Everyone knows eating in an airport is, at best, a dicey proposition, but as the holiday season sets into motion, it’s likely that you’ll be forced to do so in the next two months. Yet there’s more to airport food than terrible coffee, pre-wrapped sandwiches, and deep-fried whatever — provided you know where to look. Grub Street hounded frequent fliers and scoured the country’s busiest flight hubs in search of airplane food that’s actually good. The good news is: There’s quite abit.
Not only are many airports revamping their food offerings — San Francisco and Atlanta are cities with notable standouts — but there are plenty of great regional favorites, chef-driven casual concepts, and enough local craft beer to coax even the most nervous of fliers into a drunken, pre-flight stupor. (And, yes, we even managed to track down an in-airport caviar bar.) In short, there are lots of good spots to hit while you’re killing time during a three-hour delay (even if some may require a separate trip through the securityline).
Not every airport is included here, so if you’ve got a great go-to spot from somewhere like Duluth International, by all means leave it in the comments. But Grub Street has covered the country’s busiest hubs — and a few of the most popular foreign airports — to help you find something decent to eat no matter what your final destinationis.
One Flew South
Concourse E; 404-816-3464
When we started this list, we thought we’d find lots of places like the fine-dining-focused One Flew South: comfortable dining room, original food that’s way, way better than it needs to be (a pulled-duck sandwich with peanut relish, Carolina trout with brown butter), and prices that won’t kill your wallet (that duck sandwich is $14). What we discovered is that One Flew South is one of a kind, so you should make a point to stop in when you can.
SweetWater Draft House & Grill
Concourse B; 404-559-9787
Local beer is big in airports (a good thing!), and SweetWater’s Atlanta airport outpost ranks among the best. The beers, most of which are from the namesake, Atlanta-based brewery, change often and with the seasons, and go a long way toward making the standard pub food taste better than it should.
Harpoon Tap Room
Terminal A; 617-561-4704
Harpoon, most Bostonians’ hometown beer of choice, was started 25 years ago by Harvard pals, and now they’re the area’s biggest specialty brewer. Pubbish fare is solid, but the reason you came is to sip a refreshingly hoppy IPA (their signature) or a UFO Hefeweizen.
Legal Sea Foods
Terminal C; 617-568-2800
Legal is Boston’s hometown seafood shack, the standard-bearer of lobster rolls and clam chowdah. Legal has branches all over the city—all over the country, really—yet under the watchful eye of founder Roger Berkowitz, quality is fairly consistent across the board. You want to order a cup of their classic New England clam chowder (served at every presidential inauguration since 1981), which is creamy enough to be its own meal.
Terminal A; 617-567-2299
South Boston’s dimly lit den of cocktail swank has an unlikely outpost at Logan, which is fortunate, because the food here is outstanding. Their platter of hearty mini-burgers, topped with caramelized onions, Cheddar, mustard, pickles, and a tangy-sweet “special sauce,” is a welcome sight for the weary traveler.
Bojangles’ Chicken ‘n Biscuits
Concourse B; 704-359-1106
Chick Fil-A gets all the love when it comes to Southern chicken chains, but Charlotte’s own Bojangles’ is a mighty strong contender for the crown. Grab a bucket or a biscuit sandwich, but all the locals we talked to told us the one thing you can’t pass on is the chain’s sweet tea.
Brookwood Farms BBQ
You’re not going to find legions of diuehard barbecue hounds flocking to the retail wing of a barbecue company that specializes in supplying other restaurants, but the meat here still manages to draw good reviews, and the place will certainly hit the spot when you have an hour in the North Carolina airport and are looking for a quick ‘cue fix.
Manny’s at Midway
Concourse A; 773-948-6300
For many Chicagoans, Manny’s is synonymous with “corned beef sandwich,” but like the original near the old Maxwell Street, the Midway version is also a cafeteria line with hearty Jewish comfort food like short ribs and matzoh ball soup. It’s first-class food in the Windy City’s less-traveled airport.
B.J.’s Market & Bakery
K Concourse, Terminal 3; no phone
Many Chicago flyers won’t even realize that this is yet another case of O’Hare opening an outpost of a local favorite, since the original is a chain of soul food restaurants on the far South Side — and unknown to much of the city. But the cafeteria line with rib-sticking renditions of classics such as mustard-fried catfish and smoked chicken is a perfect fit with airport dining, and sure to keep you happy during a long layover.
