Buying Guide
By Kelly O'Reilly
on 8.22.14
Photo by Eric Yang, Henry Phillips

Aside from having a poor track record, airport restaurants face the additional challenge of welcoming harried travelers enduring layovers, delays and the general toil of contemporary air travel. But airports have upgraded their dining options beyond fast food and grab-n-go to include satellite outposts of local restaurants and higher quality sit-down options. While airports have yet to become actual dining destinations — we’re not meeting friends at LaGuardia for dinner — we’re in the midst of a gentle culinary renaissance at some of the country’s biggest hubs. From ‘cue to sushi, here are the best airport restaurants in the country.

MORE GP DINING: 25 Best American Restaurants | The Texas BBQ Trail | Interview with Morten Sohlberg, Restaurateur

Chicago O’Hare International Airport (ORD): Tortas Frontera

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Terminals 1, 3 and 5 The country’s second busiest airport, located smack center of the U.S., hosts thousands of travelers every day, and food vendors abound. If you can make it to Terminals 1, 3, or 5, your stint at O’Hare will be made infinitely better with a stop for excellent Mexican at Chef Rick Bayless’s Torta Frontera. The airport location serves up the great flavors for which Bayless has become famous in the Midwest and beyond, expedited for the airport bustle.

What to Order: You can’t go wrong with the margaritas and guac, and if it’s going to be a while to wait, get the namesake specialty, griddle-baked Mexican sandwiches filled with your choice of beer-braised beef, chipotle chicken, garlicky shrimp and goat cheese, or short ribs.

Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (AUS): Salt Lick BBQ

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Gate 10 For one last bit of barbecue before you leave, hit up the airport outpost of Austin’s famous BBQ institution, Salt Lick. Consistently ranked among the city’s best — no small feat, considering the competition — the restaurant (with two other locations, in Driftwood and Round Rock, both just outside the city) has a sauce that’s addictive and an atmosphere that’s all Texas. While the terminal-side alternative doesn’t offer the same bucolic setting amidst rolling hills, your meat’s still served up to the highest Salt Lick standards.

What to Order: Salt Lick brisket is the way to go (when in Rome). Their beloved recipe combines sweet sauce with a slow smoke, and pairs superbly with potato salad.

Denver International Airport (DIA): Root Down

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C Gates If you find yourself waiting or passing through the gateway to the West, try the wildly popular local favorite, Root Down. Located at the heart of Denver International Airport’s C Gates, the open layout is an abbreviated version of the flagship, serving up the same diverse, “field-to-fork” menu. Chef/Owner Justin Cooper made sure the terminal spot had the same quirky aesthetic as the original Highlands location, which is housed inside an old gas station (sister restaurant Linger transformed an old mortuary up the street). At the airport, Root Down conjures up a retro 1960s airport vibe, with repurposed basketball court flooring and a wall of growing herbs to mix in some organic elements with the oddball ones.

What to Order: Colorado Ranch Meatballs, served with balsamic blueberries, creamed corn, pickled okra, pole beans, quicas, and jalapeno pesto. Lemon Ricotta Gnocchi, served with roasted mushrooms from Colorado’s Hazel Dell Farm, poached egg, English peas, Piquillo almond pesto and bacon vin.

Miami International Airport (MIA): Cafe La Carreta

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Terminal E Passing through the Miami International Airport might be one of the most miserable travel experiences you can have, but there’s an oasis amid the madness. The family-owned Cuban joint Cafe La Caretta brings a small ray of light to your stint at MIA in the form of “abuela style” cuisine evolved from the pre-takeover culture of Little Havana.

What to Order: It’s a no-brainer: go for the Cuban, of course, and wash it down with the chain’s signature Cuban espresso.

Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport (ATL): One Flew South

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Terminal E As the busiest airport in the country, Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport has a lot of people to please. Not skimping on Southern hospitality, they opened the city’s most acclaimed fine-dining restaurant, One Flew South, to give visitors and passers-through a taste of what they call “Southernational” cuisine, comprised of ingredients from pimento cheese to bok choy. Perhaps the country’s closest thing to a culinary destination inside an airport, One Flew South is separated from the terminal rush by a wood-slat wall, and a massive photo backdrop transports you to a forest of Georgia Pines — with a bar.

What to Order: Go full-on dirty South with the open-faced meatball sandwich topped with pimento cheese, BBQ sauce, bacon, sautéed spinach and a fried egg, or head the other direction with sushi rolls.

Los Angeles International Airport (LAX): Real Food Daily

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Terminal 4 Stale airport options and LA’s health-obsessed culture do not mix; you can indulge in the latter now that the city’s popular “organic vegetable-based” restaurant has joined the airport roster. Founder Ann Gentry’s dedication to the green food movement and healthy dining serves both the terminal and tired, sweaty travelers well.

What to Order: Go so LA and get some green juice, or do the macrobiotic Real Food Meal consisting of brown rice, beans, greens, and a variety of vegetables. Or just get a banh mi.

Minneapolis–Saint Paul International Airport (MSP): Surdyk’s Flights

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Terminals 1 and 2 Since opening in 1934, the family-run Surdyk’s has become a Twin Cities institution for the finest wine and cheese. Now that it runs two satellites in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport, aficionados from afar have an easier way to drop in. At the Buy and Fly market, you can stock up on grab-n-go sandwiches from the restaurant menu for your flight, or pick up a bottle of wine for your hosts when you arrive. Terminals 1 and 2 house sit-down restaurants for wine flights, antipasti, salad, and solid sandwiches.

What to Order: The Minneapple panini is stacked with turkey, brie, apples, red onion and lingonberry sauce; for breakfast, try a bacon-and-egg panini or a freshly baked pastry.

John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK): Shake Shack

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Terminal 4 For its size and location, JFK is lacking in up-to-par culinary options. You can get sometimes solid sushi at Deep Blue in JetBlue’s Terminal 5, but who wants to play hit or miss while rushing to make a flight? No, you want the fan favorite Shake Shack, which has grown into a ground-beef giant since its inception as an NYC food cart in 2000. There are two in Terminal 4.

What to Order: If you’re leaving or returning to the U.S., a Shackburger and fries are comforting choices.

Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD): Five Guys

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Concourses A and B This one just slipped into the “best of” rankings on account of the hometown affiliation. While Five Guys now has more than 1,000 locations in the U.S. and Canada, its roots are in the DC metro area. On top of that, Five Guys is a better-than-average choice in terms of the quality of ingredients and slightly more wholesome preparation methods (fresh ground beef, fries cooked in pure, cholesterol-free peanut oil, nothing frozen) so it’s a step up from your standard fast food. Finally, and this is the clincher, a standard burger comes with two patties.

What to Order: Bacon burger with lettuce, tomato, ketchup, grilled onion, jalapenos and hot sauce… with a side of cajun fries of course.

Portland International Airport (PDX): Pok Pok

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Coming Soon This one isn’t open yet and has yet to even be officially confirmed, but if we can start an airport restaurant revolution by the power of suggestion, then we’re going to try our best. According to recent news reports, the Portland International Airport will expect as many as 30 new food venues throughout its terminals, including the city’s beloved Thai restaurant, Pok Pok.

What to Order: Like we said, we may be getting ahead of ourselves here, but we’re anticipating some phat thai, papaya salad, khao soi rice noodle soup with coconut milk, and one of our favorites, their pork laap salad.

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