The best airports around the country for food and drink

Posted April 28, 2018 12:08 p.m. EDT

It was a revolutionary idea: Have travelers' experience of a city begin when they land at the airport. Instead of McDonald's and Panda Express, why not have restaurants that reflect the culture and breadth of a city's offerings? San Francisco International Airport was an early adopter. In fact, it had a long history of extra deliciousness at the end of the runway (see: Pancake Palace in the 1960s and 1970s), but it was really when the International Terminal opened in 2000 that things got nuts, with 17 restaurants opening, outposts of notable names in the nine Bay Area counties. Andale, Ebisu, Firewood Grill -- there were some compelling reasons to spend time in the airport. Not all of them stood the test of time, but it heralded a paradigm shift at airports around the country.

Terminal 5 at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport may be the acme. Opened in 2008, it brought an avalanche of options, from sushi at Deep Blue, to the French classics at Brasserie La Vie, the crazy vaulted-ceiling, wine-cellar look of Spanish-style Piquillo and the suave Italian dishes available at Aero Nuova.

So, what makes an airport's restaurant offerings exemplary? Range of cuisines that cover all the price tiers, authentic local or regional flavor (but with a couple of familiar chains -- oh, Cinnabon, you fragrant siren -- so the timid aren't spooked), celebrity chef fairy dust and a mix of places you can gulp-and-go in 30 minutes as well as those for leisurely layovers where you're earnestly considering that third glass of wine.

Herewith is my official but highly unscientific list of the best airports for dining. Dispute me if you must, and there are certainly airports I've missed in my travels. (Yeager, Buffalo Niagara International and Hobby, I'll get to you.)

Beyond SFO and JFK, serious high marks go to Chicago O'Hare, where it is largely the Rick Bayless show. He's got Tortas Frontera with locations in Terminals 1, 3 and 5, which traffics mostly in Mexican sandwiches that merit focus and napkins. Long lines, but great margaritas, fresh guac and lots of local suppliers. Also at O'Hare, in Terminal 3, Publican Tavern opened in 2016, a second outpost of the popular Fulton Market restaurant.

In recent years Washington, D.C., has emerged as a notable food city, so it should come as no surprise that Washington Dulles International Airport has stepped up, spreading the good stuff between Concourse D (Bar Symon from The Chew co-host Michael Symon, Bistro Atelier from restaurateur Hakan Ilhan) and Concourse B (the Vino Volo tasting room showcasing Virginia wines and small plates), but local food fans will be well served by Chef Geoff's in Terminal C.

Dallas/Fort Worth International is a big, sprawling airport (fourth biggest behind Atlanta, Los Angeles and O'Hare), so it makes sense that the food options are ridiculous. Four barbecue places, nearly 10 Mexican outposts, so much craft beer I wonder if they've had to install more airport restrooms. The D Terminal is the bomb: French fare at Whitetail Bistro by Kent Rathbun; Stampede 66 Express from Stephan Pyles, a founding father of Southwestern and New Texas cuisines; Italian Kitchen by Wolfgang Puck. The list just keeps on going.

Let's not forget the magical draws at Minneapolis-St. Paul International, from Shoyu (really excellent ramen, very soothing for the aviophobic, as well as smart sushi and Japanese-inflected sandwiches) to the glorious pastries, muffins and brownies at certified organic French Meadow in Concourse F (if you go to Dunkin' Donuts instead you need to examine your values) and the Food Truck Alley on the main mall in Concourse E (head for the gyros and hummus at Holy Land Deli). Beer fans, aim for Mill City Tavern on Concourse G. The airport added 15 new restaurants, mostly local brands, as the first phase of a huge expansion, with 30 to 35 more yet to come.

And then there's Los Angeles International, hard to fault on the strength of its New Tom Bradley International Terminal (New TBIT), a super-glam $1.7 billion facility with dining options that range from Neapolitan pizzas at 800 Degrees at LAX (from Umami Burger founder Adam Fleischman), to Michael Voltaggio's ink.sack (not sure about that name, but check out the banh mi) to where the one percenters go: Petrossian, for caviars, 20 vodkas and luxe Champagnes (oh, and you can get a little caviar-to-go pack for the plane, natch).

Tampa is keeping pace (see our main story), but St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport, you have got to get your head in the game. Last time I was there? A sad serving of reheated chili in a cardboard cup, and even crunched-up saltines couldn't sweeten the deal. Let's say PIE is cleared for takeoff.

Contact Laura Reiley at or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.