AIRPORT (AND OFF-AIRPORT) EATS
By Joe Brancatelli
December, 2011 -- Lots of things went wrong for business travelers this year, but one thing they can't complain about is the state of airport cuisine. A decade-long trend of offering better food and more sophisticated drink for more discerning flyers continued unabated in 2011, and now there's hardly an airport in the nation that can't offer a more-than-passable joint to wait out a late flight.
Want top-notch ethnic fare? This is the year that Rick Bayless, the high priest of Chicago's Mexican dining scene, brought tortas (sandwiches) to O'Hare. You'll find trendy new burger joints in Charlotte and New York's LaGuardia airport. Revered local microbreweries have set up shop at their local airports too. Miami International has imported a wine bar to spice up its offerings. Cat Cora, famous for her Food Network appearances as well as her cuisine, is now represented at the airports in Houston and San Francisco.
The skeptics among us realize that better airport gastronomy is probably a result of the much greater amount of "dwell time" we're required to spend at airports now. But at least airport operators understand that mediocre plastic-tabled restaurants and traditional fast food won't fill the bill anymore.
"Not a day goes by when I've not being pitched a new dining concept by some fancy chef or other," one Midwest airport manager tells me. "Being at the airport is like being in Las Vegas now. If you're a serious chef, you have a concept you want to bring to the airport."
The dramatic improvement of airport dining in the last decade is even more impressive because of its breadth. It's not just the major hub airports that have great options. Smaller airports have surprisingly tasty choices too.
Want great barbecue? The airports in Memphis and Nashville have it. Local brewpubs? Cleveland, Salt Lake City, and Honolulu airports boast prestigious pints on tap. Logan Airport in Boston has great seafood joints, and you'll find great crab cakes at Baltimore/Washington International and an ocean of oysters at Raleigh-Durham. Well-crafted sandwiches and local specialties can be found anywhere you fly.
But there is a catch: What's local isn't exactly local. The explosion of great dining choices at airports around the nation isn't really fueled by local restaurateurs and microbreweries carving out their piece of the American Airport Dream.
The familiar local restaurant names you see are most likely franchises operated by gigantic airport food-service operations such as HMS Host and Delaware North. These companies and others are the airport master franchisees. To fill out the shopping and dining space, they've developed programs to adapt local restaurants, pubs, breweries, and even bakeries for the unique conditions at the airports.
"I could never afford to do a restaurant in an airport," the chef-owner of a well-known Midwestern bistro told me earlier this year. "So I franchise my name and hope for the best. To be honest, I'm impressed with the systems [my franchisee] created, and they are knocking out food I'm confident that people will like."
In other words, the name on the airport door isn't precisely what it seems. But compared to the Ghosts of Airport Food Past, it's this close to gastronomic heaven. Which is why I produce this annual guide to airport eats. We have choice now--and good choices. But, as usual, since even good food at the airport is still at the airport, which isn't one of my favorite dining venues, I've included a selection of worthy dives and high-end dining selections near the largest airports for your consideration.
Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, home to hubs of Delta Air Lines and Southwest Airlines-controlled AirTran Airways, is already sprawling and handles more traffic than any other airport. And 2012 will bring a new international terminal into the mix. Thankfully, Hartsfield is blessed with several outlets of Paschal's, a local bastion of traditional Southern cuisine. If you can handle the fusion, One Flew South merges southern flavors, sushi, and other international fare. Located on Concourse E, it's probably the snappiest bar in the airport too. Open two years ago, the airport branch of Atlanta's Cafe Intermezzo merges a bookstore and Central European coffeehouse with light meals to surprisingly good effect. It's on Concourse B.
If you want to wander outside the airport bubble, two places in College Park, about four miles away, will do. The Brake Pad does cheap and comfortable pub grub in a stylishly converted gas station. There's an outdoor patio too. More elegant and with a more varied menu, The Feed Store used to be, well, a feed store. It's adjacent to the MARTA rail system's College Park station, just one stop (and about five minutes) from the airport.
