You’ll smell wood-fired pizzas, fresh empanadas and Indian butter chicken. You’ll hear a DJ on the turntable, laughter between friends and the continuous chatter of food ordering. You’ll see more than 20 small businesses working hard to serve, and customers enjoying every minute of it.
In short, you’ll find “sensory overload,” says Niall Handley, the mastermind behind the Hibernian Hospitality Group’s Morgan Street Food Hall in downtown Raleigh.
Handley is from Ireland and is well acquainted with Europe’s bustling food halls and markets selling fresh, quality foods at all hours of the day.
“If you consider older European markets, you are looking everywhere. You can’t decide what you want to eat. There are sights, sounds, music,” he said.
Ditto for Morgan Street Food Hall.
What’s been the norm in Europe for many years is now taking the U.S. food scene by storm. Many large cities — New York, Denver, New Orleans and Boston to name a few — already boast thriving food halls.
Raleigh joined that list last August with the opening of MSFH, the first of its kind in N.C. Not long after, Transfer Co. Food Hall also opened in downtown Raleigh.
The main draw for food halls, Handley says, is the abundant variety offered all in one place.
“Diners want a lot of choice and a quicker turnaround. I definitely think that foods halls are the way of the future in regards to how dining is going to work,” he said.
Morgan Street Food Hall boasts nearly 20 restaurant vendors, each with its own unique cuisine, and an indoor/outdoor bar in the middle of it all.
“Your whole family can come here, and you don’t have to eat the same thing,” said Melinda Jackson, a spokeswoman for MSFH. “You are going all around the world when you come to a food hall. Indian, pizza and Vietnamese are all right next to each other.”
Unlike shopping mall food courts, the vendors inside MSFH have local roots.
“A lot of these places were food trucks, and this is their brick and mortar. Their whole family is working here,” said Jackson.
Local favorites Curry in a Hurry, Makus Empanadas, Sassool and Mama Bird’s Cookies + Cream occupy stalls at MSFH.
“We wanted (the vendors) to be local or locally owned,” said Handley. “It’s about showcasing what Raleigh and the area has to offer.”
In addition to the dining vendors, MSFH is home to several retail stalls, selling everything from fresh flowers to loose-leaf teas to chocolate-covered cheesecake.
“It’s a one-stop shop to support local businesses,” said Jackson.
Doors open at 7 a.m., and the crowds peak during lunch and on weekends. There are communal tables throughout the hall and on the patio. During the busiest times, expect to share a table with other diners.
“Food halls across the world are a place about community,” said Jackson. “There’s constantly something new when you come here. We’re always adding more activities to bring people together.”
Pop up workouts on Saturday mornings (with a mimosa bucket included) are popular and sell out weekly. Family-friendly dance parties, stand-up comedy and trivia nights are all in the works.
“It’s a great gathering place,” said Kevin Caligan, manager at Cow Bar. “You’ll see business meetings, parties, even school groups.”
“It’s like a carnival without the rides,” added Johnathan Rogers, a cook at the burger joint. “There are so many folks here in different walks of life, and everybody gets along.”
Ramy Bahgat, owner and partner at Raleigh Rolls, loves the bustling, joyful atmosphere found there, but as a first-time business owner, his interest in the venture was strategic as well.
“This is a new trend coming to the South. We knew it was going to have a really good turnout,” he said. “It comes with a very low cost of opening a business here. Most of the chefs haven’t owned their own business before, and the low cost makes a huge difference.”
Handley agrees: “As cities grow and become more expensive to do business in, (food halls) are a good opportunity for smaller businesses to get in without some of the huge million-dollar upfit costs to open new kitchens.”
Lower overhead means more resources can be devoted to creativity and innovation. On the horizon for Raleigh Rolls is a bubble waffle, a take on the Korean dessert trend, which will enfold their signature rolled ice cream in a waffle that has bubbles of fresh fruit and chocolate. Lobster ice cream, a collaboration with Cousins Maine Lobster, also a MSFH vendor, is also in the works.
Cow Bar veers from its meat-loving roots to offer a vegetarian burger made with kidney beans and zucchini. Kimchi french fries are another unique offering.
“Management really gives you freedom to create and experiment,” said Bahgat.
Coming soon to the hall is Aunty Betty’s gin and absinthe bar, a brain child of Handley and mixologist Greg Ewan of Raleigh’s Watts and Ward. Named for Handley’s 90-year-old aunt — “she’s partial to a little tipple of gin” — the gin joint will showcase unique liquors, craft cocktails and flavored artisan tonics, such as elderflower tonic.
“We are excited to explore, to show people what can be done,” said Handley.
411 W. Morgan St. Raleigh