The ambitious, Anthony Bourdain-backed food hall slated to open at Pier 57 — a project that fell apart almost exactly four years ago — is back. This time around, Urbanspace and Singaporean street food expert KF Seetoh, both major players in bringing the marketplace to New York City the first time around, are planning to debut a facsimile of Singapore’s famed hawker centers in early 2022 in Midtown at 135 West 50th Street, between Sixth and Seventh avenues.
At the yet-to-be-named venue, there will be 18 Singaporean vendors, according to Urbanspace. New Yorkers can expect well-known dishes — including chile crab, oyster omelettes, and nasi lemak — that are staples of the most iconic hawker centers in the Southeast Asian country, which the United Nations recognized for their cultural heritage last year.
Ah Tai, who supposedly served Bourdain his first taste of Hainanese chicken rice — which many consider Singapore’s national dish — will be among the vendors. There’s also Chris Hooi, whose family is credited for the most beloved rendition of chile crab created more than 60 years ago.
Original plans under Bourdain’s guidance cited up to 50 vendors, but the highly anticipated opening never took off. There were real estate challenges, but Bourdain was also fixated on bringing an authentic version of global street food to New York. Another hurdle the first time around was getting paperwork in order for the vendors, but Seetoh, a widely recognized authority on Singaporean street food whom Bourdain tapped to work on the food hall in 2015, says the logistics are going more smoothly this time around between Singapore and the U.S.
“Our hawker food is not Instagram food. It goes to your soul,” says Seetoh. “Char kway teow, chicken rice…those things are absolute comfort food. People who have had it can taste it when you say chicken rice.”
While it won’t exactly be like the dai pai dongs (open-air food stalls) of Hong Kong or Barcelona’s sprawling La Boqueria, the NYC take on Singapore’s hawker centers is opening steps from Times Square, surrounded by offices. The 10,000-square-foot space will open up on a stretch of 6 ½ Avenue between 50th and 51st streets. “We want to help the hawkers run a business with just one dish,” says Seetoh. “You don’t need four walls to be successful.”
The New York venture is also another way to preserve Singapore’s hawker center culture, says Seetoh. “Singapore’s food scene is dying despite all its accolades,” he adds. “The number one reason isn’t COVID. The real reason is manpower. No one wants to be a hawker or an assistant hawker. It’s difficult to sustain.”
The Bourdain Market — which the now-deceased celebrity chef, author, and television show host hoped to open with vendors from around the world — was called off in 2017 after a lease was never signed at Pier 57. But a few years later, Urbanspace co-founder and president Eldon Scott approached Seetoh again to revive the food hall. Their plans initially came to a halt during the pandemic.
Urbanspace, which operates multiple food halls in NYC, saw the return of Broadway, an increasing number of employees coming back to offices, and growing tourism at Rockefeller Center as enough incentive to open in early 2022. “I think people are as excited as ever to go back out,” says Scott. “This is our opportunity to bring small businesses that are based in Singapore to come to New York.”