The oldest continuously running food hall in the Bay Area, Public Market Emeryville is getting a massive upgrade, with farm-to-table vendors, monthly events, and an emerging nightlife scene.
Photography by Laura Ming Wong
On a recent Friday night, Public Market Emeryville buzzed with a new vibe. Musicians strummed guitars on a small stage under a roped lighting fixture. A diverse array of patrons—ranging from a retired couple out for a bite, to harried parents chasing toddlers, to young professionals unwinding from the work week—staked out tables laden with steaming bowls of ramen, short rib–topped waffle fries, and overflowing sandwiches. Meanwhile, visitors seeking a thirst-quenching pint streamed in and out of the adjacent taproom. What had been a tired warehouse dotted with predictable quick-order food booths under neon lights has become a trendy, vibrant hub of international cuisine with flavors from countries such as Peru, Korea, and India.
This surge of evening energy was almost unheard of at Public Market in previous years. Tucked just off I-80 East a few blocks north of the Bay Street Emeryville shopping center and Ikea, the Emeryville marketplace was better known as a lunchtime destination for cheap (if not particularly inventive) eats for the neighboring working crowd—not as a date-night destination. But with a growing residential community nearby; an assortment of new, unexpected vendors; and a refreshed interior, Public Market is poised to become a food hall on par with Napa’s Oxbow Public Market and San Francisco’s Ferry Building Marketplace.
Updating the Food Hall
The first step in modernizing the Public Market Emeryville food hall, which opened in 1988, was rethinking its mix of restaurants and vendors. “It still looked like an ’80s food hall in terms of the design, tenants, offerings, and presentation,” says Mark Stefan, cofounder and president of City Center Realty Partners (CCRP), which purchased the property in 2012 and has ambitions to create a major mixed-use project around the market. “Our goal was to redesign the main bones of the food hall and bring it up to a current design aesthetic, and then find vendors with unique offerings.”
New elements include a living plant wall, skylights to brighten the space, kid-friendly seating, and installations by local artists—plus three shipping containers that have been transformed into kiosks. While giving a nod to the building’s industrial past with exposed rafters and concrete floors, the architects also wanted to design distinct areas for eating, socializing, and gathering.
“The overall concept for the marketplace was to create a place for people to hang out,” says Stefan. “We wanted to be the family room of Emeryville.” This meant sourcing smaller restaurants and vendors that served high-quality and often unexpected food, a process that took months of scouting and required hundreds of tastings. Now, the marketplace hosts 13 international vendors, ranging from Korean-Japanese fusion (KoJa Kitchen), to cashew-based ice cream (Mr. Dewie’s Cashew Creamery), to farm-to-table poke (Fish Face Poke Bar).
Husband-and-wife team Jake Freed and Hiroko Nakamura doubled down on Public Market with the September opening of The Periodic Table, a craft-beer taproom and sake bar adjacent to their original Shiba Ramen space. Their enthusiasm for the food hall and its future was immediate. “[Public Market] seemed to have a lot of potential and a lot of upside,” says Freed. “We were gung ho about it as soon as we saw it.”
In addition to a rotating lineup of California brews, The Periodic Table aims to introduce the Public Market crowd—and the greater Bay Area—to the idea of sake as both a food complement and an everyday beverage, with flights, a curated bar menu, and plans for educational courses on the fermented rice wine.
“This is something we can really grow and evolve,” says Freed. “The idea is to extend what we’re trying to do with Shiba Ramen, which is to give an authentic product in a more accessible package.”
The opening of The Periodic Table is just the most recent step toward cultivating a vibrant nighttime atmosphere. On the second Friday of every month, Public Market invites local bands to play inside the food hall at an event called Market Beats. And after Peruvian restaurant Paradita Eatery—a fast-casual extension of Walnut Creek’s Parada and Lafayette’s Barranco—opened in April, the market saw a marked uptick in evening business, likely driven by the opportunity for patrons to connect over savory Latin flavors and pisco sours.
