On a drizzly summer evening in London a group of cheerful young men in tight T-shirts, their arms wrapped around each other’s shoulders, belt out Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday”. Booze, food, a gathering of friends – the occasion has all the ingredients of a traditional birthday bash. But not for them a crowded bar in the centre of town or a restaurant insisting on a limited menu. Instead, they are in a 1950s market in south-east London, site of Model Market. Until a couple of years ago the site was disused and forgotten. Today it is hopping, one of a new class of markets in a growing number of countries, open at night, defined by the excellence of their food and their all-inclusiveness, that are changing the way people socialise throughout Europe and America.
Night markets are hardly new. Asia is stuffed with them. From Singapore’s hawker centres to the jostling markets of Bangkok, cheap, excellent food is available late into the night. A Styrofoam bowl brimming with peach-coloured laksa, prawns curling round noodles slithering under a dollop of intensely savoury sambal, to be slurped by the waterfront in Singapore is a thing of beauty and worth braving the humidity for.
Until recently, Europe or America had little to compare. Markets are common. A weekend trip to the farmers’ market to pick up some artisanal cheese is a well-cooked cliché. Many serve food to eat on the spot, but few are places where people can comfortably linger for hours, and booze and entertainment are in limited supply. Crucially, most pack up by mid-afternoon.
Thereafter, restaurants are the main option, but they commit a party to a single cuisine. For those who want a choice there are food courts – depressing sections of already-bleak malls, where choices are mostly limited to greasy fast food and alcohol is rarely offered. Teenagers – too skint for restaurants and too young for bars – might be willing to make do with these but self-respecting adults are hardly likely to.
Enter the new night market. Open until the small hours, packed with a variety of delicious street food, enlivened by music and other entertainments, lubricated by cocktails and beer, they cater for people with diverse tastes in one place. Some are more temporary than others. At the Queen’s Night Market in New York vendors serve their food from tents surrounding picnic tables in a car park. In the Markthalle Neun in Berlin on Thursday nights, locals and visitors cram around wooden tables under strings of bunting, eating improbable food fusions. Since 2014 Mercado da Ribeira, Lisbon’s biggest fresh-food market, has been serving dishes that play with Portuguese flavours – such as marinated mackerel with gazpacho – until 2am. Once a feature of summer nights, such markets are so popular that they are increasingly open all year round.
At Model Market, one of a number of venues run by StreetFeast, diners can pick up a plate of crispy fried squid from Ink, laced with coriander, bright with lime, hot with chilli and spring onion, accompanied by a pastel trio of miso, wasabi and ginger mayonnaises. Or they might prefer Venezuelan arepas from Petare, cornbread tacos, their exterior crispy, their still-soft interior stuffed with guava-glazed chicken, spilling over with smoky corn slaw. Or Japanese fried chicken wings, hot and sour with a Scotch bonnet ponzu sauce. Or Argentine steak, or a burger, piled high with maple-candied bacon.
The quality of the food is largely down to the specialisation of each trader. Ink makes just that one plate of squid. At Hawker House, another London market, Hotbox, a BBQ joint, serves no more than five dishes. Shorter menus are easier to do well. The fact that each stall is selling something different means no diner feels short-changed by a lack of choice. As diets and eating habits have become faddier – meat-free, meat-full, gluten-free, raw, clean, dirty – it has become harder for any restaurant to cater to the needs of a group dining together. Markets sidestep that problem.
Fancy dinners still have their place but a meal that costs £100 and might still not impress feels a greater risk than a plate of fried chicken for £7 ($9). Even better, at a night market you can avoid the awkward divvying up of the bill at the end of the night.
The model of a night out has changed, reckons Preeya Khagram-Nasim, one of the founders of Hotbox. Young people no longer expect drinks at a bar, followed by dinner at a restaurant and dancing at a club. With drinks and music on offer alongside the food, night markets are an entire evening’s entertainment in one package. Nobody need make a reservation; people can arrive and depart as early or late as they please. Communal tables mean the chances of meeting new people rise. Even children, not always welcome in fancy restaurants, fit in: they can roam free, the sky absorbs their screeches and concrete floors resist their spills.
And as youngsters in Western countries are taking fewer drugs and drinking less, food has become more important. It is more photogenic than gin or heroin and the explosion of social media has helped such markets grow. The rosy blush of slow-cooked ribs at Hotbox, garnished with garish pickled chillies, bursts out of the squares of Instagram and a quick tag tells followers the source.
The ease of publicity is just one of the reasons new chefs love such markets. The startup costs are tiny compared with those associated with a restaurant. Staff numbers are lower and limited menus mean fewer wasted ingredients, so it is easier to make profits. On average, vendors at Hawker House see a turnover of £5,000 to £7,000 over two nights each week; a stall at one of the Street Feast venues turned a profit of £400,000 in one year – the proprietors opened a restaurant off the back of it. For ambitious chefs, who hope one day to set up a more permanent venue, they are brilliant test kitchens; the feedback is instant so food can be tweaked constantly, says Khagram-Nasim.
But established chefs are beginning to recognise their potential too. At the London Food Month Night Market in June Angela Hartnett, whose reputation sparkles with a Michelin star, served pork belly, honey-soused tomatoes, peas, girolles and baby gem. For such luminaries night markets are an opportunity to reach a new kind of customer. Those who might not be willing to spend £70 on three courses might well take a chance on the pork belly for £8 at a market. And, if they like it, they might even be willing to fork out for a full restaurant meal at a later date.
Long-accepted economic principles are at work. In the 19th century Alfred Marshall, an economist, identified the benefits of clustering. Proximity, he argued, created “something in the air”. One small taco stall, no matter how good, will only ever attract a limited number of customers, but put it next to 25 other food stalls and numbers swell. A cluster also allows small businesses to take advantage of economies of scale. Everyone benefits from the fairy lights and fire-pits, DJs and disco-balls which illuminate such sites, and the costs are shared. The people behind the Street Feast markets, of which Model Market is one, advise newcomers on the design of their kiosk. They bring in branding experts and offer lessons in finance, creating a kind of trader university for those starting out.
Organisers, too, can make money. Thousands of visitors make entrance fees and sponsorship potential revenue sources. Running the bars, where profits are high, is also lucrative. John Wang, a former lawyer and the founder of the Queen’s Night Market, is less interested in making money than in showcasing New York’s diversity. He charges vendors enough to cover his costs, including tents and picnic tables. In return the prices of most of the dishes are capped at $5.
The food business is increasingly brutal. Consumers have unreasonable expectations, Jonathan Downey, one of the founders of Street Feast quips wryly; they want the best of everything as well as a choice. They want quality at the same time as novelty. That is a challenging set of demands. But night markets come close to meeting them.