At San Francisco International Airport, Cat Cora restaurant overlooks the runway and the Bay Area hills behind it.
I'm cutting into a $40 steak with a four-cent plastic knife. The knife isn't even painted silver to offer an illusion of metallurgy; it's as white as paper and just as sharp. The steak — deeply charred, oozing pink juice and smelling of iron and earth — patiently mocks me as I massacre it with my contemptible tool.
I'm in Terminal 5 at New York City's Kennedy airport, the first of four stops I'll be making on a coast-to-coast tour of America's best new airport restaurants. As the in-flight meal goes the way of the go-go-booted stewardess, airports are filling the void with dining options that are considerably more ambitious than the usual eat-and-run-to-the-gate fast-food and snack spots. It's about time: As ballparks, music festivals and street carts have haute-ified their food in recent years, American airports have been stuck in a rut of cellophaned sandwiches and restaurants with names ending in "Xpress." (Everyone's in such a hurry, these places seem to say, that there's no time even to spell out the names.)
The recent boom in serious airport food is great news for early birds like myself, who must be at the gate at least an hour before departure — lest the airline decide, for the first time ever, to run ahead of schedule. On my four-airport restaurant marathon, I plan to arrive for each flight a few hours early to mimic the experience of a long, agonizing delay. But the simulation won't be necessary; Murphy's Law will grant me more than enough time to eat well.
New York City's John F. Kennedy International Airport
When it opened in 2008, JFK's Terminal 5 became the undisputed leader of this new era of preflight pampering. All of its restaurants are run by OTG Management, an "airport food and beverage operator" with projects in eight airports across the country (including my final stop, New York City's LaGuardia) and many more on the way (up next is Minneapolis–St. Paul). There's the loungey sushi bar (Deep.Blue), the high-end steak house (5IVESTEAK), the Spanish tapería (Piquillo), the modern-Italian trattoria (Aero Nuova) and the petit Parisian brasserie (La Vie), each with a menu designed in consultation with a talented local chef.
With its vaulted, tiled ceiling, Piquillo looks like the inside of some modernist wine cellar, an ideal hiding spot for waiting out a delay. I sit at the bar and order a sampling of tapas and Spanish sandwiches that evoke the food that chef Alex Raij cooks at her two excellent Manhattan restaurants, El Quinto Pino and Txikito. My meal includes creamy croquetas and a flight-friendly bocadillo of serrano ham on a tomato-rubbed baguette; less portable but equally delicious is a fried-calamari sandwich with spicy mayonnaise.
I gave up on finding a decent glass of wine in an airport years ago, but the Terminal 5 restaurants share a cellar some 300 bottles deep. However, even a 1999 Pétrus ($2,400 at 5IVESTEAK) wouldn't have made it any less frustrating to try cutting my dry-aged, bone-in rib eye with a plastic knife. I have a much easier time with 5IVESTEAK's excellent hamburger, which is made from a blend of short rib, brisket and chuck from status butcher Pat LaFrieda and arrives cooked as ordered: medium-rare! In an airport! (Note to travelers: You can't dine in Terminal 5 unless you possess a JetBlue ticket or a TSA badge. It took a credentialed — and patient — escort to get me through security.)
I leave Terminal 5 to catch my plane to San Francisco in Terminal 2. There, I have just enough time to grab provisions for my flight from two of the terminal's sleek new kiosks. Both are set among a sea of iPad-equipped tables from which you can order food and play games (or, if you're me, check flight delays and turbulence reports). The first, Croque Madame, offers an anytime menu of fast French food — crêpes, quiches, sandwiches and salads — from chef Andrew Carmellini (a Food & Wine Best New Chef 2000). I order the namesake sandwich to go and hustle over to Bar Brace (pronounced BRA-chay) for a few very good bruschette and a roasted-beet salad, both recognizably from consulting chef Jason Denton's Lower East Side restaurant, 'Inoteca, and an artichoke-and-fennel panino on par with those he serves at his West Village spot, 'Ino.
I scold myself for not allowing enough time to try more from each restaurant, especially a drink from Croque Madame's promising cocktail menu. But the gods of the sky decide to help me out: Two hours later, after an undiagnosed electrical problem and a long, hot wait in runway purgatory, I'm back at Croque Madame nursing a nerve-restoring drink called the Avant (gin and tonic with lemon, muddled grapes and basil) and my equally cold (but still tasty) sandwich. Soon, a gate attendant announces that mechanics were "unable to locate the problem" on my plane, "so we're going to give this thing another try." I order another drink.
San Francisco International Airport
When I reach the San Francisco airport for my departing flight the next day, I pass a TSA-looking guy yelling something about mops and buckets into his phone as I head into the terminal. Inside, there's ankle-deep water and chaos everywhere. A construction crew has broken a pipe, and the security-line equipment has gone dark. Anticipating another day of waiting, eating and more waiting, I walk over to Terminal 2, which opened in April and houses the airport's best food spots.
