Where Y’Eat: How a Food Hall is Putting a Historic New Orleans Site Back on the Map

Ian McNulty for WWNO 88.9
How do you make a historic, nine-story building disappear? In the case of the Pythian Building in downtown New Orleans, the trick was to encase the grand structure in bland paneling for half a century and keep it empty all the years after Hurricane Katrina.

The building didn’t literally disappear, but it was practically invisible.

Now though, that paneling is down and the Pythian is back as a mix of apartments and offices, and the building’s ground floor there on Loyola Avenue is home to the Pythian Market food hall.

The modern food hall has been cropping up in many cities, including our own. They look like jazzed up food courts – a cluster of counter service eateries for quick meals. What makes them different from the food court at the mall, though, are the vendors themselves. Instead of chains and national brands, they’re typically local talent.

One upshot for visitors is lots of edible options. My sampling around the Pythian Market has brought Jamaican jerk chicken and Vietnamese banh mi, raw oysters and tuna tartare and a straight up grilled cheese.

I’ve had poke bowls at one counter and red beans and rice at another, South American street food, Neapolitan style pizza, vegan salads and slow and low barbecue. I’ve washed them back with healthful smoothies and healthy pours of something stronger from the bar.

To me though, what’s just as interesting as the dishes are the sources. The vendors here include small restaurants making a next step, food trucks finding stationary stands, pop-ups getting their own presence and even the next generation of a family run corner store branching out on their own.

New Orleans doesn’t exactly lack new places to eat these days. But when you walk throug the Pythian Market and see the swirl of different flavors and the entwining of different people led through its door, it makes it all feel like more than a convenient foodie fix. It feels dynamic, different, social. And it just shows, when you’re looking to put a place back on the New Orleans map, food is a pretty good way to start.

Photo credit: Ian McNulty