At Austin-Bergstrom International, there's a busy branch of Salt Lick, the beloved barbecue joint in Driftwood, Texas. Try the chopped brisket sandwich; it's sinful on a soft roll with Salt Lick's tangy sour-sweet sauce. Then wander over to Amy's Ice Creams, the Austin legend. It always has seven "standard" and a revolving list of as many as 300 specialty flavors. There's a blizzard of mix-ins and crush-ins too. Both are located in the West Concourse Food Court.
Four miles from Bergstrom is the South Austin branch of the Catfish Parlour. Don't let the chaos in the dining room throw you. The catfish is terrific with the "parlour fixins" of hush puppies, pinto beans, vinegary cole slaw, and jalapeño-spiked tartar sauce.
The Greene Turtle Sports Bar and Grille has almost three dozen locations in the Mid-Atlantic region and an outlet in Concourse D of Baltimore-Washington International Airport. The chain's wraps are famous, if not particularly healthy. For those interested in another Maryland specialty, head for Obrycki's between Gates B-9 and 11. It's the scaled-down airport version of one of Baltimore's legendary crab houses. They've opened an even smaller version, called A Bar, on Concourse A.
If you want your crab off the airport, try G&M Restaurant & Lounge in Linthicum Heights, about five Interstate miles from the airport gates. Focus on the justly famous crab cakes and ignore the rest of the menu.
What would a visit to Boston be without a stop at Legal Sea Foods, the omnipresent chain of high-quality East Coast fish houses that started here. If you miss one in town, Logan Airport now has four Legal restaurants, bars, and "test kitchens."
Want to indulge in pizza, Boston's other obsession? The original Santarpio's in East Boston is less than two miles away and remains the gold standard of Boston pies. But beware: Santarpio's isn't as consistent as it used to be, and the waits can be off-putting for time-pressed business travelers.
Except for the fact that it's home to a hub of US Airways, Charlotte Douglas International is a business-travel favorite. It even has a leafy and relaxing central atrium. And now there's a top-notch dining option. A branch of Charlotte's favorite burger joint Bad Daddy's is open on Concourse C. The place also does a decent breakfast and even offers a gluten-free menu. If you must do barbecue, try Brookwood Farms in the Central Atrium; it's a branch of the big commercial processor about 100 miles away in Siler City. Looking for a drink? The Carolina Beer Company near Gate D7 dispenses a seasonal rotation of fine local brews. And Portfolio.com editor J. Jennings Moss, who commutes regularly to Charlotte to meet with our beneficent corporate overlords, endorses the margaritas at the Jose Cuervo Tequileria near Gate C7. Skip the food, though.
Meanwhile, less than eight miles from the airport, the South Boulevard branch of the Villa Antonio has a fanatic following for both lunch and dinner. It makes a great pork sandwich—even if it is Italian style (the loin meat is topped with mozzarella, sautéed mushrooms, onions, and citrus aioli) in the middle of barbecue country.
If you use Midway, Chicago's smaller, in-town airport, grab a frankfurter, bratwurst, or polish sausage at Gold Coast Dogs, a Chicago institution. And how could you not hoist one at Harry Caray's, a bar that claims to be a steakhouse. Both are in the so-called Midway Triangle.
Thin-crust traditionalists like your humble scribe will never understand Chicago-style deep-dish pizza. Still, I feel compelled to report that there is a branch of Giordano's, one of Chicago's noted purveyors of stuffed pizza, at 6314 South Cicero, one of the streets bordering the airport.
Recently merged United Airlines and bankrupt American Airlines continue to battle for supremacy at O'Hare Airport, but the big news this year has been the arrival of Rick Bayless, Chicagoland's much-revered Mexican-food master. His Tortas Frontera shops specialize in Mexican-style sandwiches, but they also offer soups, breakfast items, and a guacamole bar. You'll find the original, which opened in January, in Terminal 1 near gate B11. A second branch opened in November in Terminal 3 near gate K4. Truth be told, though, I've always been fine with Burrito Beach, an admired local chain with a kiosk in the food court between Concourses H and K in Terminal 3. The Beach's black-bean-and-red-rice burrito appeals to my inner vegetarian.
