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.
Chicago O’Hare International Airport (ORD): Tortas Frontera
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 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: With little time to spare, you can’t go wrong with the margaritas and guac’. But if you’re going to be a while, order the namesake specialty, griddle-baked Mexican sandwiches filled with your choice of beer-braised beef, chipotle chicken, garlicky shrimp and goat cheese.
Portland International Airport (PDX): Rogue Ales
Concourse D: With locations across both Newport and Portland, Rogue Ales’s outpost in PDX is among the chain’s most convenient. Here, this family-friendly pub has all its notables on tap: the Dead Guy Ale, Shakespeare Outmeal Stout, Hazelnut Brown Nectar, among others, served alongside Kobe cheeseburgers and fish n’ chips. Don’t forget to pack an empty growler — they fill those too.
What to Order: Half-pound Kobe Cheeseburger, Mahi Mahi Fish and Chips or the Bleu Ball Breakast Sandwich (served from 5:00 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.) of eggs and kobe meatballs, stuffed with Rogue Creamery blue cheese.
Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (AUS): Salt Lick BBQ
Gate 10: For one last taste of authentic barbecue, hit up Austin’s famous BBQ institution, Salt Lick, located in Gate 10. 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 pure 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. The chain’s beloved recipe combines sweet sauce with a slow smoke, and pairs superbly with potato salad.
Denver International Airport (DIA): Root Down
C Gates: Located at the heart of Denver International Airport’s C Gates, Root Down’s open layout is an abbreviated version of the Denver 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. At the airport, Root Down conjures up a retro 1960s vibe, with repurposed basketball court flooring and a wall of growing herbs to sprinkle in organic elements.
What to Order: Colorado Ranch Meatballs, served with balsamic blueberries, creamed corn, pickled okra, pole beans, quicas, and jalape?o pesto. Or try the Lemon Ricotta Gnocchi, served with roasted mushrooms from Colorado’s Hazel Dell Farm, a poached egg, English peas, Piquillo almond pesto and bacon vinegar.
Miami International Airport (MIA): Cafe La Carreta
Terminal E: The busy Miami International Airport boasts few comforts, 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” cooking evolved from the pre-takeover culture of Little Havana.
What to Order: It’s a no-brainer: the Cuban sandwich. Wash it down with the chain’s signature Cuban espresso to avoid a calorie coma.
Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport (ATL): One Flew South
Terminal E: As the busiest airport in the country, Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport has many mouths to feed. 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. Alternatively, head the other direction with refined sushi rolls.
Los Angeles International Airport (LAX): Real Food Daily
Terminal 4: Stale food options don’t mix well will LA’s health-obsessed culture; fortunately, you can indulge in the latter now that the city’s popular “organic vegetable-based” restaurant, Real Food Daily, 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: Drink green juice, or do the macrobiotic Real Food Meal consisting of brown rice, beans, greens, and a variety of vegetables. Real Food Daily also makes a mean bahn mi.
Minneapolis–Saint Paul International Airport (MSP): Surdyk’s Flights
Terminals 1 and 2: Since opening in 1934, the family-run Surdyk’s has become a Twin Cities institution for fine 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
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
Concourses A and B: 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, jalapeños and hot sauce. And a side of cajun fries, of course.