At some point during the last few weeks, many of us have flown somewhere. In fact, it’s been a record-setting year for holiday travel with, according to industry trade group Airlines for America, 45.2 million passengers taking a flight.
While I would like to say that the flying experience has gotten better, we’re still usually reduced to contorting our bodies into uncomfortable positions, fighting for limited overhead luggage space and subsisting on miniature-sized bags of peanuts and pretzels.
But there is one bright spot for frequent flyers: There is new a generation of high-quality restaurants and bars in airports around the country. Some of these establishments are so good that you may actually want to book a stopover. This elite class includes One Flew South in Terminal E of the Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in Atlanta, which offers a first-class cocktail menu, high-quality sushi and a full menu of what it calls “Southernational-Cuisine.” Did I lose you at airport sushi? Don’t worry, One Flew South is so good that it was twice a semi-finalist for a James Beard Award.
But that’s not the only airport restaurant to garner attention. Celebrity chef Rick Bayless is single handedly trying to make your time in O’Hare airport that much more delicious with his three Tortas Frontera bistros. The mini-chain, which is a spinoff of his award-winning downtown spot Frontera Grill, offers a selection of Mexican sandwiches, appetizers, chips and salsa (naturally) and a range of Margaritas made from scratch.
Another chef familiar to food television fans, Cat Cora, has also opened up a string of eponymous airport restaurants in San Francisco, Houston and Salt Lake City. The menus are centered around local organic ingredients, including the seafood dishes and raw bar.
If you’re looking for a different kind of bar, at Portland International Airport there’s a tasting room for local distillery House Spirits, which is open every day. You’ll get to taste the company’s full line spirits, including Westward Oregon Straight Malt Whiskey and Krogstad Festlig Aquavit. You can even try them in a flight of cocktails and buy a bottle to take home.
Even if you’re not looking for a whole meal or a cocktail Danny Meyer is trying to elevate your dash-and-dine options. Over the last few years he’s opened a couple of Shake Shacks in New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport. For breakfast, they even serve a delicious rendition of the classic Big Apple deli staple egg-and-cheese sandwiches. (There are also locations in airports in Kuwait and Dubai and one is in the works for Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson that will open next year.) In the mood for BBQ instead of burgers? At JFK, there’s an outpost of Meyer’s acclaimed Manhattan barbecue restaurant Blue Smoke.
But few airports offer as many good dining options at Minneapolis-St. Paul International. For one, the city’s acclaimed French Meadow, which was the country’s first certified organic bakery back in 1985, offers travelers a menu of its hearty and delicious dishes, including vegetarian chili and sandwiches made to order. There’s also a range of its delectable bake goods, which are very hard to pass up. One of their decadent brownies makes any flight more bearable.
In addition to French Meadow, there’s Surdyk’s Flights in both of the airport’s terminals. Twin City gourmets have been buying cheese and wine at Surdyk’s for decades. Now you can enjoy a fine glass of vino or nosh on some French camembert cheese while you wait for your flight. It’s almost enough to make up for being stuck in a middle seat.