For long layovers and a sit-down meal, walk into the past by passing through the tunnel that connects Terminal 2 to the O'Hare Hilton. There you'll find the last Gaslight Club, Hugh Hefner's model for the Playboy Club. No longer members-only, the Gaslight nevertheless retains an otherworldly Victorian-speakeasy vibe and its scantily clad servers from distant lands. The drinks are good and the menu is serviceable. It's simply too absurd to ignore, and, to be honest, I can't imagine this type of place will be with us too much longer.
Cincinnati's love affair with chili is peculiar, especially since the regional variations usually omit chilies and chili powder and end up as an accompaniment for spaghetti, shredded cheese, hot dogs, or fries. But you can find a branch of Gold Star Chili, one of the city's ubiquitous chains, at Cincinnati Northern Kentucky Airport. It's in the Concourse B food mall inside Terminal 3. If you need more substantial fare, an outpost of the Montgomery Inn is seven Interstate miles away in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky. The specialty is pork loin ribs and a savory barbecue sauce that's also slathered on the house pork chops, chicken, and duck. (Don't worry about the restaurant being in Kentucky. So's Cincinnati's airport.)
Cleveland Hopkins Airport, a Continental hub, is justifiably nervous about its status now that United and Continental airlines have merged. The good news: You can wait for a decision on Hopkins' future at the Great Lakes Brewing Company near Gate C14. It offers a fabulous selection of superlative craft brews. And over by Gate D8, there's a branch of Obrycki's, the Maryland crab cake legend.
If you're looking for unique, look in Parma Heights, about four miles from Hopkins. That's where the Whip Coffee Shop (known locally as "The Whip") has been the go-to joint for 70 years. Breakfasts are best, but don't pass on the stuffed cabbage if it's on the specials menu. Locals adore the City Chicken, which most of us recognize as a kebab. (The Whip is at 6406 Pearl Road; 440-885-9849.)
Irish pub may not be what leaps to mind when you're thinking food and drink at Dallas/Fort Worth International, the fortress hub of American Airlines. But even blasé business travelers rave about Tigin in Terminal D. The all-day Irish breakfast is surprisingly authentic. The bangers and mash work nicely with a draft pint of Harp, Smithwick's, or Guinness. But if Dallas means BBQ to you, try the 'cue at Cousin's in either Terminal B or D. It's a Dallas favorite. And if you crave cajun-style fish, head for Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen in Terminal A. As chains go, Pappadeaux does well.
Since I once clocked the drive from the car-rental lot to the outer gate of DFW at nine miles, it might not be wise to venture off the airport any further than the slick Grand Hyatt DFW connected to Terminal D. It has a snappy, sophisticated bar (M Lounge), a surprisingly good all-day restaurant (Grand Met), and a 24/7 coffeehouse that offers (expensive) shots of Illy espresso.
Denver International Airport is the only American airport where three carriers--United, Southwest, and Frontier--still operate a hub. But beware of airports that list smoker's lounges in their dining list. Still, the Lefty's bars and restaurants on all three passenger concourses are serviceable. If you pass one selling a portobello mushroom sandwich, go for it. For a hopping good time, hit the New Belgium Hub on Concourse B. It's the airport branch of Colorado's justifiably famous New Belgium Brewing Company. Fat Tire Amber Ale is the signature pint, but there's always something new and interesting on tap.
Detroit may still be down, but Detroit/Metro Airport still hums because it is a key hub for Delta Air Lines. And travelers here have the nation's best assortment of healthy fare on the fly. Try the Middle Eastern dishes at the Mediterranean Grill near Gate A54 in the McNamara Terminal. There's also a satisfying sushi bar and Japanese kitchen at Sora near Gate A35. On the less healthy side, you'll find National Coney Island kiosks throughout the McNamara and North terminals. I grew up near the real Coney Island, so National Coney's dogs are foreign to me. The pile-toppings-on-a-steamed-frank style is properly called a "Michigan dog."
Want out of the airport? Dema is a sleek dining room and cocktail lounge inside the Westin hotel adjacent to the McNamara complex. It has excellent omelets at breakfast; wood-fired appetizers and pizzas for dinner; good burgers (vegetable, beef, or turkey); and an impressive roster of wines by the glass.
