Move over Checkers and Chick-fil-A … there’s a new breed of airport dining establishment that may — gasp! — prompt you to check your bags and head through security a bit earlier. Showing up early for a flight just to enjoy a quality meal? That’s right. Reflective of the movement towards nutritious, fresh and local eating, pre-flight nosh options at U.S. airports have diversified in recent years, giving travelers the choice to savor, not scarf, a meal that doesn’t fall under the “food court pig-out” or “bland, overpriced bar fare” categories.
Granted, not every traveler will want to eat a pulled duck sandwich or tuna sashimi before a six-hour flight, but for those with refined palates and time to venture beyond the Golden Arches, there are options. So where can you eat airport food that doesn’t taste like airport food?
Frommers recently named the 10 best U.S. airport restaurants, and it’s an interesting bunch, both fast and slow, offering everything from burgers to fresh seafood to Rick Bayless-concocted Mexican sandwiches. Some are unique dining experiences while others are in-terminal spin-offs of popular local restaurants. Here’s a look at the airports where you’ll find them and what they offer to travelers looking to fill up, in a good way, before takeoff:
Where: Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (Terminal E)
Menu highlights: Lamb Merguez Sausage & Soybean Succotash, Pork Belly Sliders, Pecan Dusted Scallops
Ideal post-meal foodie destination: New Orleans
Billed as the “first upscale dining experience” within the world’s busiest airport, Hartsfield-Jackson, One Flew South serves up “southernational” cuisine from much lauded chef Duane Nutter. Visitors can expect intriguingly tweaked regional fare made with farm-fresh ingredients from local purveyors plus a full sushi menu and a serious cocktail list.
Where: Baltimore-Washington International (Between Gates B-9 and B-11)
Menu highlights: Crab Cake Sliders, Deviled Crab Balls, Chesapeake Chicken Wrap
Ideal post-meal foodie destination: Portland, ME.
Didn’t get a chance to visit Obrycki’s during your visit to Charm City? No sweat … the famed Baltimore crab house located in historic Fells Point (the restaurant plans to close for good in November 2011 after decades of business) has a scaled-down, 80-seat branch at BWI that’s perfect for those with a serious hankering for Maryland blue crab served pretty much every way imaginable (except for steamed).
Menu highlights: Fried Clam Roll, Anna’s Baked Boston Scrod, Lobster Bisque
Ideal post-meal foodie destination: Seattle
Given that Legal Sea Foods is an ubiquitous upscale restaurant chain in and around Boston (with several locations outside of Massachusetts), it makes sense that there are not one but four Legal locations within Boston Logan, including two traditional restaurants, the more contemporary/casual Legal Test Kitchen and a C Bar featuring “C” items: clams, cod, crab, chowder and cocktails. And for those looking to pick up a “gourmet souvenir,” the restaurant locations pack live lobsters for travel.
Ideal post-meal foodie destination: Honolulu
Located inside LAX’s landmark, retro-futuristic Theme Building that was built in 1961 to resemble a flying saucer, the prevailing ambiance of lava lamp-heavy Encounter Restaurant & Bar is sci-fi kitsch (courtesy of Walt Disney Imagineering) but chef Michel Audeon’s “California Fresh” menu is decidedly more grounded. Young travelers dining at this Judy Jetson-meets-Wolfgang Puck establishment will delight in the special Space Cadets Menu.
Where: Chicago O’Hare International Airport (Terminal 1)
Menu highlights: Cubana Torta, Green Chile & Queso Mollette, Corn & Poblano Chowder
Ideal post-meal foodie destination: Albuquerque
From eco-minded celebrity chef Rick Bayless comes this Mexican sandwich joint, an offshoot of Frontera Grill, featuring a variety of sloppy, saucy, spicy and smoky tortas (griddle-baked sandwiches) and molletes (open-faced sandwiches). This recently opened O’Hare dining destination also boasts an organic yogurt bar, breakfast offerings, soups and salads. For dessert? We recommend grabbing some Imodium and a pack of gum before boarding your flight.
Where: New York JFK International Airport (Terminal 5)
Menu highlights: Kobe Beef Tataki Roll, Kinki Chicken Wings, Buffalo Mozzarella Tempura
Ideal post-meal foodie destination: The Florida Keys
Located within JetBlue’s fabulous, foodie-friendly Terminal 5, Deep Blue Sushi is the creation of chef Michael Schulson of Buddakan fame. Does the thought of eating raw fish at a bustling airport give you pause? Not a problem … sushi, sashimi and tuna tartar spring rolls aren’t the only offerings on the large menu at this stylish Asian outpost.
Where: New York LaGuardia Airport (Delta Terminal)
Menu highlights: Bovine and Swine Burger (6-ounce burger, blue cheese, bacon), Ronnybrook Dairy mint chocolate chip milkshake, fried pickles
Ideal post-meal foodie destination: Austin, Texas.
LaFrieda meets LaGuardia at this burger joint that, much to the disappointment of burger aficionados, requires TSA clearance to experience. Pat La Frieda Wholesale Meat Purveyors is the boss of beef in NYC — there’s even a Pat LaFrieda Lane in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District — so it’s not entirely surprising that the beloved butcher has set up shop in LaGuardia’s revamped Delta Terminal. The 6-ounce burgers are made with a special all-beef blend and served on a buttered potato bun. Build your own or chow down on one of LaFrieda’s Custom Burger Combinations.
Where: Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (Lindburgh Terminal mall near Concourse E)
Menu highlights: Ike’s Cobb Salad, Angus French Dip, Homestyle Pot Roast
Ideal post-meal foodie destination: Chicago
Classic, highly caloric (in the best way possible) grub is the specialty at Ike’s Food & Cocktails, a spin-off of the downtown Minneapolis institution. For jittery flyers, Ike’s expansive selection of old-fashioned comfort food served in heaping portions (and cocktails) should calm the nerves — or bring on a serious case of heartburn. Added bonuses: a chef’s carving station and complimentary chocolate chip cookies.
Where: Raleigh-Durham International Airport (Terminal 2)
Menu Highlights: 42nd Street Oysters (with spicy butter and bacon), Coastal Carolina Omelette, Norfolk Shrimp
Ideal post-meal foodie destination: Jekyll Island, Ga.
Proving again (at least in the eyes of Frommers) that fresh seafood served in airport terminals is a winning combination, this outpost of the old-school (founded in 1931) Raleigh seafood house offers shellfish, fried seafood and Southern specialties a-plenty. For those who don’t have a taste for the restaurant’s signature item, bivalve mollusks, there are burgers, steaks, chicken and salads along with a full breakfast menu.
Where: Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (Central Terminal)
Menu highlights: Halibut ‘n’ Chips, Mahi Mahi Taco, White Clam Chowder
Ideal post-foodie destination: Boston
Like Legal Sea Foods in Boston, Seattle-based Ivar’s Seafood Bars are beloved and ubiquitous in the Pacific Northwest (and yep, there are even locations in shopping malls). Despite being a chain, Ivar’s offers darn good grub (far better than Legal Sea Foods, in this writer’s opinion) and eating at Ivar’s provides for a distinctly Seattle experience. One ambiance-related caveat: although Sea-Tac is a lovely airport, nothing quite comes close to dining at Ivar’s Acres of Clams, the original Ivar’s outpost founded in 1938 on Pier 54 in downtown Seattle.