The Napa Farms Market looks like a miniature Ferry Building (indeed, both share the same architects) and, again like the Ferry Building, it sells many of the Bay Area's best local products. Acme Bread and Cowgirl Creamery share a counter next to the barista-staffed Equator Coffees & Teas, a local roaster. The Market also houses a Vino Volo wine bar and bottle shop; travelers can taste through a flight of Napa Cabernet before grabbing bottles from the California-heavy shelves to take home as souvenirs. A salesperson tells me I'm allowed to bring aboard "as many bottles as you can carry." I push this policy to the extreme.
In the back of the Market are two takeout counters. Tyler Florence's Rotisserie, an outpost of his Napa restaurant, serves fat, fluffy waffles at breakfast and rotisserie chicken with market-driven sides for lunch and dinner. There are a couple of high tables in the Market, but this is very much a grab-and-go spot, which is too bad, as my juicy, crisp-skinned chicken is worthy of a slow, time-wasting meal with a glass of wine. Next to Rotisserie is Live Fire Pizza, where I attack a lox-and-cream-cheese pie, its crackery crust tossed and baked to order — a welcome departure from the precooked slices one typically finds in an airport food court.
At the end of the terminal, I sit at the counter of Cat Cora, which overlooks the runway and the Bay Area hills behind it, providing a more serene dining setting. The restaurant is a good place for fresh seafood, which becomes extremely apparent when the lobster sitting in an ice-packed case in front of me waves his claw. "He just got here," says the chef behind the counter, dispelling what I thought might be a jet-lagged hallucination. "He'll be lobster mac and cheese soon." I'm tempted, but ultimately I order a half-dozen oysters and a Farmer's Market Bloody Mary (made with fresh tomato juice and basil) instead.
Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport
I love the Atlanta airport. The concourses are lined up in a row, A through E, connected via a long underground tunnel. It's impossible to get lost here.
My destination is Concourse E, where the sleek One Flew South resides. Hidden from the bustle behind a slatted wooden wall, its interior is dominated by a calming photomural of a Georgia pine forest.
One Flew South is actually two restaurants, with two different menus, run by chefs who are much more involved in day-to-day operations than their consulting peers. There's a long marble sushi bar from which chef Allen Suh serves pristine nigiri and familiar maki rolls. The other menu, from chef Duane Nutter, pulls flavors from Japan and fuses them with Southern dishes. I start with a fragrant bowl of chicken noodle soup: The chicken is from nearby Ashland Farm, the noodles are soba and the broth is scented with five-spice powder. A sandwich comprised of smoky Benton's bacon, tomatoey tomatoes and crisp frisée on crusty ciabatta is the best BLT I've had in years. Given the constraints of airport restaurant cookery (tiny kitchens, endless security checks, chef knives tethered to their stations with chains), the quality of the food is nothing less than remarkable.
One Flew South's bar alone is worth the trip to the concourse. In addition to cult whiskeys like Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve, it serves about 30 by-the-glass pours and as many sub-$50 bottles, and the cocktail menu is anchored by properly mixed classics. As I sip a bourbon, I can't imagine a better place to wait out a delay. (Did I mention my flight was delayed again?)
New York City's LaGuardia Airport
LaGuardia is quickly catching up to JFK, its Queens sibling, with a growing roster of restaurants spun off from local favorites. I have extra time to plan my final stretch of eating as I sit on the runway in … Baltimore. That's right: LaGuardia's infamous Friday afternoon traffic has brought our plane to Maryland to wait its turn to land.
When we finally deplane in Terminal D, I pass another outpost of Bar Brace on my way to Bisoux, where consulting chefs Lee Hanson and Riad Nasr have recast the menu from their Manhattan restaurant, Balthazar. This airport iteration looks nothing like the gilded Soho brasserie, but it still serves a respectable onion soup and steak frites. Nearby, there are signs for the upcoming Crust from pizza guru Jim Lahey; Minnow, a seafood restaurant from Andrew Carmellini, is also in the works.
Whereas JFK's restaurants are optimal for sit-down meals, LaGuardia's excel at elevated food-court eating. Tagliare serves Sicilian and thin-crust pizzas under the direction of Dominick DeMarco Jr. whose father runs Brooklyn's iconic slice joint Di Fara. I order a fat slice of baby-artichoke pie and walk to the next counter, Custom Burgers by Pat LaFrieda. Here, beef from LaFrieda (who else?) is packed into craggy patties ordered via touch screen. As the name implies, Custom Burgers lets you tweak your order to the limits of your imagination; I get mine Southern-style with fried pickles and barbecue sauce, and I make sure to get crinkle-cut fries and a velvety chocolate shake for good measure. I find a table away from the rabble of Friday travelers and lay out my spread. I eat slowly and deliberately. After all, I've got no more flights ahead of me and all the time in the world.
After four days and several times as many meals, I have come to a conclusion: Airport dining has improved enormously over what it was just a few years ago — and it's only going to get better. Grab-and-go standards like burgers and pizza are now on par with the best of their non-airport counterparts, and I found a proper cocktail or glass of wine at every hub. But until someone invents a silent intercom system — or a plastic knife that cuts $40 steaks — a true I'm-not-in-an-airport eating experience will still be elusive (though Atlanta's One Flew South comes pretty close). This is OK, though: I would miss a lot of flights if it weren't.
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