The floodgates open at 11:30am. The crowd, well-dressed tech workers, hard-jawed consultants, and power shoppers, spills out of the elevator and into the courtyard like children waking up from a mid-day nap—tongues dry, stomachs rumbling. What they find comes as a respite—six small restaurants and walk-up counters, all focusing on different types of cuisine, each orchestrated to appeal to a diner’s desire for culinary discovery.

At just over ten weeks old, Lincoln South Food Hall is Bellevue’s newest food wonderland. The brainchild of owners Elaina and Paul Herber as well as Las Vegas restaurateur Jeffrey Frederick, Lincoln South Food Hall offers the convenience of the mall cafeteria without the easily assignable guilt that can come with eating at one of its recognizable franchises. There are no golden arches or sandwich artists. Heat lamps, too, are in short supply. As is bulk processed ready-to-serve dishes of kung pao chicken and fried rice with uniform cuts of carrot and seemingly plastic green peas. Here, the food is cooked an old fashioned way—over a gas flame by hot faced line cooks.

“From the start the goal was simple,” said executive chef Daniel Laferriere. “If we couldn’t make it in house, we were going to source it locally.” With freshly baked sandwich loaves from Grand Central Bakery, pastries from Macrina Bakery, and even the salt supply coming by way of Woodinville’s own Salt Works, for the most part, Lincoln is succeeding in their aim.

Food Halls as a concept are nothing new. Tokyo’s Yurakucho Station, New York’s Chelsea Market, Portland’s Pine Street Market—each city does it a little differently. But their premise remains constant: Serve a variety of food, often locally sourced, in a way that promises an experience beyond merely providing sustenance and ease.

Jasper Kuria, a lunchtime regular, had never heard of a poke bar before Lincoln. “At lunch, I would have to walk across the street to Chipotle or Subway," he said. "Now I can come down, eat my lunch, read my paper, talk to a friend.” For him, it’s Lincoln’s proximity, sense of third place, and array of different cuisine that keep him coming back.

“This place is ingredient and chef driven,” said Frederick, who in researching for Lincoln, traveled to 18 different food halls around the world. “We even looked at local places like Pike Place, Tom Douglas’s Assembly Hall, and that small place on Capitol Hill with the butcher shop in front, Melrose...Market, I think it’s called?”

The differences between city-defining institutions like Pike Place and somewhere like Lincoln South, however, are bountiful. Built in 1907, Pike is a beautifully chaotic enterprise. With hawker-style vendors, sit-down restaurants, and produce stands, it feels more like a scene from a 1930s movie on the American melting pot than a functional dining destination. Step foot into Pike Place and you will hear the language of each cuisine—Chinese, Spanish, fisherman—with a tongue of their own at speeds suitable for vaudeville. Inside its narrow corridors, the smell of raw fish rams up against that of warm powdered donuts and age-ripened cheese. The crowd makes no sense—people stop and go, strollers are left buried in dank corners, buskers play imitation Tom Waits. In its chaos, there is romance and history.

Lincoln South Food Hall, on the other hand, is a well-oiled machine. Designed to capitalize on the fast-casual dining experience that seems to have taken the food world by storm over the last decade, nothing is left to chance. The discovery of each spot, whether the fresh-baked pizzas and wine pairings of Crosta E Vino, or a mouth-watering “street” tacos served from inside the retrofitted Airstream trailer known as Barrio Luchador, are very much in the vein of a place like Disneyland—awe-inspiring and a bit overwhelming at first. And then there are the others: The burger and brewpub, Burger Brawler; the salad rawbar, Avo-Poke, where you might catch Kuria reading his Wall Street Journal; the bao sandwich and ramen counter, Fat and Feathers; all have menus that leave you wanting for not only more time, but the disposable income required to experience them on a weekly basis. 

Walking into Lincoln for the first time, one can’t help but marvel at the amount of thought and money that must have gone into making it hum. With perpetually tidy communal seating, large offset booths, and an assortment of independent tables, Lincoln is a perfect escape from the stuffiness of the office space.

“To outsiders, this looks like six different restaurants,” said Laferriere. “To me, it’s just one big one.” And the charade works: Lincoln delivers exactly what Frederick and the Herbers intend: “to provide the people who live and work in Bellevue with chef-driven food options in a fast casual format.” Unlike its bastardized cousin, the mall food court, Lincoln South Food Hall appears to care about something beyond getting diners in and out as quickly and cheaply as possible. First and foremost on their list of concerns: the food. Not to mention the knowledge and enthusiasm of the people who prep, cook, and serve it to the rest of us seven days a week. The alt-40 music blasting from the sound system, edgy hand-painted murals on the wall, and faux-picket fence encasing the immovable taco truck, that's all just garnish. Take it or leave it.

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