Billy Goat Tavern
C Concourse, Terminal 1; 773-462-9368
The downtown reporters-and-ad-guys burger joint and bar, famous for its curse on the Cubs — and for being immortalized by Saturday Night Live (“chee-borger!”) — was always more about atmosphere than the good-not-great burger, so what’s the point of an airport version? In the soulless modernity of O’Hare, it stands out as a rare glimpse of the gruff, gritty old Chicago. Now shut up and eat, kid.
B Concourse, Terminal 1; K Concourse, Terminal 3; no phone
When does the airport have the short line? When you can skip the half-hour waits at Rick Bayless’s downtown Mexican sandwich shop Xoco, but walk right up and get the same spiced, locally raised meats on crusty rolls at the first of his airport sandwich shops. Plus, one thing Tortas Frontera has that Xoco doesn’t is a line of eggy Mexican breakfast sandwiches — pure airport-food invention, but a great spicy start to a road warrior’s day.
Gold Star Chili
Concourse B, Terminal 3; 859-767-5612
Cincinnati is famous for chili — its own weird form of chili, heavy on cinnamon and often served over spaghetti. Gold Star Chili isn’t the most famous or celebrated local chain (that’s surely Skyline), but it’s among the better-known ones, and your only shot for a belly-filling bowl before you enter the belly of the Boeing.
Great Lakes Brewing Company
Concourse C; no phone
Is 10 a.m. too early for a brat and a beer? Not if you’re stuck in Cleveland’s otherwise-dismal airport it isn’t.An ever-changing selection of beers is the move here, but the pierogies and sausages aren’t half-bad, either. Even better: The pub sells six-packs to go, and since you’re already past the security checkpoint, you can grab some cold ones for your flight.
Terminal D; 972-973-1244
The seasonal menu at this fine-dining eatery, tucked inside the airport’s Hyatt, is your best bet, according to Mike Hiller of Escape Hatch Dallas. There’s no getting over the dining room’s overly corporate vibe, but you can tuck into impressive dishes like pan-roasted monkfish or Kurobata pork belly with kimchee slaw — and forget, at least temporarily, that you’re in an airport at all.
Pappas Bros. Steakhouse
10477 Lombardy Ln., nr. W Northwest Hwy.; 214-366-2000
Texas Monthly named this the Lone Star State’s best steakhouse — which surely makes it worth checking out, even though it’s fifteen minutes away from the airport, and means you’ll have to go back through the security line. Even still, towering seafood platters, giant cuts of prime, dry-aged beef, and a killer wine list make it a good excursion when your layover shows no sign of ending. Plus, you’ll have something to do once you get back to the airport: digest.
Boulder Beer Tap House
Jeppesen Terminal, West Side, Level 5; 303-342-8326
Colorado is a hotbed of microbreweries, but Boulder Beer has been at it since 1979 and they kind of have it down. The food is your standard pub grub at this airport outpost of the brewpub — good for the cold weather you’ll be experiencing while on the ground in Denver this winter — but their beer’s where it’s at, with all of Boulder’s regular and seasonal brews on tap. It beats the brand-name stuff you’ll get at any of the other terminal bars, that’s for sure.
C Gates Wing, near Gate C47; 303-342-6940
If you end up in one of those miserable situations where you have to find a cushioned bench to sleep on because there’s a blizzard and there are no hotel rooms, you’ll want to at least wake up to a cup of decent coffee that isn’t just some Starbucks swill. A Denver resident tells us you’ll be in luck with the local, Russian-family-owned chain called Dazbog. Try the Hermitage House Blend, a medium roast, or the darker and spicier Siberian blend if you really need a kick in the pants.
National Coney Island
McNamara Terminal; 734-955-1733
In Michigan, “Coney Islands” are Greek diners that specialize in Michigan-style chili dogs, and they’re as common as gas stations and Red Wings fans. National is the mini-chain in Detroit’s main airport, and anyone flying through should try the regional specialty, a Coney dog: a hot dog slathered with mustard, chopped onions, and so much spiced chili sauce that you have to eat it with a fork and knife.
