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Chef Nick Liu poses at the Big Trouble Little Dailo booth at the Assembly Chef's Hall in Toronto on March 21, 2018. Mark Blinch/The Globe and Mail

Mark Blinch/The Globe and Mail

  • Tachi at Assembly Chef’s Hall
  • Location: 111 Richmond St. W. (at York St.)
  • Price: Set omakase sushi for $45
  • Atmosphere: A standing-only sushi bar for eight diners with two sushi chefs serving 12 pieces in 30 minutes.
  • Drinks: Beer and sake

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  • Labora and Campo Food Hall
  • Location: 433 King St. W. (at Spadina Ave.)
  • Price: Bar snacks, $5.50-$9; charcuterie, $9-$26; tapas, $8-16; large dishes for sharing, $14-49
  • Atmosphere: Spanish classics served in a laidback room with mid-tempo indie rock at reasonable volume
  • Drinks: Spanish-only wine list, with eight by the glass ($9.50-$12)

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What is a “food hall?” Is it a mall food court? A farmers market? An upscale supermarket with takeaway options? Several full-service restaurants under one roof? A beer hall with food vendors?

The answer is all of the above. An empty marketing vessel, the term “food hall” has never been dropped as often as it is now. Entrepreneurs and developers use it to evoke images of grandeur, abundance and high ceilings – we’re supposed to dream of Borough Market in London or La Boqueria in Barcelona – but food halls on this continent often have more in common with your nearest shopping centre eatery. Slippery semantics aside, know this: Toronto has just opened a few self-proclaimed food halls and is about to get many more.

On the glamourous end of the food hall spectrum, there’s Eataly, the global chain that brings several regional Italian cuisines under one single roof. It’ll be opening sometime next year in Toronto at the Manulife Centre on Bloor Street. Details of what’s being planned are scant, but New York’s Eataly boasts nine sit-down full-service restaurants.

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Fully opened since late January, Assembly is a sprawling 18,000 square-foot space that boasts 17 food vendors and two bars. Mark Blinch/The Globe and Mail

Mark Blinch/The Globe and Mail

On the low end, meet struggling Cloverdale Mall in Etobicoke, still reeling from the failure in Canada of U.S. retailer Target. Cloverdale has proposed a renovation that will replace its now-empty Target store with a food hall that one hopes will enliven the current food offerings, which include Mr. Souvlaki and A&W. We don’t know the lineup yet, but rest assured Cloverdale isn’t alone: Mall owners in the U.S. have been rethinking their food operators, relabelling food courts as halls and replacing national brands with independent local offerings. The purpose: To make the food hall a destination itself, not just a place to recharge between stores.

For now, the leading definition for “food hall” is somewhere in between the two examples above – a fancy food court that offers wine, beer and cocktails and a promise of better food than what you get at New York Fries or Edo. Still, vendors require you to order at a counter and carry your own food. Assembly Chef’s Hall on Richmond Street, near University Avenue, falls in this category, and is now the food hall benchmark in the city by virtue of being first.

Fully opened since late January, Assembly is a sprawling 18,000 square-foot space that boasts 17 food vendors and two bars in the ground-floor of an office building that houses Google’s Toronto office. Come any time between 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. on a weekday and the lunch rush is in full swing and a DJ will be spinning house music. It’s getting busier by the week, and once its large patio opens in the spring, diners will spill into the adjacent courtyard.

A fried chicken sandwich from Love Chix is pictured.

Mark Blinch/The Globe and Mail

Assembly is led by Andreas Antoniou, the restaurateur behind several downtown venues, including Mexican joint Los Colibris and Italian restaurant Little Anthony’s. He has herded an impressive collection of restaurants that capture all major food trends of the past five years: Healthy salads (Hibiscus), barbecue (Cherry St. BBQ), northern Thai (Khao san Road), Mexican (Los Colibris) and hipster Asian (DaiLo), to name a few, are all there.