Chef Allen Susser closed his South Florida restaurant earlier this year and moved what he calls New World Cuisine (a heady mixture of Latin flavors, fresh Florida ingredients, and New York sensibilities) to Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. The Chef Allen's 2 Go kiosks around the airport peddle Susser's unique twist on salads, sandwiches, and sauces—and everything is packaged to fly away. And his new Burger Bar in Terminal 4 is a 78-seat restaurant that offers more than a dozen custom-ground types of burgers.
If you want off-airport alternatives, talk to Anthony Bruno. His original place, Anthony's Runway 84, has been turning out gutsy Southern Italian dishes since the mid-1980s. Just a meatball's throw away is a branch of his Anthony's Coal Fired Pizza chain. Thin, crispy pies are the thing, of course, but many flyers swear by the coal-oven roasted chicken wings served with caramelized onions. Both restaurants are a few minutes from the terminals on Federal Highway/US 1.
Dining options at Honolulu International Airport are limited. Try Gordon Biersch, the brewpub chain with an outlet near Gate 28. My frequent-flying wife, who was raised in Hawaii, says the teriyaki chicken, served with rice and grilled asparagus, makes a decent preflight meal. But the better beer is at the Kona Brewing Company in the Central Lobby. All five of the microbrewer's ales and beers are worthy. But skip the atrocious food. In the interisland terminal, which caters to flyers headed to or from the Neighbor Islands, Stinger Ray's is overpriced, but its Kalua pulled pork sandwich is a tangy take on the barbecue classic. Right next door is Lahaina Chicken Company, which does terrific chicken, buffet-style.
Less than a mile from the runways, Mitch's Fish Market & Sushi Bar is a haven for seafood-obsessed Hawaiians. Try the toro (the costly, ultra-rich cut from the belly of the tuna) or the pricey, but genuine, abalone. Always call ahead because the place is a shoebox. A few miles further away is Nico's Pier 38. It's a laid-back, cheery joint that offers gigantic portions of perfectly cooked fish and local pork and chicken favorites at dirt-cheap prices.
Branches of the Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen gladden the hearts of fish fans in seven states. The biggest and best locations seem to be in Texas, and that includes the outpost in Terminal E of Bush Intercontinental, the Continental Airlines hub which is being rebranded as United. Regardless of the name on the planes, though, Pappadeaux continues to offer fresh oysters and its shrimp étouffée. There's another major competitor now: Cat Cora, one of TV's Iron Chefs, opened a branch of Cat Cora's Kitchen in Terminal E.
Meanwhile, a lot of flyers think that Chez Nous, seven fast-driving miles from Intercontinental, is the best dining room near an airport anywhere in America. But this is a lot of restaurant for a between-flights jaunt, so you're better to build in a dinner stop before a departure.
The much-photographed ans still-futuristic-looking Theme Building at Los Angeles International has a much-discussed restaurant. But Encounter is too future-according-to-the-original-Star Trek for me. I always seem to end up at the Wolfgang Puck Express stands inside Terminals 2 and 7. I'm still a sucker for the Chinois chicken salad. And if you're a fan of Pink's, the LAX branch of the Hollywood hot-dog legend is bustling at the Bradley International Terminal. And another Bradley outlet, the 18-month-old Daniel's Bistro + Bar, offers a commodious plank and a menu that offers interesting takes on staples like brisket and pizza.
Meanwhile, I know East Coast and Midwest business travelers who schedule a special stop at the In-n-Out Burger just a mile from LAX. Like all outposts of this deified West Coast chain, the Sepulveda Boulevard branch has no freezers, heat lamps, or microwaves and only sells fresh burgers and fries and shakes made with ice cream. But I'm partial to Mariposas at the Hacienda Hotel, about two miles from the airport. Mariposas is a 24-hour diner, and a dive diner at that. But it offers a killer breakfast, several terrific Mexican dishes, and a nice California club sandwich.
It shouldn't surprise you that Memphis International has several excellent barbecue spots, each with passionate supporters. Fans of Interstate Barbecue (in the Terminal B Rotunda and at Gate B-14) claim it serves "the world's best chopped beef sandwich" and a "travel pack that will make you a hero at home." Others favor Corky's Ribs and BBQ, which they tout as "Memphis' finest." It's located in Terminal A near Gate A23.