Terminal C; 281-821-2266
The Pappas family’s Texas-based restaurant group roves across cuisines (see: Pappas Bros. Steakhouse), but when in Texas, some Tex-Mex is a must. The right move here is the chile con queso, which is only ever really done right on Lone Star ground (there’s Velveeta involved), or other Tex-Mex classics like fajitas and enchiladas. The frozen margarita is obviously a pre-flight must, as well.
Wolfgang Puck Express
Terminal D; 702-261-7321
By all accounts, McCarran’s dining scene is a bust. But local critic John Curtas finds that even at the airport, your best Vegas bet is with a celebrity chef, which is why Curtas heads to Wolfgang Puck’s casual outpost. Curtas notes that the breakfast pizza is so good “you almost forget you’re in an airport.”
Caviar House & Prunier Seafood Bar
Terminals 1, 3, 4, 5; +44 (0)20 8754 7001
You’ve got to go to Europe to find it, but it is possible to get caviar in an airport. Our spies report that these swank bars boast terrific people-watching (it takes a certain type of person to seek out caviar at an airport, after all); there’s also an astonishingly large seafood selection. Smoked salmon is a specialty. If you arrive in the morning, this is where you can find the scrambled eggs and caviar you doubtlessly crave, accompanied by a flute of Champagne.
Terminal 5; +44 (0)20 8283 6634
Our sources abroad also rave about Itsu, the U.K.-based chain specializing in good-for-you sushi, ricebowls, and health drinks. Dine here if you’re feeling virtuous (or guilty) and need to shake off that airport-sick feeling. Try the detoxifying dumpling soup with vegetables and lime-and-ginger-infused broth; wash it down with Detox Zinger, a revitalizing hangover cure ginger drink with apple, lemon, and herbal extracts.
9149 South Sepulveda Blvd., Westchester; 800-786-1000
Everyone knows you cannot step foot in L.A. without stopping at In-N-Out. There’s no location in LAX, but the legendary airport-adjacent location of California’s favorite fast-food burger is pretty close. It’s not ideal for people making a quick layover, but it’s totally worth a very short trek for anyone with the time. And for Angelenos, stopping here is either the last chance to snag a Double-Double on the way out of town, or a necessary first reminder of home when touching back down onto SoCal soil.
La Brea Bakery
Terminals 1/Gate 2, Terminal 2/Food Court, and Terminal 7/Gate 73
When shelling out ten bucks for an airport sandwich, you at least better get it with verifiable meat and bread from the bakery that blossomed under Nancy Silverton. Ciabatta replaces stale or gummy slices, fresh avocado comes on your turkey sandwich, Gruyère on your ham, and caprese-stuffed grilled paninis are a far cry from the plastic-wrapped cold tuna sandwiches you’d find elsewhere.
Pink’s Hot Dogs
Tom Bradley International Terminal/Food Court; 310-215-5147
Save yourself from the eternal line at Hollywood’s famous hot dog stand, as the airport version has the same monstrous creations without the time commitment. This small outpost of Pink’s boasts all-beef jalapeño dogs, bacon-and-cheese topped Mullholland Drive dogs, guac-topped Ozzies, Polish dogs, chili dogs, veggie wieners, and even the hard-core belly bomb known as Pink’s pastrami burrito.
Terminals D, E, F; 305-876-0630
Miami denizens rave about the potent coffee, café con leche, and fresh sandwiches at the much-loved airport outposts of the popular Versailles restaurant. The Cuban sandwich — sweet ham, roast pork, Swiss, mustard, and pickles on toasted Cuban bread — is filling. But you might also want to snag a few ham croquettes for the plane ride.
La Carreta Restaurant
Terminal D; 305-876-3003
A sister restaurant of Versailles, cafeteria-style La Carreta is the better option for the truly hungry—it’s because the portions are enormous. But quantity isn’t the only advantage La Carreta has over other airport options, since the quality of the actual food — fried chicken, fried pork, plantains with garlic sauce — is above and beyond anything else you’ll find while you wait for your plane.
