Eating in the airport used to mean standing under a “Snack Bar” sign and choosing between sad-looking hot dogs on rollers and rock-hard Super Pretzels. Maybe if you were lucky, you got a Pizza Hut. Now? Now eating at Wolfgang Puck’s restaurant seems basic, as everyone from celebrity chefs to James Beard winners are opening up spots in our nation’s busiest airports. The problem now isn’t finding good food. It’s figuring out where to eat. To help you along the way, we’ve found the best place to eat at DFW, O’Hare, Atlanta, and the rest of the nation’s busiest airports.
1. One Flew South — Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta
This upscale restaurant in the world’s biggest airport was the first critically acclaimed American eatery to open inside a terminal. The menu varies from southern to sushi to good ol’ comfort food. And, sure, maybe a giant plate of grass-fed meatloaf isn’t exactly the stomach-soothing entrée you want to be downing before flying 16 hours to Johannesburg. But on the off, OFF chance you end up with an unexpectedly long delay at ATL, a leisurely meal here makes it a lot more pleasant.
2. Salt Lick Barbecue — Austin-Bergstrom
Near Gate A16
Austinites do love their food lines, so don’t even think about stopping at the airport outpost of one of Austin’s most famed BBQ joints if you didn’t arrive super early. No, there won’t be any beer drinking or impromptu concerts on this line either. But once you finally reach the promised land, order the brisket; it’s the odd airport food item that tastes just as good in the concourse as it does at the original.
3. DuClaw Brewing Company — Baltimore-Washington International
Near Concourse B
One of Baltimore’s most popular local breweries is good for more than just sipping on Sweet Baby Jesus peanut butter porter and Hellraiser IPA. The food here is classic brewpub fare, with stuff like flatbreads, burgers, and crab pretzels. Because Maryland. There might be slightly better food elsewhere in BWI, but for an eating and drinking experience, this is the clear-cut choice.
4. Dine Boston — Boston Logan International
Local restaurants in airport terminals isn’t a new trend. But perhaps no airport restaurant in America gets as local as this one where rotating Boston chefs create different menus based on seasonal ingredients. So unless you live in the area and travel regularly, you can try something different from top local chefs every time.
5. 1897 Market — Charlotte Douglas International
Atrium between Concourses A and B
The lure of Bojangle’s is strong at CLT, we know. But if you want something that won’t raise your cholesterol five points before you even get to the gate, head to this bustling market in the grand atrium. Enjoy the rocking chairs and piano performances with the best selection of stuff at Douglas, from carved meats to oysters to pizzas, along with a full bar with a surprisingly impressive selection of small-batch bourbons.
6. Tortas Frontera — Chicago O’Hare International
Terminal 1, Concourse B; Terminal 3, Concourse K; Terminal 5, Concourse M
It has been called by many the best airport restaurant in America, and the best part about it is you don’t even need to sit down and look at a menu to enjoy it. Though you’ll often find a line at Rick Bayless’ Mexican sandwich shop, you’ll still be in and out of here faster than at any sit-down place, with locations in three different terminals. Grab yourself a Cubana with smoked pork, bacon, and chipotle, or a Choriqueso with chorizo, jack cheese, and avocado. Then head to the gate, and make everyone sitting with a big bag of McDonald’s jealous.
7. Whitetail by Kent Rathbun — Dallas/Ft. Worth International
You gotta hand it to the folks at DFW: They know most American travelers will, at some point, end up with a massive delay here. So they created a D terminal with better restaurants than a lot of cities. The best of the bunch is this one from celebrity chef Kent Rathbun, a French restaurant with a heavy Texas twist. Think bobwhite quail on Johnnycake with sausage gravy, or sweet pepper lacquered crispy duck. It’s about as fancy eating as you’ll get in an airport, and it might make you a little disappointed if your connection leaves on time.
8. Root Down DIA — Denver International
If you’ve got a long layover and it’s a typically sunny day in Denver, head over to the Hotel and Transit Center and enjoy the sprawling patio at Grill and Vine. Assuming you don’t have time for a full tour of the airport, though, the food at Root Down is impossible to beat. Grab a front row seat to big windows on the tarmac and order up some Colorado lamb sliders with harissa aioli and wash it down with something from the most impressive cocktail menu of any American airport restaurant.
