Following success of Italy’s Eataly, China Live offers posh marketplaces
When a family from Singapore passed the sleek glassed-in entrance to China Live in San Francisco’s Chinatown, the building looked so different from the mom-and-pop shops dotted around the surrounding streets that they first thought it was an office complex.

“It’s the nicest shop we’ve seen in Chinatown,” said a university student named Shen, as his grandmother browsed the selection of $9 vinegars and $20 wok brushes.

The ambitious $20 million food emporium, which opened last March after three years of construction, could be seen as the Chinese answer to Eataly, the Italian food marketplace with stores around the globe.

Like Eataly, which brings Italian dining and retail shops together under one roof, China Live’s 2,800 sq. meter space includes casual and fine dining restaurants and a culinary shop. There is a rooftop lounge, a tea cafe and a bar called Cold Drinks, which founder George Chen happily describes as “my vision of an old Shanghai bar with ‘Blade Runner’ and James Bond mixed in.”

The fine dining restaurant, Eight Tables, won the “Most Beautiful Restaurant of the Year” title in December from the food news site, Eater.

“I saw Eataly and the huge success that [it] was,” said Chen, who previously opened 15 restaurants in San Francisco and Shanghai and also runs a restaurant tech platform and wine distribution business. “I thought: They did a great job there. If they can do it with Italian, why can’t we do it with Chinese?”

Chen oversees all operations at China Live. His goal goes beyond luxury shopping and dining: He also wants to educate customers about Chinese culture. About half the visitors are not Asian, and many are those who “generally don’t go to Chinatown,” he said.

“In the past decades, Chinese food hasn’t evolved as much as I’d like to see in this country,” Chen said. “Given the prosperity and wealth and influence of China, I thought that we should educate and demystify Chinese food.”

China Live is tapping into a huge trend. A more upscale version of the food court that typically features a mix of artisanal vendors and restaurants, the food hall is proliferating across the U.S., as well as abroad. Last year, there were 115 operating food halls in the U.S. By 2020, there will be 300, estimates Garrick Brown, head of retail research in the Americas for commercial real-estate firm Cushman & Wakefield.

“There’s been explosive growth,” Brown said. “They’re becoming building amenities. Office developers plug in a food hall concept and they find it easier to lease the space upstairs.” –Nikkei Asian Review (01.28.17)