There’s an important business angle here for the participating chefs: A booth in a food hall costs far less than the buildout of a new restaurant, and for an enterprising chef who wants to expand, it offers a way to test a new concept and build name recognition.

Already, Assembly has easily established itself as the best food court downtown, though admittedly, the bar wasn’t high to begin with. It’s also the most expensive, as lunch will set you back more than $15. The food is solid, and the standouts include fried chicken sandwiches from Love Chix and noodle-soups from Ramen Isshin. The latter has had the longest lineups among all the booths during my visits.

A chef makes ramen at Ramen Isshin at the Assembly Chef's Hall.

Mark Blinch/The Globe and Mail

But by far the most fun and interesting vendor is Tachi, a stand-up sushi bar that caters to only eight diners at a time, who all stand at a bar that takes up no more than 150 square feet. For $45, this tiny sister restaurant to North York sushi stalwart Shoushin will serve 12 pieces of sushi in rapid-fire succession in just half an hour.

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Tachi made me think of the tiny sushi bars that dot subway stations in Japan, reminding me of a night in Osaka where I concluded a long evening of eating and drinking at a standup counter that served six people at a time. It’s simple, delicious and fun and a world away from the loud hubbub of the rest of Assembly. The tiny space is cordoned off by sliding doors. Outside, there’s the DJ spinning; inside, it’s a calm oasis.

There are no innovations here – just high-quality fish, including Japanese amberjack and multiple cuts of Bluefin tuna from Mexico, sitting atop slightly warm sushi rice and brushed with soy. No need to dip in sauce yourself – the chef has already placed the appropriate amount for you. Sake comes in a can; bottles of Asahi are the only beer option.

Sushi chefs Matthew Taylor, left, and Sangyeob Lee, right serve sushi at Tachi at the Assembly Chef's Hall.

Mark Blinch/The Globe and Mail

Tachi brings a type of intimate tiny-space dining that is sorely missing in Toronto. Every piece of sushi is personally announced to you as it’s placed on your bamboo-leaf that serves as a plate, and the final seaweed-and-tuna roll is directly passed from the chef’s hand to yours to hold and eat. Tachi is a short and thrilling ride, and here’s hoping that the city embraces it. We could use more places like this.

Different from the food-court model, the recently opened Campo Food Hall, just west of the King Street West/Spadina Avenue junction, is focused mainly on Spanish cuisine, the one exception being an ELXR juice bar for the sweaty types who visit from neighboring SoulCycle. Campo has baked goods and coffee for breakfast; a salad bar, sandwiches, a tapas restaurant (separately named as Labora) for lunch and a few Spanish groceries for home, all run by one vendor – Rob Bragagnolo, the chef behind sandwich shop Carver. Bragagnolo once led the kitchen at Marben, and spent most of the aughts in Majorca.

Though billed as a food hall, Campo feels much more like a large restaurant with a big takeaway counter. That counter closes by late afternoon and Labora, the tapas-bar portion of Campo, remains open with its simple, rustic Spanish food – small seafood tins and snacks, charcuterie, classic dishes and a handful of larger plates like the delicious chorizo-stuffed half chicken.

People sit at the bar at the Assembly Chef's Hall.

Mark Blinch/The Globe and Mail

A faithful rendition of a good coastal tapas bar, Labora serves food that is, for the most part, deliciously simple and unpretentious. (As in Spain, some small dishes are accompanied with potato chips from a bag.) The prices are reasonable, the wine list comprehensive and the kitchen executes properly. On one visit, we chose from the daily seafood selection some juicy langoustines ($6) and they came back perfectly cooked, salty with juicy meat. Baby broccoli, still crunchy after a couple of minutes on the hot plancha, comes with an addictive ground almond/red pepper romesco sauce.

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Given Assembly and Campo are so different, some may wonder how both applied the food hall label to themselves. It doesn’t matter, though, for they both point to our city growing up, becoming more populous and denser, and demanding quality food options at all times of day at various price points. If this is the bar that’s been set for Toronto’s new wave of food halls, we can be optimistic about what’s still to come.

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