9. Crave Robata Grill and Bar — Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County
The iconic Detroit food is the Coney Dog — a hot dog covered in chili, onions, and maybe cheese. Quick and delicious? Yes. A wise idea before getting on a plane? Depends on your Rolaids situation. For something far more considerate to your plane mates head here, where grilled meats without nitrites are served alongside tempura, sushi, and other Asian favorites that are much more long flight-friendly.
10. Casavana Cuban Cuisine — Ft. Lauderdale-Hollywood International
FLL is a popular off-airport for Miami, which means in addition to getting a blast of humidity as soon as you step onto the jetway, you’re also getting some fantastic Cuban food. If you want a pretty authentic flavor of South Florida, hit this place where you’ll find all the Cuban staples like tostones, vaca frita, milanesa de pollo, croquetas, and of course Cuban sandwiches in abundance. Just don’t expect to feel light and fluffy on your flight home.
11. Hugo’s Cocina — George Bush Intercontinental
Hugo Ortega is Houston’s hottest name in Mexican food, as this James Beard award-winner has some of the most critically-acclaimed Mexican restaurants in America. And lucky you, you can try one without even having to leave the airport. His IAH outpost has a menu that stands up to anything he’s got in the city, with camarones al ajillo with avocado-tomatillo salsa, and carne brava steak covered in rajas being the best bets.
12. Five Borough Food Hall — John F. Kennedy International
Okay, granted, this doesn’t exactly help narrow much down in terms of exactly where to eat. But look, we’re all adults here, so sometimes you gotta make your own decisions. And this place is just flat out cool. Inspired by the city’s food trucks, the restaurants that populate this 3,500 square foot space serve food out of hollowed-out vehicles, making it feel a little like a Manhattan street corner minus the smell. Tacos, Thai, falafel, and all the great international foods you’ll find in the city are here, plus a full bar carved out of a 1966 VW Bus.
13. Kombu — LaGuardia
Though you might be disappointed to find this isn’t just an accidentally-misspelled emporium of pepperoni pizza bites, given the general quality of food at LaGuardia, you can’t really be disappointed by anything here. This Asian spot in the culinary oasis that is Terminal C has a menu designed in part by Chuko’s Jamison Blankenship. So order up a big bowl of the spicy tonkotsu ramen and some pork gyoza on the side, and you’ll forget all about the packaged snacks you were hoping for.
14. 800 Degrees — Los Angeles International
Tom Bradley Terminal
The Tom Bradley Terminal is like the big asterisk on the general awfulness of LAX, the lone place where one feels like they’re in an airport that’s been renovated this millennium and home to all the best restaurants. Picking one really depends on what you’re in the mood for, but this outpost of one of LA’s top pizza places cooks your pizza in less time than it takes to heat up airline food. And it has all the wood-fired goodness you’d expect from, well, a trendy LA pizza place.
15. Metro Pizza — McCarran International
Let’s be honest, if you find yourself departing out of the Las Vegas airport, odds are you’ve subsisted on a diet of vodka, cigarette smoke, and regret for the better part of the last 72 hours. And nothing will soak up all three of those and make you feel better like a big slice from one of the best pizza joints in Vegas. Though it doesn’t offer the variety of the in-city locations, this Metro Pizza does offer a big, greasy slice of Sunday hangover cure. Let the responsible eating begin when you get home.
16. Spring Chicken — Miami International
Though Miami hasn’t really been “southern” since they stopped pronouncing it “Mia-muh,” this fast-casual fried chicken joint just past security comes from the same people behind one of the country’s best Southern restaurants at South Beach’s Yardbird. Here you’ll find the same chicken you would at the big restaurant, served in sandwiches, strips, and quarter-birds. Plus, fresh-made lemonade and the best biscuits you’re finding at any airport, anywhere.