“Usually, my coworkers will come and hang out at the end of the day,” says Jose Reyes, who likes the bar seating at Paradita as a place to wind down after finishing his IT work at the Alcohol Research Group office next door andbefore heading home to Oakland. “I’ve been coming [to Public Market Emeryville] for the last 10 years, so the changes have been drastic. I like the vibe and what it’s like now.”
Paradita executive chef and owner Carlos Altamirano adds, “There’s a strong sense of community here; vendors are very supportive of each other. When one restaurant or business succeeds, that tends to bode well for everyone.”
Stefan and CCRP certainly hope that’s the case for the planned Public Bar, a centrally located cocktail bar slated to open in the next few months. Russ Fukushima and Taylor Kim, childhood friends and owners of San Jose’s Blush Raw Bar, plan to bring their famous “blushies”—fruit-forward, frosted-ice cocktails—to the space and to ignite a sense of revelry and community within the marketplace.
“The goal is to build an atmosphere where we can just relax, have fun, and be kids again,” says Kim. “We want the Public Bar to be the centerpiece in the market, something that connects all the other venues to the customers. What’s a party without a cold beer or a crisp cocktail?”
While some who live and work nearby lament that late-night and weekend construction on the revamped food hall—not to mention the development of an adjacent apartment building and parking lot—has disrupted the neighborhood for the past three years and will likely continue to impede easy access to much of the market’s exterior for a few more, the growing pains were necessary.
“When we first came to this project, our original intention was just to renovate the food hall and an office building,” says Stefan. “But then, we saw a great opportunity to create something that was so much more: a mixed-use project with all the components—residential, retail, office—that would work well with each other.”
The ambitious project aims to transform a 14.5-acre piece of land into a mixed-use space over the next few years that will include a New Seasons Market, a 300-space parking garage, retail stores, 450 residential units, bike-friendly streets, and Emeryville’s largest park.
“Our driving force is to create a project that can live and thrive in the age of the Internet,” says Stefan. “People still like to socially interact, so we created a place where they can do that. We want a place people can’t experience sitting in front of their computer.” ■
Food Hall Monitor
Public Market Emeryville may have been the first food hall in the Bay Area, but it definitely won’t be the last. Here are other marketplaces that bring together like-minded vendors and foster a sense of community—plus a look at the food hall planned for Walnut Creek.
Ferry Building Marketplace: Although the San Francisco Ferry Building has been around since 1898, it didn’t debut as a marketplace until 2003. Now, it supports 46 retailers plying everything from culinary mushrooms, to small-batch olive oil, to bespoke tableware, bolstered by triweekly farmers markets frequented by acclaimed Bay Area chefs. San Francisco, ferrybuildingmarketplace.com.
The Foundry: This ambitious project won’t hit Walnut Creek until 2019, but when it does, The Foundry will combine the lot across the street from the Century movie theater with the building that houses Tiffany and Co., Va de Vi, and Apple to create a European-style courtyard and two-story food hall. The ground floor will include a beer and wine garden, a kids’ play area, and gourmet-casual restaurants, according to Brian Hirahara, whose BH Development transformed the nearby corner of 1500 Mt. Diablo Boulevard into a three-story dining destination. Plans for the second story are still in the works, but it could house “an option that has entertainment incorporated,” hints Hirahara. Walnut Creek, foundrywc.com.
Oxbow Public Market: Much like the Emeryville food hall, the decade-old Oxbow Public Market had to deal with a few hurdles (the economy tanked right after it opened, and construction often closed portions of the surrounding streets) before it emerged as one of downtown Napa’s biggest draws for both tourists and residents. The marketplace consists of 22 merchants—including a microdistillery, a spice shop, and a Wine Country location for Berkeley’s Fieldwork Brewing Company—and draws roughly two million people a year. Napa, oxbowpublicmarket.com.
Swan’s Market: The original Swan’s Market ran nearly seven decades before closing in 1983, but a historic restoration completed in 2000 brought not only new life to the space, but also much-needed foot traffic to Old Oakland. There are now 10 food vendors (including a juice bar, fresh seafood spot, and an oven-fired pizza and wine bar hybrid) in the mixed-use-project development, which also includes the food hall, commercial space, and housing. Oakland, swansmarket.com.