As noted, when my wife and I passed the Penny Food Hall in on Seventh Avenue in New York the other day, she remarked that she thought “food hall” was a Britishism, and it turns out she was right. The OED definition: “orig. Brit. a section of a department store or shopping complex where groceries, esp. speciality and luxury products, are sold.” The first citation is from an advert in The Times in 1925: “You are invited to taste..any of the delicious jams, tinned fruits and so forth in Harrods Food Halls.” (And it was the wonderful Harrods Food Hall that my wife was specifically thinking of.)
By contrast, the OED defines “food court” this way: “orig. U.S., an area in a shopping mall, airport terminal, etc., containing a variety of fast-food outlets and a shared seating area for their customers.” So: food halls offer groceries, and food courts prepared foods. The first citation for the latter is from the LA Times in 1979, when malls were just starting to boom.
“Food hall” penetrated the U.S. no later than 1976, when a New York Times article about Cambridge, Mass., describes a retail emporium called the Garage: “In the food hall section … is Formaggio, where you can buy 130 kinds of cheese as well as imported meats, pâtés, smoked fish and inventive sandwiches on home‐style breads.”
American cities, especially New York, have seen an incursion of upscale food halls in recent years, offering (in my experience) almost exclusively prepared food that you eat there. The Pennsy Food Hall, for example, has six such spots, and no fishmongers or greengrocers:
A New York Times article in September 2017 addressed the trend:
Determined to provide experiences that will attract consumers and persuade them to open their wallets, developers are opening more food halls, the food court’s up-and-coming sibling, which are in the midst of a robust expansion.
Unlike food courts made up of fast food chains, food halls typically mix local artisan restaurants, butcher shops and other food-oriented boutiques under one roof. Many celebrate quirkiness versus uniformity, and their ability to draw crowds is particularly appealing to landlords battling the growth of e-commerce and changing shopping habits.
But it’s not just Americans who have changed the meaning of “food hall.” The last time I was at Harrods, I sat down and had a lovely afternoon tea.