Dominated by American Airlines, Miami International is big and confusing and, it seems, constantly under construction. But you're safe at La Carreta in the North Terminal near Gate D37. This 24-hour branch of the Miami minichain makes a great Cuban sandwich. And leave it to Miami to have a trendy new airport bar that critics actually call "sexy." Opened earlier this year, Beaudevin, in Terminal D near Gate D24, is the first U.S. branch of a wine-bar chain the giant HMS Host company originally launched at Brussels airport. The rotating wine list is always intriguing, and the decor and stemware is, well, sexy. The sandwiches, salads, and bistro cuisine are also quite good.
About four miles from the airport, on Coral Gables' restaurant row, you'll find Francesco, a Peruvian place that offers little in the way of decor but plenty of flavor in the ceviches and tiraditos. Surprisingly good pastas too. Besides, how many family restaurants do you know with branches in Lima, Buenos Aires, and Coral Gables?
Now the big player at Minneapolis/St. Paul, Delta Air Lines is promising an overhaul of dining options at its Concourse G terminal. The work is due to begin in January and involve a dozen local chefs and local markets. Meanwhile, the best dining at MSP is Ike's Food and Cocktails on The Mall. It's also the airport's most convivial cocktail lounge. A more pub-like experience can be found at Ike's on Summit on Concourse F. Both are offshoots of Ike's, the downtown Minneapolis icon. Eight miles from the airport, an unsustainable haute cuisine palace called Levain has morphed into a charming, friendly French and quite satisfying bistro called Café Levain. Dinner only, however.
At Nashville International, the best dining involves barbecue joints or a "meat and three" meal. If you're into the 'cue, there's a branch of the local Whitt's chain near Gate 6 on Concourse C. Whitt's delights visitors because it offers a choice of pork, beef, turkey, or ribs prepped and served in the traditional style. Neely's (Concourse B) is more modern, with more avant garde menu items and the cachet that comes when your owners (Pat and Gina Neely) hosted a show on the Food Network. If you don't do 'cue, try Swett's, a Nashville institution. It specializes in Southern soul food served cafeteria-style. You choose your protein and add three sides like okra, turnip greens, and yams. Swett's devotees swear by the pies and cobblers too. The airport branch is also near Gate 6 on Concourse C.
The late Joe Baum, who created Manhattan's Four Seasons restaurant, got his start in the 1950s with the Newarker, an airport restaurant so good that people used to go to the airport just to eat. Newark Liberty Airport, which is dominated by Continental Airlines and its merger partner United Airlines, has nothing like that today, of course. And restaurateurs actually migrate from city centers to airports now. So it's no surprise that you'll find surprisingly satisfying branches of Gallagher's Steakhouse and the Grand Central Oyster Bar in Terminal C. If you're looking for less daunting flying fare, try the Vino Volo wine bar, also in Terminal C.
The multiterminal Kennedy Airport is tricky to navigate unless you've mastered the train system and get the timing right. In Delta Air Lines' Terminal 2 and British Airways' Terminal 7, star chef Todd English operates Bonfire, his bar and steakhouse concept. In Terminal 4, you'll find the first airport branch of The Palm steakhouse chain, which started a few miles away in midtown Manhattan. JetBlue Airways' much-discussed Terminal 5 food project is impressive for its diversity, but less impressive for quality. But Deep Blue Sushi is good, and a lot of folks rave about Piquillo, a tapas bar. Business travelers have also taken a shine to (and a bottle from) the JFK branch of the Vino Volo wine bar at American Airlines' Terminal 8.
Only a traffic sadist risks a JFK off-airport run. If you're one of those, try Lucky Boy, a beloved local Greek dive just a short drive away. It has great food, surprising desserts and dirt-cheap prices. And my friend Mister Meatball and many other smart travelers insist that Don Peppe, a nearly mythic Italian place, is more than worth any extra traffic. The can't-miss dish? Linguine with white clam sauce. "You will cry" with joy, says Mr. Meatball, who grew up around JFK. Cash only, by the way. (Don Peppe is at 13558 Lefferts Boulevard in Jamaica; 718-845-7587.)
