. It’s cool to be a part of it.” The food hall also helps provide opportunities to aspiring chefs in the community—and whether vendors are there to stay or are using their stall in the market to get their businesses off the ground, the market is happy to have them. “In our experience, it costs $1 million to open a restaurant in our sleepy Southern environment, and in other places it can cost upward of $2 million,” Barre says. “Our mission when we started this place was to make a space where people can start something without having to risk everything they’ve worked for.”
In cities where restaurant options seem endless, food halls offer something more than just a good meal. “When done right, food halls cultivate connection, something people are seeking more and more these days,” says Matt Bronfman, CEO of Jamestown, the developer behind Atlanta’s Ponce City Market. “We wanted to create a place for the community and its visitors to connect over food from some of the best chefs in the region.” As the area’s largest adaptive reuse project (originally the Sears, Roebuck & Co. warehouse and distribution center circa 1926), Ponce City Market is home to apartments, offices, shops, and a food hall offering everything from Italian-inspired cuisine to old-fashioned candy from its roughly two dozen chef-driven restaurants and food shops.
In Birmingham, Alabama, another iconic building is buzzing with new life, as well. The home of a famed department store from 1923 to 1988, The Pizitz building on the corner of 19th Street North and 2nd Avenue North has been transformed into one of the most popular spots in the city—to live and to eat. “When we acquired the Pizitz Building, we decided on creating a destination that would host several functions, from residential to working space to a food hall on the first floor,” says Jane Hoerner, Director of Marketing for Bayer Properties. Perched in the heart of a revitalizing downtown, The Pizitz Food Hall has been bustling from breakfast to dinnertime since opening in early 2017.
Somewhat surprisingly in this newer-is-better world, as the development teams turn their remodeling efforts to these city landmarks, they focus on restoring the buildings to their former glory rather than starting from scratch. “We meticulously restored the original terracotta façade,” Jane says of The Pizitz’s recent refurbishing. “All of the columns within the food hall are original to the building and the tiling is the original flooring from the department store. Another important feature that we restored and placed in the center of the food hall is an old clock with the initials ‘LP’ for Louis Pizitz (who constructed the building in 1926), that was unearthed during the renovation process.”
In Raleigh, a 1920s city bus system garage and shop is getting similar treatment as it transforms into the Transfer Co. Food Hall that will open later this year. “We took this vacant building that has been empty for about 30 years, and are making it the focus of this mixed-use site,” explains Jason Queen, the owner-developer behind the food hall. “None of the town homes or other buildings are higher than the historic building itself, and we did that intentionally, so it would stand out and become that anchor spot for the community to take pride in again.”
That sense of community pride goes beyond just the freshly revealed beauty of these restored buildings. These food halls bring the flavors of the Southern melting pot to the table—and many are surprised to see the variety of cultural tastes that have been waiting to be explored. In the heart of Alabama, guests at The Pizitz are discovering new concepts like Ono Poké’s Hawaiian poké bowls and Ghion Cultural Hall’s classic Ethiopian fare. At the Central Food Hall at Ponce City Market, Atlantans get to try fresh Mediterranean cuisine at Marrakesh and authentic Japanese ramen and yakitori at Ton Ton. Nearby at Krog Street Market, a food hall built in the former Atlanta Stove Works building in the heart of Inman Park, diners can find their new favorite Middle Eastern dish at Yalla or share tapas at Bar Mercado. Down in New Orleans, St. Roch Market customers are getting a taste of Empanola’s Southernized take on savory hand pies and trying Haitian cuisine at Fritai. But just as easily as folks can come together to expand their horizons, they can also stick to their comfort zone with a perfectly cooked burger and fries at The Pizitz’s The Standard, grab a great cup of thoughtfully-sourced coffee at St. Roch’s Coast Roast Coffee, or tuck into a fried chicken biscuit from Ponce City Market’s Hop’s Chicken.
That’s the beauty of food halls—there’s a place for everyone and every taste at the shared table. Just as they’re bringing life back to the historic buildings they call home, these food halls are bringing their communities together, one plate at a time.