Most airport food is hideous. Often, the best you can get in a U.S. airport is a generic "brewhouse," where your mediocre burger comes with a large, watery beer. I travel pretty frequently, and I turn to Burger King all too often when I'm stalled waiting for a flight.
But airport food doesn't have to end with Whoppers. Poke around some airports and you can find local favorites, branches of well-loved hometown eateries that give a little bit of regional flavor to your four-hour rain delay. I've picked the best thirteen airport eateries I could find (some show up more than once, and one airport has two top spots). They range from a really, really good fast-food burger joint to an out-of-this-world destination restaurant. Play your cards right, and you might get to have a memorable meal at the airport next time.
Note: The restaurants are in alphabetical order of airport code, not preference.
Garduno's Chile Packing Company and Cantina at ABQ (the Albuquerque International Sunport) is one result of the Albuquerque International Sunport's smart policy of supporting local merchants rather than national brands. This local chain serves New Mexico cuisine: green chiles, machaca enchiladas and honey-drenched sopapillas. Since this is New Mexico, things can get spicy, too. It's not American-Mexican, it's not Mexican-Mexican, it's New Mexican, and that's why you came to New Mexico, right? Garduno's is on level 3, before security.
Legal Sea Foods at BOS (Boston's Logan Airport) is part of an international empire, which makes some people a little suspicious. But Boston is where the empire started, so think of this particular Legal as a home town favorite. According to our review, Legal "enjoys an international reputation for serving only the freshest, best-quality fish and shellfish, which it processes at its own state-of-the-art plant ... and it's all splendid." There's actually a different Legal concept in each Logan terminal. Terminal A, after security, has Legal's Test Kitchen (shortened menu, fast delivery). Terminal B, before security, has Legal C Bar (lots of beer options along with the usual menu) and Terminal C, before security, has the traditional restaurant.
Brookwood Farms BBQ at CLT (Charlotte-Douglas International Airport) got an unusual award recently; we rated it one of our top barbecue places in the US. "Travelers swear by the sweet pulled and chopped pork, chicken and beef barbecue specialties at the Brookwood Farms Barbecue counter," our writer Janis Turk said. Brookwood's counter is in the Atrium, just after security. The restaurant is named after the food manufacturer providing the delicious barbecue by HMS Host.
Five Guys Burgers and Fries at DCA and IAD (Ronald Reagan National Airport and Washington Dulles International Airport) is a great deal. Until In & Out opens an outlet at an airport, these (five) guys have the best fast-food burger you can get in an airport. Their standard $4.49 burger has two hand-formed, nicely charred patties with an unusual array of optional toppings, including jalapenos and A-1 sauce (but please, don't choose both of those at the same time.) The fries are thick, square-cut and taste like potatoes. Five Guys also has excellent hot dogs.
Gallagher's Steakhouse at EWR (Newark Liberty International Airport) is by far the classiest joint at Newark Airport, and it serves the same kind of super-heavy, super-prime, super-aged meat you'll find at the original, 81-year-old New York City outlet. We're talking a "medley of seafood" that serves 4-6 people, lobster bisque, Caesar salads and a dry-aged, 18-ounce prime sirloin. On Continental's concourse C, this place is definitely somewhere you can get a first-class meal before a long-haul flight in economy class.
Todd English's Bonfire past security at New York JFK's Terminal 2 and 7 are the best bets among a generally lackluster set of restaurants at this major international hub. At least this celebrity-chef's restaurant tries to be ambitious, with a combination of steakhouse standards and a sort of creative nouveau-Mexican-American cuisine. Steak frites, crab nachos, roasted swordfish and gourmet tacos are on the menu, and prices are pretty high (unless you go for the tacos).
Encounter at LAX ( Los Angeles International Airport) is truly unique, inhabiting a wacky outer-space-themed building all by itself on the airport campus. According to our review, it's "a 1960s Star Trek set gone Technicolor," serving "art-food" (American classics in oddball visual arrangements) that's simultaneously hip and kid-friendly. "At least come up and have a blue cocktail at the lava lamp-festooned bar, because quirky Encounter is worth an encounter," we say.
Ike's Food and Cocktails at MSP (Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport) is spinoff of a beloved forties-themed restaurant/bar in downtown Minneapolis. They've opened a fine-dining steakhouse before security in the Minneapolis airport. The menu is old-fashioned: steaks, a "hot turkey dinner," pot roast, burgers, shakes, and plenty of vegetable sides in thick, buttery sauces. But you can also just enjoy the ambience by sitting at the olde-timey bar and ordering some $10 cocktails. Ike's is in the Lindbergh Terminal "mall," near concourse E.
Ivar's at SEA ( Seattle-Tacoma International Airport) is a branch of one of the most celebrated restaurants in Seattle. Ivar's has been dishing up chowder and seafood since 1938, and while the airport spinoff doesn't have the fishy ambience of the original, it's probably the best restaurant in Seattle's airport. Fish and chips, scallops and chips, clam and chips and chowder are the specialty here, and according to the company, they "use only wild Alaskan deep water halibut, salmon and Pacific True cod caught straight from the Katie Ann vessel." You'll find Ivar's in the central terminal area after security.
Harbor Village and Ebisu at SFO (San Francisco International Airport) have a lot in common: they both serve large bowls of noodles, and they're both in International Terminal food courts, before security. (Harbor Village is in the south food court, Ebisu in the north one.) I've eaten at both, and I admit I'm partial to Harbor Village's Chinese noodle soups, but there's also a strong constituency arguing that Ebisu's Japanese soba, katsu curry and sushi are a superior option. In my mind, either one makes for a decent Pacific-style dinner.