17. Smack Shack — Minneapolis-St. Paul International
Going to Minnesota for lobster might seem like going to Florida to ski, but taste the lobster roll at this spot in the Airport Mall and you’ll completely rethink that assumption. The seafood here isn’t limited to the northeast either, with a solid fried shrimp po’ boy and lobster mac and cheese also on the menu. Or go for the lobster hollandaise scrambled egg sandwich if you’re here early in the morning.
18. Dale Talde’s Little Purse Dumpling House — Newark Liberty International
United’s sexy new terminal finally gave EWR food to brag about, drawing the likes of Top Chef alum Dale Talde to open up multiple spots inside. This dumpling house makes fairly quick, not-gut-busting creative dumplings for a delicious twist on the Asian classic. Try the peanut butter and walnut buns or the firecracker blue cheese and chicken dumplings. If you can’t get enough of Dale, head to his nearby Caps Beer Garden for suds from all over the planet.
19. Cask and Larder — Orlando International
Winter Park, Florida may well be the best suburb in America for first-rate food. The airport’s nowhere near Winter Park, don’t get excited. But the restaurant that put it on the culinary map upped and moved into Terminal 2 at MCO, bringing their southern specialties like shrimp and grits and Nashville hot chicken with them. Sitting under the plant-covered canopy you’ll almost forget the plane full of five-year-olds screaming “WHEN ARE WE SEEING NEMO?” you flew on to get here.
20. Tony Luke’s — Philadelphia International
Philadelphia is one of the best restaurant towns in America, but what’s the FIRST thing visitors get as soon as they get there? Cursed at by locals, probably. But after that, a cheesesteak. So the airport should be no different. Even though PHL has put a ton of cash into some really inventive and delicious new concepts like Bar Symon and Baba Bar, well, Tony Luke’s is cheesesteak heaven. And if you’re in town, even just to change planes, you’d be remiss if you didn’t have one.
21. Blanco Tacos and Tequila — Sky Harbor International
Perhaps the greatest thing about the burrito at this little window in Terminal 4 isn’t the hot grilled chicken, the caramelized onions, or the cilantro rice. It’s that at a reasonable-yet-filling size it’s something you can grab and finish before boarding, even if American did screw you with delays and you’ve only got 20 minutes to make your connection. The tacos here are first rate too, with carne asada and baja chicken as the must-trys.
22. Napa Farms Market — San Francisco International
Terminal 2 and International Terminal
Gate for gate, SFO might have the best restaurant selection of any airport in the country, so unless you’re opting for Smart Pop at the CNBC store it’s hard to go wrong. This market highlights the best of agriculture-heavy northern California, with cheeses, wines, and vegetables all sourced from farms in the area. Offerings here include pizzas, sandwiches, and salads all with the farm-fresh taste one comes to expect when dining in San Francisco. Plus you can get in and out quickly with the same quality food you’d get in restaurants.
23. Ivar’s Fish Bar — Seattle-Tacoma International
Central Terminal just after security
Ivar’s original chowder house on Elliot Bay spawned a local institution, which is why it’s an absolute must-try if you find yourself at Sea-Tac. Go for the famous chowder in a big bread bowl if you’re feeling hungry. The smoked salmon on pretty much anything is best for a lighter meal, or opt for the fish and chips if you don’t count calories on travel days.
24. Kapnos Taverna — Ronald Reagan Washington National
For such an important airport, Reagan is relatively small, but the limited selection here is surprisingly hard to choose from. Kapnos wins for its impressive selection of Greek wines served alongside delicately grilled kebabs, souvlaki, and seafood in a relaxed setting that’s a welcomed break from an airport that always feels jammed. It’s the brainchild of local celebrity chef (and another Top Chef alum) Mike Isabella, who has an entire food hall in Tysons Corner to master this kind of small-space, high-quality cuisine.
25. Chef Geoff’s — Dulles International
Dulles isn’t overflowing with options, though the pre-security District ChopHouse is probably the fullest meal you’ll find. Still this local favorite from, as you might guess, Chef Geoff Tracy serves upscale American fare in a chic, sleek environment that feels like eating at a DC hotspot in the middle of the airport. Go for the blackened fish tacos or the madras curry chicken if you want something a little different.