These Historic American Markets Are Better Than Your Shiny New Food Halls
Stuck between loud-mouthed New York and grandstanding Washington, DC, it's a miracle the Mid-Atlantic region ever gets a word in edgewise. Never quite so up-to-speed as its neighbors and not nearly able to compete for airtime (why would you even bother, it's exhausting), this is a relatively subtle, more mellow part of the world, at least by go-go, Eastern Seaboard standards. A place where, at a time where it often feels like we're spinning out of control, things are often still done the way they have always been done, because that is just the best thing to do.
Besides those rather insane accents, one of the most immediately obvious differences between the region and other parts of the country is a wealth of historic public markets. Long before your hometown's new food hall was a glimmer in the eye of its developer, people in relatively unsexy cities like Baltimore, Harrisburg, Lancaster, Trenton and Allentown were making regular treks down to markets that have been in operation much longer than some American states. Besides the usual produce, typically local before local was cool, they'd often be shopping for foods that too many Americans have still never tried. (Scrapple. Pork Roll. Shoo-Fly Pie.)
Even as the region's cities give into food hall mania, most of the markets, part a culture that has been carrying on, in some cases, since the 1700's, are still thriving. They're all right there, waiting to be explored. Beginning just an hour and a half from New York City and ending in Washington, DC, you can do an epic tour that takes in many of the most unique (and best) markets still in existence. Ready to go? Let's get started.
Allentown Fairgrounds Farmers Market Allentown, PA
Not the oldest market on the circuit, founded in the 1950s, and it's certainly not the best known, but as a first stop on your trip back in time, you couldn't ask for better than this modest, but absolutely real-deal spot in the Lehigh Valley. Ninety miles from New York City, and you've effectively plunged headlong into old school Mid-Atlantic culture—nothing fancy, but all very serious, from local produce to the good butcher, to Bill's for poultry. Snack on Amish pretzels, or head to the lunch counter that does a brisk trade in culinary throwbacks like meatloaf, or even mince pie.
Don't miss The Kiffle Kitchen for a New World interpretation of the kifli, a Hungarian classic.
Open Thursday, Friday, Saturday
While you're here Nearby Easton is home to both the longest-running open-air market in the country (Saturdays, May-Dec.) and the Easton Public Market, a new-style food hall. Both are right at the heart of town, at Centre Square.
Trenton Farmers Market Trenton, NJ
Just a little older than the Allentown market (for a truly scenic ride, drive down the Delaware River to get here), this classic market shed with the twin, Pike Place-like "Public Market" signs is one of the last things people expecting to find in a city with as bad a brand image as New Jersey's state capital. (Trenton, you will find, is good at throwing the odd curveball.) Not so much a great place to hang out as a place to come do your weekly shopping, there is still much to love here, from the ton of Jersey produce to fresh pork roll at Cartlidge's to sweets at the Stoltzfus Family Bakery, run by an actual family of Stoltzfuses.
Don't miss A pound of brisket at Hambone Opera, one of the best no-frills BBQ spots on the Northeast Corridor, for $16.
While you're here If you miss the mild-punk vibe of 1990's coffee houses, and even if you don't, make a stop at Trenton Coffee House & Vinyl on Cass Street. The scene might feel classic, but the coffee's up to date—they roast their own, too.
Reading Terminal Market Philadelphia
In the old days, rounding up the best public markets in North America was a pretty easy job, and this 19th century relic at the heart of Center City would inevitably end up near the top of the list, if not in the number one spot. In many ways a blueprint for the food halls we now see everywhere today, Reading Terminal has long been heavy on things to eat right now, from rib-sticking, Pennsylvania Dutch classics to DiNic's roast pork sandwiches, and sees countless tourists pouring through its doors—you can still do your weekly shop here, but you'd probably want to come on a Monday morning.
Don't miss Breakfast at the Dutch Eating Place is pure Philadelphia. Fight your way to a counter spot and order everything.
Open Seven days
While you're here South Philly's Italian Market isn't a market, but rather a neighborhood, one of the most authentic districts of its kind left in North America. Even if you don't need anything, stop in at Di Bruno Bros.' to admire the cheese selection.
(A VERY GOOD) DETOUR
Lancaster Central Market Lancaster, PA
Broad Street Market Harrisburg, PA
Central Market York, PA
Architecturally, these three near-ancient (okay, joking, but only slightly) markets are among the best ever built in the region; happily, they're not only all still in operation, they're arguably better than they've been in years. If you're able to make the detour, you won't regret it, just make sure they're all open on the day you come through. Saturdays are a great bet—they're all open, and everyone comes out.
Don't miss Stoner's Homegrown Vegetables at the Lancaster market for locally-grown produce from a family that's been in business at the market for generations, terrific beans (and drinks) from Elementary Coffee Co. in Harrisburg, and pastries (and lunch) at The Copper Crust, a bakery/café at the York market, owned a couple that met while studying at the Culinary Institute of America.
Open Lancaster (Tuesday, Friday-Saturday), Harrisburg (Thursday-Saturday), York (Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday)
While you're here The Friday-only Green Dragon Market & Auction, held in and out of a series of sheds located in a field near the town of Ephrata, is peak Pennyslvania Dutch Country and could easily eat up an entire day of your time. They actually have a hay auction (10 a.m.).
Lexington Market Baltimore
Founded in 1782 and going since then, this is one of the longest-running public markets in the world. For most cities, that would be plenty, but this is Baltimore, land of tradition—Lexington is just one of five functioning market halls within the city-managed system, which doesn't even include the other markets and food halls operated by other people. Baltimore, besides being all of sorts of things that other places are not, is through and through a market town. Curb your enthusiasm, however—today's Lexington Market is a relentlessly utilitarian affair, a stop for the most basic needs of locals (cheap produce, cheap lunch, cheap everything); the standout stalls of even the recent past are either gone, or too far gone to bother recommending. That said, everybody still stops in for a snoop around, and a crab cake at Faidley's.
Don't miss The crab cakes—and the scene—at Faidley's, one of the city's most iconic seafood markets. Enjoy all the yellowing signs and blow-ups of old articles touting it as one of the greatest places on earth. It kind of still is.
While you're here A ten minute walk away, the Mount Vernon Marketplace was the city's first modern-era food hall, opened back in 2015—stop in for local oysters, local beers and some solid happy hour action. In the same building, Maryland's most celebrated coffee roaster, Ceremony, operates a very good café.
Eastern Market Washington, DC
Founded in 1873, this red brick market hall in the Capitol Hill neighborhood—it even has its own Metro stop—is more of an anchor than a complete destination; depending on the day you come, things will either be modestly busy, or absolutely heaving. Six days a week, the South Hall Market is a small, but excellent indoor market in the traditional style; Tuesdays and weekends, there's an outdoor (sheltered) farmers market. Saturday and Sunday are the best days to be here—that's when the Weekend Outdoor Market, featuring a ton of local artists and craftspeople, takes place, turning the market and environs into a hive of activity.
Don't miss A meal at Market Lunch, found inside the market hall. Crab cakes, pancakes, burgers—it's all good. Now you just have to find a place to sit. (Locals love this place.)
While you're here The old wholesale market off New York Avenue got a massive lift with the addition of the Union Market, one of the country's best new-style food halls—stop in, for sure, particularly if there's room at the Rappahannock Oyster Bar, but also make sure to poke your head into the nearby A. Litteri, one of the best old-school Italian deli and grocery stores (and wine shops) anywhere outside of Italy, probably.