Long appreciated in cities from Sri Lanka to Santiago, street food has tended to be the regretful snack of late-night last resort in the developed West. But with high-end retailers and Michelin-starred chefs now paying attention, street food is coming in from the cold.
A street-food renaissance has been simmering, with smart entrepreneurs introducing gourmet, seasonal, local and organic street-food options to cater to new tastes. The result? In cities including New York, Houston, Paris and London, street food is now a welcome guest at anywhere from the highest tables to the grottiest city pavements.
Eating in public
Aiding its momentum, the street food revolution is part of a burgeoning movement among urban consumers – including Pop-Up City in Amsterdam and the Foodprint Project in the US – to reclaim public space and create a kind of edible geography.
‘Buying from somebody in a street allows citizens to engage in the co-production of space that you don’t have when you go in a shop,’ says Petra Barran, founder of eat.st, an initiative to raise the profile of London’s street-food vendors. ‘You’re engaged in that process in a way that you’re not as much, buying a sandwich from [British high-street chain] Pret A Manger.’
Rather than being relegated to street corners, new street food festivals, such as the Luckyrice Night Market and Smorgasburg in Brooklyn, and the Chowpatty Beach Bar in London, are increasingly becoming a way to activate public space.
Take-out to eat in
Humble meals with lofty goals, then, street food from around the world is inspiring restaurateurs to include these snacks and dishes on their menus.
With their parathas, samosas, and rose petal and fennel tisanes, New York’s Masala Times and Houston’s Pondicheri bring Indian street food to American diners. Similarly, Yalla Yalla and Comptoir Libanais in London present Beirut street food in clean, modern cafés serving flatbreads, falafels and traditional sfiha. Pure Thai Shophouse in New York, meanwhile, recreates the food and atmosphere of a Thai street-food market, with diners enjoying pork rib and pancake snacks while seated on stools.
Higher-end options are available as well. At Les Grandes Tables in Le 104, an exhibition and cultural space in Paris, street-vendor-style cooking spaces line up around the dining room. Here, Michelin-starred chef Fabrice Biasiolo takes inspiration from global street foods for his daily specials.
Keen to jump on the burgerwagon, some fast-food chains in the US, including In-N-Out Burger and Jack in the Box, are going the other way, taking to the open road with limited menus served out of food trucks.
Street food in store
It won’t be long before food retailers translate the trend for the grocery sector, too. Whole Foods Market in the US has already begun approaching street-food vendors in northern California for Street Eats, a new line the natural and organic grocery retailer hopes to develop.
With the hunger for well-made, well-sourced specialty street food seemingly insatiable, the sector is set to develop further, particularly as community-led locavore movements continue to gain ground, and as recession-bit entrepreneurs increasingly see street-food ventures as a real alternative to bricks-and-mortar restaurants.
Of course, each city’s food history and culture will have a key role to play.
‘Paris is not a place that likes to eat on the go traditionally, so perhaps food on the hoof may not appeal so much. Meanwhile, Berlin is full of space and lots of interesting vehicles, and has amazing potential to do some really interesting things with street food,’ Barran says. ‘I think what we will see is cities doing the open-air informal dining thing their way, whatever that way is. In London, I predict a following-on from the rave culture so many of us are still hankering after – a fusion of partying and coming together in mutually ‘owned’ spaces to eat and play.’