Rock Bottom Brewery & Restaurant
Lindbergh Terminal at the junction of Concourses C & D; 612-355-4646
For a region that has consistently produced an impressive selection of beers over time, finding a decent one to drink at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport is no easy task. And that’s where Rock Bottom comes in. Sure, it’s a chain whose parent company is based in Tennessee, but the brewpub is very much a beer drinker’s oasis in a desert of mass-produced macro-suds. House brews include Kolsch, Belgian White, Red Ale, and Light Lager. Oh, and the food isn’t half bad, either.
Terminal 5 (no phone)
The team behind this French restaurant in the JetBlue terminal worked at Pastis and Balthazar in the city, and the classic French and dishes reflect that history: onion soup gratinée, chicken paillard, and moules frites are all here — not to mention Keith McNally-esque desgin touches like subway tiles, globe light fixtures, and mahogany paneling.
Terminal 2; no phone
This quick-service French place in the Delta terminal is meant to change up the airport dining model. Check out the iPad ordering, refined-yet-casual French classics (crêpes suzette, baguettes sandwiches), and retro café digs to decide for yourself. That chef Andrew Carmellini — of Manhattan’s Locanda Verde and the Dutch — oversaw the menu is just an added perk.
Terminal 5; no phone
Mark Ladner is the chef at Manhattan’s much-ballyhooed Del Posto, but he also had a (talented) hand in this trattoria in the JetBlue terminal. It’s not four-star cuisine, but there’s nevertheless a satisfying selection of salumi, salads, and other small plates, plus mains like sea bream with artichokes, served against a backdrop of black-and-white Italian films.
Terminal D; no phone
Porter House’s Michael Lomonaco is the man behind this legit steakhouse, pumping out dependable dry-aged steaks, Caesar salads, and all the traditional fixings to go along. Nobody’s going to confuse this for any of NYC’s many, many top-rate steakhouses, but it’s plenty good for a person in need of a taste of the big city during an hour-long stopover.
Terminal D; no phone
What Fergie is to the Royal Family, Tagliare is to Brooklyn’s legendary Di Fara pizzeria: It’s related, at least enough to be talked about in the same sentence, but it’s not really the same thing. Still, Dom DeMarco, Jr., son of the Di Fara godfather, is the man behind each slice, which certainly doesn’t hurt. The pizza is definitely above par, as far as airport pie goes, and more so, the experience is worthy of (about two seconds) of bragging rights.
Terminal C; 973-286-0034
Some might say Gallagher’s is the best airport food you can get. And even if the food isn’t quite the same as Gallagher’s Midtown namesake, the red-and-white tablecloths are. Our advice is to grab a Wall Street Journal, order a dirty martini, and get a pre-flight steak. All the better if there’s a football game on the TVs above the bar.
Grand Central Oyster Bar
Terminal C; 973-961-6000
The concept of eating oysters inside an airport sounds a bit ominous, but hey, the original location is in a train station. Keeping with their good (enough) New York City reputation, the shellfish here is light and fresh, and the vibe is fun. The best bet (besides the much-loved pan roast) is a morning Bloody Mary with a side of Hollandaise-covered crab hash.
Chickie’s & Pete’s
Terminal A-West, Terminal C, and Terminal E; 215-492-1329
There’s no shortage of cheesesteak options to be found at PHL, but the majority are bound to disappoint. Local mini-chain Chickie’s & Pete’s turns out one that’s certainly worthy, and serves them from one hour before the day’s first flight departs until one hour after the last one arrives. Also worth a try are Chickie’s & Pete’s signature Crabfries, seasoned with the right amount of Old Bay-like spice mixture, and by “the right amount,” we mean tons. Better wash ‘em down with a beer.
Terminal 4/Concourse S2; 602-244-1388
Wedged beside Wendy’s, this walk-up version of North Phoenix’s rootsy El Bravo restaurant probably won’t uncover the highest heights of horchata, or flood you with memories of mama’s green chile tamales or tortilla soup, but frequent fliers tells us they’re still fine renditions, and the fact that these items even exist in a U.S. airport are rousing for anyone who has ever experienced Mexican-food withdrawal after taking to the skies.
Concourse C; 503-284-4621
We’ll just say it up front: This brewhouse sells growlers of beer to go. Even if that’s not enough of a sell (it should be), this casual and cozy German brewhouse is one of the better dining options in an airport actually known for good local-restaurant outposts. They’ve got juicy rotisserie chicken, crisp schnitzel, and other Saxon fare — not to mention a seasonal beer list and those aforesaid growlers.