LaGuardia Airport got a gigantic dining remake last year, and another big change is sure to follow Delta Air Lines' displacement of US Airways early next year. But LGA is just like New York: fast, crowded, annoying, in love with its own press, and sometimes hard to swallow. The omnipresent Todd English has branches of his Boston-based Figs at the Central Food Court and between Gates D4 and D5. And now there are dueling upscale pizza places (Crust from bread impresario Jim Lahey and Taglaire from the DeMarco family) and battling burger joints (from Pat LeFrieda and the Five Guys chain). But the best option is probably Bisoux, a French bistro. It and a similarly named market are in the Delta Terminal.
If you dare to dine near LaGuardia and dash to the airport, which is not a good idea, try Trattoria L'incontro. It's a sweet little mother-and-son restaurant in Astoria, about ten minutes away by cab. Good pizza and several interesting dishes from the Abruzzo region.
If you're using Oakland International, the Bay Area's secondary airport, your best dining and drinking option is Vino Volo, the airport-based chain of wine bars. It's in Terminal 2 near Gate 25. Also in Terminal 2, near Gate 28, is an outpost of Andalé Mexican, a Bay Area staple.
If you want a hoot, take your sense of humor one block from the airport's front gates to Dewey Bargiacchi's Francesco's. The 40-year-old joint is an odd agglomeration of old-school diner, family-style Italian-American restaurant, and brown-liquor meet-and-greet hangout. The food is simple, portions are huge, prices are low—and there are black-and-white photos of the old days at Oakland Airport on the wall.
I was once accosted by a guy in a Fred Flintstone outfit at Orlando International, so I keep my distance from the place when I can. But when I can't, you'll find me hiding out at the Hyatt Regency hotel inside the airport. There's a good pub called McCoy's that turns out reasonable pizzas and a decent chowder. The hotel also has a fine sushi bar called Hiro's.
It's been hard going at Pittsburgh International in the years since US Airways closed its hub. The once-bustling Airmall, the blueprint for many future airport shop-and-dine operations, is a shadow of its former self. The best of what's left is Currito, the regional burrito chain that specializes in stuffing all sorts of Mediterranean and Asian concoctions inside a tortilla.
If you prefer a sit-down option, walk to the slick Olive Press inside the adjacent Hyatt Regency hotel. The décor is modern and the cuisine modern Italian. If you need to escape the airport, the best option is Ya Fei, about six miles away in the Robinson Town Centre. The Asian fusion place offers good sushi and good renditions of classic Chinese dishes. There's a nice wine list too. But you may not find the forest of shopping malls in the neighborhood any more charming than the airport itself.
While waiting at Philadelphia International, the big US Airways hub, have a drink at Cibo's, a cozy bistro with outlets in Terminals A-West and B. There are three dozen wines available by the glass. Or try one of the four Vino Volo wine bars scattered around the airport. For bigger bites, hit Chickie's and Pete's, the local seafood chain-cum-sports bars. It has opened branches in Terminals A-West, C, and E. Or join the other fish freaks who rejoiced at last year's opening of the Philadelphia branch of Legal Sea Foods. The 75-seat restaurant is located in the Terminal B/C Connector.
For off-the-airport excitement, try Bomb Bomb BBQ Grill and Italian Restaurant, a place that could only exist in South Philly. The very traditional Southern Italian menu (tomato sauce is called gravy here) somehow coexists with a roster of award-winning baby back ribs and chicken dishes. It's eight miles from Philadelphia International. A few blocks away, nestled under Interstate 95, is Tony Luke's, a power name in Philly sandwiches. The cheesesteak is a classic, of course, but many locals prefer Luke's Italian roast pork sandwiches, one of which is topped with rapini (broccoli rabe) and melted provolone.
At Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport, I can't resist the fresh, tasty, and inventive burritos from Blue Burrito Grille. The small Arizona chain has outlets in Terminals 3 and 4. Paradise Bakery and Café, a respected, mostly Western chain, has locations in Terminals 2, 3, and 4.
