In the age of Instagram, eating is the new drinking for travelling millennials

Emma Featherstone
Food halls tick all the boxes for millennials - Westend61 / Kiko Jimenez (Westend61 / Kiko Jimenez (Photographer) - [None]

On a recent trip to Bordeaux I made an evening detour to Les Halles de Bacalan, a glass-roofed, upmarket food hall on the Garonne River.

Inside, 20- and 30-somethings congregated around high tables snacking on tapas. Others were at the oyster bar, or sampling pungent delights from the cheese stall. A buzz of chatter was in the air.

Les Halles de Bacalan has been pulling in punters since 2017. Open until 10.30pm, from Thursday to Saturday, it’s an evening haunt for young locals and tourists, a diversion from the city’s bars. But it’s far from unique – a food hall craze is taking over European cities, putting traditional pubs and clubs in the shade.

According to Google, searches for food halls have shot up in the last few years, and every city worth its salt has at least one. London’s offering is now into double-digits, with the latest addition, Borough Market Kitchen, opening on November 11.

The term ‘food hall’ has certainly evolved. Where once it would refer to the grocery section in a posh department store, now it conjures up images of vast covered spaces luring diners late into the evening with a dizzying variety of cuisine. 

They come in many styles, from the collection of food trucks you’ll find in Berlin’s Market Hall Neun, to Barcelona’s El Nacional, which features four separate eating areas kitted out like high-end restaurants.

So what’s the appeal? Food halls tick all the boxes for millennials: a desire for ‘authenticity’ (no big brands), Instagrammability (artfully presented food and industrial-chic surroundings), and a focus on eating rather than boozing. This is the age of the ‘sober curious’ influencer, with more and more young people choosing to limit their drinking – 4.2 million people signed up for Dry January in 2019, a 1.1 million increase on 2018. 

They also offer the promise of another 21st century buzzword: ‘experiences’. Trish Caddy, a senior food service analyst at market research firm Mintel, says: “A new wave of upscale and experiential food halls in major cities, including London (Market Halls) and Liverpool (Baltic Market), are winning millennial hearts.

“Our research found that millennials, in particular, crave a bit of food theatre when going out. They’d much prefer to gather around a kitchen counter to watch chefs at work than have food sent out from a closed kitchen.” 

Many Britons are embracing the food hall concept when visiting Europe, and even planning their holidays around them. Vicky Graham, 32, went to Hala Koszyki in Warsaw with a group of friends in 2018. She says: “It was the highlight of the trip. A few Polish people we’d met recommended it, so we knew the food would be good. It was nice being able to wander, choose what you want to eat, and then all come back together to try one another’s dishes.

“It’s also just a really pretty building – huge and filled with fairy lights.”

The presence and approval of locals is another reason why travellers are falling for food halls. Telegraph Travel expert Chris Moss explains: “Eat local. Live like a local. Buy locally. Local has become the ultimate tourism buzzword, the guilty consumerist’s favourite virtue-signal, the ubiquitous anti-globalist/capitalist cliché of our time.” 

Catherine Stevenson from the consultancy Cushman & Wakefield has conducted research into the US food hall market to discover why they have become more integral to millennials’ evening entertainment. “We certainly aren’t a nation of tee-totallers just yet, but we are seeing a change in consumer habits among under 35s, who are looking for alternatives to bars and clubs as a destination for a night out,” she said.

“This has not necessarily been driven by food halls, but rather, food halls have responded well to this shift, taking advantage of this emerging consumer preference.”

This rings true for Harry Harris, 30, who has visited food hall in Budapest, Toronto and Cork. “I think I’m just more interested in eating than drinking,” he said. That’s not to say that food halls are dry. Most serve alcohol, and many offer a wide variety.

The US offers an indication of how the European food hall scene might develop and continue to attract a younger clientele. Time Out now has five markets in North America, and after launching its branch in Lisbon, is eyeing up London (2021) and Prague (2022). Not to be outdone, Vice is opening its first food hall in New Jersey next year, under its MUNCHIES brand.

US universities are also getting in on the trend. The Franklin’s Table food hall sits between the University of Philadelphia and Drexel University’s campuses, and is open to students and non-students. Columbia University, Auburn University and the University of Nebraska at Omaha have also opened, or plan to open, food halls.

The trend looks set to continue. “We see this trend growing for the foreseeable future,” says Stephenson. “The adaptability [of these establishments] means that if food preferences change or new cuisines/concepts become available, the offer can be changed relatively quickly and inexpensively.”

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