Airports have done a fabulous job in recent years turning their terminals into restaurants and bars. Celebrity chefs now create "airport concepts," great local microbreweries that have airport branches, and the best wine bars in several American cities are actually at their airports.
But here's a confession: I really hate eating at an airport. No matter how cosseting the dining "concept," refreshing the brew, or impressive the wine, I don't find airports conducive to gustatory pleasure.
For years I've kept a little list of great places to eat-joints and dives as well as casual places and culinary temples-close to many of the nation's most important airports. I'm happy to share it with you and urge you to leave a comment detailing your favorite near-the-airport places. By the way, I'm brave enough to hop in a cab for a food foray during a long layover or an unexpected delay of a connecting flight. If you're not, build some time into your schedule for a visit to a near-the-airport place before your departure.
The legendary Flying Pig BBQ, which used to be on the street just outside the front gates of Hartsfield-Jackson International, has gone to hog heaven. The Brake Pad is no Flying Pig, but who can argue with cheap, comfortable pub grub served up in a stylishly converted old gas station? There's a relaxing outdoor patio too. And it's all four miles away in College Park.
Chicagoland's kaleidoscopic pizza scene stretches all the way to the city's two airports. If you're at O'Hare and crave a stuffed-crust pie, the Rosemont branch of Giordano's is about four miles away. Or you could opt for Chicago's traditional deep-dish style at the Park Ridge branch of Lou Malnati's about seven miles away. If you're at Midway, the nearest Giordano's is on South Cicero, one of the streets bordering the airport. The nearest Lou Malnati's, on West Ogden, is about five miles out.
With a name like Brancatelli, you can perhaps forgive me for thinking Italian cuisine in Carolina is incongruous, but the slick Villa Antonio has a fanatic following for both lunch and dinner. And I'll go anywhere for a great pork sandwich-even if it is Italian style (the loin meat is topped with mozzarella, saut�ed mushrooms, onions and citrus aioli) in the middle of BBQ country. The South Boulevard location is less than eight miles from Charlotte/Douglas Airport.
I once clocked the drive from the car-rental lot to the outer gate of DFW Airport at nine miles, so it's fair to say that nothing is near the terminals. But if you've got a couple of hours to spare, drive over to Las Colinas (about 10 miles away) and have a meal at Via Real. It fancies itself a Southwestern-style Mexican restaurant, so there are all kinds of riffs on Mexican cuisine. I like it because there are also some creative vegetarian choices on the menu.
The sprawling Denver International Airport is so isolated that nearby dining options are extremely limited. The best of the bunch is the Blue Bay Asian Caf�, about seven miles away. Nothing on the pan-Asian menu is superlative, but the dumpling and Thai dishes are quite good. The prices are low and the portions are large.
Dema is the cool, sleek restaurant inside the Westin hotel connected to the McNamara Terminal at Detroit/Metro Airport. It has excellent omelets at breakfast and wood-fired appetizers and pizzas for dinner. Good burgers (beef, veggie, or turkey) and an impressive roster of wines by the glass too. You pay for the pedestrian proximity to the airport, however.
Less than a mile from the runways of Honolulu International is Mitch's Fish Market & Sushi Bar, a haven for fish-obsessed Hawaiians. Try the toro (the costly, ultra-rich belly of the tuna) or the pricey, but genuine, abalone. And always call ahead because the place is a shoebox. It's BYOB too.
A lot of fliers think that Chez Nous, seven fast-driving miles from Bush Intercontinental Airport, is the best restaurant near an airport anywhere in the world. Part of the appeal is certainly the refined French cuisine in a converted Pentecostal church and the sheer silliness of saying you've eaten grandly in a town called Humble. 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.
I know business travelers who schedule a special stop at the In-n-Out Burger just a mile from LAX. Like all outposts of this cult 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 diner, and a dive diner at that, all blue-vinyl banquettes and brown laminate countertops. But it offers a killer breakfast, several terrific Mexican dishes, and a nice California club sandwich.
A glorious (but financially unsustainable) haute cuisine palace called Levain has morphed into a charming, friendly French bistro called Caf� Levain. Eight miles from Minneapolis-Saint Paul International, the chef has been on a plane a mere three times in his life. In other words, no airport atmosphere or airline food here. Dinner only, however.
The New York metro area's horrendous ground traffic means you probably should get your dining in before you leave for the airport. But since the three major airports are also the least-timely facilities in the nation, you might want to risk a food run during a long delay. Near LaGuardia, try Trattoria L'incontro, 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. About 10 minutes from Newark International is Casa Vasca, which melds Basque, Spanish, and Portuguese cuisines. Locals prefer munching in the bar, which offers daily specials off a blackboard. If the dreaded Van Wyck Expressway isn't gridlocked, try the Tandoori Hut, six miles from Kennedy Airport. This tiny, BYOB place does excellent Tandoori dishes and a fine job on familiar North India curries.
A place called Bomb Bomb BBQ Grill and Italian Restaurant could only exist in South Philly. The traditional Southern Italian menu (tomato sauce is called gravy here) somehow co-exists with a roster of award-winning baby-back ribs and chicken dishes. All this is eight miles from Philadelphia International. If Bomb Bomb is too surreal for your tastes, try the Oregon Diner, which is open 24 hours and serves up a mean scrapple and a representative Philly Cheesesteak. It's 10 miles from the airport.
The good news: The legendary Pizzeria Bianco is less than five miles from Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport. But before you dream of a between-flights feast of Chris Bianco's iconic Rosa pizza (red onion, parmigiano reggiano, rosemary and pistachios), consider the bad news: The dinner-only place takes no reservations for small groups, the lines are insanely long and airlines never hold flights for transcendental pizza. Unfortunately.
Salt Lake City
The 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, best of all, it's only six miles from Salt Lake City International. Since Salt Lake City is consistently one of the nation's most-timely airports, don't bank on a between-flights repast. Build some time into your departure schedule to dine before you leave town.
About seven miles from San Francisco International is the Sinbad Grill in San Mateo. It's a combination Middle Eastern restaurant and market that does terrific hummus, nice falafel and good grilled kebabs. Lots of imported beers too. If you prefer to fly from Oakland International, you owe yourself a visit to Dewey Bargiacchi's Francesco's. Just a block from the airport's front gate, this 40-year-old place is an odd agglomeration of diner, family-style Italian-American restaurant, and brown-liquor meet-and-greet hangout. The food is simple, portions are gigantic, prices are low-and Wednesday is ham hocks and lima bean night.
The Fine Print.
Security screening times at Seattle/Tacoma Airport are so unpredictable that I don't even try for the great Thai food at the original Bai Tong, which is two miles from the airport. And my misgivings about eating at an airport notwithstanding, I don't leave Boston's Logan Airport since the restaurant I crave, Legal Sea Foods, has four branches there. There's an outpost at Washington's Reagan National Airport too.