Rogue Ales Public House
Concourse D; 503-282-2630
If delays happen, and they will happen, take refuge at the pub named after Portland’s most famous craft brewery. Even if you don’t need a pint, the brews are incorporated in dishes like Beer Cheese Soup, Kobe hot dogs made with the brewery’s amber ale, and burgers topped with cheese from the company’s own creamery.
Wasatch Brew Pub
Terminal Two/Concourse D
Terminal Two/Concourse C; 801-575-2002
Drinking and Utah don’t go hand in hand like drinking and layovers do, but we still found some guys who get it. Wasatch, the city’s first post-Prohibition brewery, continues to draw crowds for tongue-in-cheek labels like Polygamy Porter and handcrafted Brigham’s Brew root beer. Wasatch shares brewing space with Squatters, another pioneering brewer that also has an outpost in Terminal Two, easing access to an oft-awarded IPA and its Chasing Tail Golden Ale.
Napa Farms Market / Tyler Florence Rotisserie
Terminal 2; 650-821-4505
SFO recently renovated Terminal 2 with food lovers in mind, and the centerpiece of the concourse is the new Napa Farms Market. Think freshly baked bread, way-above-average boxed salads, multiple varieties of kombucha, and Cowgirl Creamery cheese to take with you on your flight. There’s also an attached wine bar (one of the Vino Volo chain), and within the market there’s a new branch of Tyler Florence’s Rotisserie franchise (elsewhere known as Rotisserie & Wine), where you can get a fresh spit-roasted chicken to go with your wine, cheese, and salad.
Central Terminal; 206-787-5388
Anthony’s is a local chain of seafood restaurants with locations all over Washington State, and perhaps the scale of their operation is to thank for the ultrafresh, sustainable seafood — along with a huge glass-walled dining room overlooking the runways — on display here. We recommend the fresh Alaska halibut or plank-grilled Lummi Island sockeye salmon over any of the fried options, but a frequent traveler who spends half his weekends in this airport tells us the Hawaiian ahi nachos are far better than they sound.
South Satellite; 206-787-5388
A flight attendant friend with more than a little knowledge of the nation’s better airports turned us on to this small udon noodle stand in the middle of busy Sea-Tac Airport. Avoid the grab-and-go sushi and salads, and instead focus on the excellent, comforting shrimp udon, which represents well for the Japanese-American population of greater Seattle.
Muji to Go
Terminal 1, Central Building, 4th Floor; +81 (0)476-30-3585
Yes, you can find plenty of decent sushi and noodles in the Tokyo airport, but a recently returned visitor clued us in to something even more interesting: the Muji to Go outpost. Unlike its American counterparts, the shop actually sells high-quality packaged snacks. This isn’t the place to go if you’re starving, but it’s a must-visit stop if you want some tasty, unique edible souvenirs (or just need to get rid of your remaining yen) before takeoff.
Coyote Jack’s Grill
Terminal 1; 416-776-0492
We had a hard time getting people to recommend many worthy eats at the Toronto airport, but one name that surfaced time and again was Coyote Jack’s. The restaurant is clean, efficient, and, most important, serves a respectable rendition of the classic poutine, which is one major reason why getting stranded in Canada wouldn’t be a bad thing.
Photo: ? 2010 Michael Mahovlich
Concourse AB; 410-859-5723
Sadly, the flagship location of this iconic Baltimore crab house just closed its doors after 67 years in operation. But for the time being, the spirit lives on at BWI. Though this satellite location doesn’t practice the time-honored tradition of dumping out bushels of freshly steamed hard-shell blue crabs on your table, you can still get some darn good crab cakes and soft-shell crab sandwiches.
Harry’s Tap Room
Main Terminal, Terminal B; 703-572-4699
Like BWI’s Obrycki’s, the original Arlington, Virginia, watering hole that gave way to these two spinoffs is gone. (It’s being transformed into Market Tavern and Chophouse at Market Tavern.) But you can still soak up some of Harry’s timeless vibe, as well as some good food — mostly burgers, salads, and sandwiches — and decent wine and beer, while killing time between flights. It’s also worth noting that the Main terminal Harry’s is the only sit-down restaurant at Dulles that’s outside security checkpoints.