Off the airport, the good news is that Pizzeria Bianco is less than five miles away. But before you dream of a between-flights feast of the iconic Rosa pizza (red onion, parmigiano reggiano, rosemary, and pistachios), consider the bad news: The place takes no reservations for small groups and the lines are insanely long. A more practical alternative for time-pressed business travelers may be Comedor Guadalajara, a beloved family-owned Mexican restaurant that's just a few minutes drive from Sky Harbor. It's authentic and reasonably priced.
Portland has a spiffy new terminal and a famous name to go with it. Linda Bean of the L.L. Bean family has opened a place called the Maine Lobster Cafe near Gate 10. The lobster rolls are "adequate," says my food-writer friend Joan Lang. She much prefers the Sea Dog Brewing Company. The South Portland branch is within sight of the runways, and Joan likes the local specialties such as fried clams, chowder, haddock, "and, yes, lobster rolls."
Stanford's, a chain of upscale restaurants in the Pacific Northwest, has a branch in the Oregon Market at Portland International Airport. It's quite comfortable, but the familiar food isn't memorable. Food's not the thing at these places, either, but you'll find innovative microbrews at the Rogue Ales Public House and the Laurelwood Brewing Company. The Rogue is on Concourse D. The Laurelwood outlets are on Concourse A and Concourse E.
Just 10 minutes from the airport, you'll find the Glendoveer location of the RingSide, an elegant, family-owned steakhouse that offers prime cuts, quality seafood, and killer onion rings.
The 42nd Street Oyster Bar & Seafood Grill has been Raleigh's go-to joint for fish for 80 years. You can get oysters baked four ways, fried in two styles, steamed, in a stew, and even in the Caesar Salad. Or shucked to order, of course. Now there's a look-alike branch (all black-and-white tile and neon signs) at Raleigh-Durham International Airport in Terminal 2 near Gate C-1.
If you prefer to dine off the airport, head to nearby Morrisville, which is nestled between the end of runways and Interstate 40. There you'll find the Capital City Chophouse. It treads familiar ground: brawny steaks and chops, big salads, and a muscular wine list served in a polished, clubby dining room. What makes it notable is the high quality of everything on the menu.
The new Terminal B at Sacramento International has a branch of the Esquire Grill, one of the city's most comfortable bistros. Also in Terminal B, an outpost of Old Soul Co. serves up coffees and baked goods. Jack Robinson, editor of our sister publication, the Sacramento Business Journal, is passionate about Old Soul's "fantastic" pastries. Sacramento also has three Vino Volo wine bars scattered around Terminals A and B.
Salt Lake City
Salt Lake City International is consistently one of the nation's most-timely airports, so don't bank on lavish between-flights repasts. Grab a fresh, juicy burrito at the Blue Burrito Grille (Terminal One, Concourse B) or a terrific beer at the airport branch of Park City's Wasatch Brew Pub (Terminal Two, Concourse D).
If you insist on an off-airport meal, the original Red Iguana serves up Southwestern cuisine as well as excellent regional Mexican specialties. It's one of Utah's best and best-known restaurants, and it's only six miles away.
No airport has as many food partisans as San Francisco International, which is highly rated for its tasty and healthy fare. Some swear by the chowders and fish at the airport branch of Yankee Pier, located in Terminal 3 near Gate 72. The airport branch of Ebisu, a much-loved local chain of sushi bars, is located in the International Terminal. And Terminal 2, which opened in the spring, is bursting with new choices. The Napa Farms Market sells many of the Bay Area's best local products (Acme Bread, Cowgirl Creamery, Equator Coffee) and has a branch of celebrity chef Tyler Florence's Rotisserie. But another Food Network staple, Cat Cora, is making waves with her sit-down restaurant called Kitchen.
Looking for sustenance off the airport? You'll find a branch of the legendary In-N-Out burger chain just two miles away in Millbrae.
With all of the recent construction at San Diego International, you'll probably need the buzz from one of the nicely crafted microbrews at the Karl Strauss Brewing Company. It has locations in both Terminal 1 and 2. The relatively new Yan Can Asian Bistro in Terminal 1 is the first airport outlet from Martin Yan, the television chef who operates two much-admired restaurants in the San Francisco Bay area. The airport branch is more controversial, however, and has as many detractors as fans.
