In the quarters of Manhattan where most of the work gets done, lunch hour can be a terrifying mob. Midtown floods with ravenous wolves in business casual and ID badges. Financial District buildings disgorge workers like thousands of pulsing octopus babies.
And then it’s each man for himself, to fend, fight, feed and survive. It ain’t pretty. It’s lunch hour.
The state of quick lunch in the Financial District has traditionally been dire. Things weren’t good before 9/11—greasy pizzerias, happy endings, shitty delis, and then, you know, the deadliest attack on American soil. But earlier this month, a few weeks after the National September 11th Museum and Memorial opened its doors, so too did Hudson Eats, an expansive food court at the World Financial Center, now spiffily called Brookfield Place.
Hudson Eats ★★
Brookfield Place, 200 Vesey St.
On a recent Thursday afternoon, the corporate hordes hadn’t yet cottoned to the bounty. But just a quick escalator ride up from the Winter Garden, some of downtown’s best dining options were open for business. It’s like a lunch version of The Dirty Dozen. Surely, ye shall not find better barbecue than at Mighty Quinn’s, better bagels than at new import Black Seed Bagels or a better tartine than at Tartinery. By next year, Jose Garce will open his first New York restaurant at Brookfield Place, called Amada. Parm, the casual joint from the Carbone boys, and an insane-sounding 35,000-square-foot French market called Le District will open as well.
Less distinctive vendors also have stalls, including Chop’t, the ubiquitous make-your-own salad joint, and Sprinkles, the ubiquitous eat-cupcakes-you-fattie bakery. Dos Toros makes an appearance, ditto the rapidly expanding Vietnamese sandwich shop Num Pang. The only truly terrible dining experience is a place called Skinny Pizza, which serves bowling alley pizza at usurious prices.
The space, designed by restaurant whisperers AvroKo and San Fran firm BCV, is airy, marbled and luxurious. There are six hundred seats over 35,000 square feet. One wall of windows looks over the masts of the schooners and ketches bobbing in the North Cove. It has the hush of a new airport terminal but a bit more charm.
To review a food court is a difficult proposition because, at least in this case, each vendor has a primary residence elsewhere. As best I can tell, the product is similar across locations — the Mighty Quinn’s brisket still a melting sunset of fat and protein, the small, wiry Montreal-style bagels at Black Seed, which have caused a stir on Elizabeth Street, born of the same oven, the grilled cheese at Little Muenster’s as goopy and greasy as one hopes.
Nevertheless, food courts raise a host of issues, which Hudson Eats addresses as best they can. Some they can’t. Many are philosophical, which is why Brookfield Place strenuously avoids the terminology, I think. My dining companion, for instance, found it risible that the one-of-a-kind experience at Black Seed or Mighty Quinn should be replicated so easily in such an artificial context. Worth, in this view, can be expressed by one divided by the number of times an experience can be replicated. Thus, the burger at The Spotted PiIg, for instance, of which there is only one and it’s small and hard to get into, approaches totality. But a Big Mac’s worth is infinitesimal: 1 / billions and billions.
Does scarfing down one’s burrito at Dos Toros in the East Village beat eating it at a marble table as the Hudson gleams in the midday light?
Viscerally, I agree – in fact, I made the same point in a story for the now gone New York Press the last time food courts threatened to overtake Manhattan, in 2010. But times have changed or I have or both. Now I wonder what intrinsic value waiting in line with a bunch of bearded weirdos and tattooed girls frantically Instagramming their experience holds. Does scarfing down one’s burrito at Dos Toros in the East Village beat eating it at a marble table as the Hudson gleams in the midday light?
Those experiences are in no ways more real or valuable than the Hudson Eats “holograms,” but they are an expression of exclusivity, and they provide an easy way to value the thing itself: the more you pay — in time, effort or coin — the more something seems worth. The one-of-a-kind mentality is like the gallery built around a piece of artwork. Without the white walls, who would pay through the nose to look at a urinal?
A food court does the total opposite. Decontextualized and served to a population ignorant of foodie fetishes, the food is left to stand on its own. Happily, as I mentioned, both Black Seed and Mighty Quinn deliver. Tartinery acquits itself quite well with a simple French menu which included a lobster tartine, in which generous chunks of lobster, citrus, and arugula arrived on a raft of fresh peasant bread. There was also a thick and satisfying fish soup, accompanied by garlicky rouille, as good as what Alain Allegretti used to make back when he had restaurants.
Of the vendors that are mediocre outside the food court—Dig Inn, Chop’t, Num Pang, Olive’s—location has neither improved nor worsened them. What’s left to remark upon is the selection of vendors. And a few quibbles aside, Hudson Eats has done remarkably well. Edward Hogan, the man responsible for booking Hudson Eats, has wisely focused on niche markets, concepts that are quick and easy to execute. No luncher will be torn between barbecue and a crispy shit pizza with a whole wheat crust. There’s a mix of middlebrow and more adventurous. For now, Hudson Eats is like a new pair of white shoes: pristine but inchoate, without the scuffs and stains to make it real. And who knows, maybe in a few years it’ll develop a soul.