If that won't do, try Hexagone, a charming Modern French dining room just two miles from the runway.
A massive remake of Mineta San Jose International has created an airport that oozes Northern California techno-geek cool. But I still can't find much that excites me gastronomically. The Brit, a faux British pub at Gate 20 in Terminal B, is perennially packed. A better choice for a drink is the Santa Cruz Wine Bar at Gate 23 in Terminal B. The service is sometimes shaky, but there's a nice selection of local wines. When I want something to eat, I stop before reaching the airport at Falafel's Drive-In. The Middle Eastern standards are quite good and, really, how many drive-in falafel joints do you know?
Alaska Airlines calls Seattle-Tacoma Airport home, but the unquestioned dining star at Sea-Tac is Dish D'Lish, the takeout-food concept of Seattle superstar chef Kathy Casey. The menu is varied, tasty, and fresh. Every airport should be so lucky. There are branches in the Central Terminal and the main ticketing areas. Also in the Central Terminal is Anthony's, a branch of Washington's much-loved seafood chain. I find the food at the airport location uninspired and the large space institutional. Others disagree, however.
Want to escape the terminals? Go no further than International Boulevard, the busy thoroughfare at the airport's front entrance. 13 Coins on International operates 24/7. The downtown original is a Seattle legend and the Sea-Tac branch follows the formula: a 1950s diner meets late-night Rat Pack hangout with copious drinks and a bewilderingly large menu. Breakfast items (served anytime) are best. A few steps away is Sharp's, a burly "roasthouse" with two dozen beers (mostly local microbrews) on tap and an endless array of roasted proteins on the menu.
It's been rough going for Lambert International since American Airlines "de-hubbed" the airport a few years ago. A renovation has spruced the place up, but dining options remain limited. Your best choice is the Brioche Doree, the French salad, sandwich, and pastry chain with outposts near Gate A4 and the upper level of Terminal 1.
The good news? Across Interstate 70 from the airport is Lombardo's, a comfortable dining room from one of the city's best-known restaurant families. (Yes, they have meat-filled "toasted" ravioli, the St. Louis specialty that is actually deep fried.) About a mile further away is Las Palmas, the flagship of a small chain of local Mexican joints. There is familiar Tex-Mex fare and a few dishes from Veracruz too. (Las Palmas is at 4030 Woodson Road; 314-427-7177.)
Tampa International Airport is admired by business travelers. The place just seems sane and flows logically. But the on-airport dining options are less admired. So many jaded flyers still head over to The View at CK's, the revolving restaurant atop the airport's Marriott Hotel. The 360-degree views of Tampa Bay are breathtaking. The food is what you'd expect from a revolving rooftop joint.
If you want great food with your great view, however, then it's the bayfront Oystercatchers in the Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay hotel. Superlative seafood and polished service will make you forget that you're in a hotel just off the outer perimeter of an airport.
Five Guys has also set up shop in Concourse A (near Gate A3) and Concourse B (near Gate 71) of Dulles International. If you want more refined fare, a branch of Vino Volo, the wine bar, is located on Concourse C near Gate C3.
Just seven miles from Dulles is Thai Luang, a comfortable, family-owned place. The familiar curries, stir-fries, and noodles are reliable and authentically flavored. The Crispy Duck is a local favorite.
Travelers who believe the only true road foods are burgers, fries, and hot dogs find their holy grail at National Airport at Five Guys. The burgers are hand-formed and the meat is never frozen. Its hot dogs are 100 percent kosher, and the fries are cooked in peanut oil. The fast-growing, family-owned chain got its start in Northern Virginia, so it's no surprise there's a branch on the airport's North Pier. And Ranch One, which once had ambitions to be a national chain, still grills a formidable chicken sandwich. It's located at North Terminal C.
If you want to eat before you fly, find the unprepossessing Kebab Palace, about a mile from the airport. There are terrific kebabs and curries at dirt-cheap prices and the place never seems to close.