Eating at airports is usually a grease-drenched affair sandwiched between sprints to the gate and slogging through security. Now, the same artisanal and fast-casual trends prevailing outside the terminal are making a foray into these longtime fast-food dominions. Celebrity chefs are crafting menus for U.S. airports with local, fresh, and—dare we say it—healthy dishes. Check out our picks for the 10 best chef-driven airport restaurants in the U.S. that have us wondering: Can airport food be saved?
WHERE: Newark Liberty International Airport
Born in Chicago and raised by first-generation Filipino immigrants, Dale Talde creates cuisine that reflects his Asian heritage and American kids’ favorite foods. Talde is a two-time Top Chef cheftestant—culinary TV’s favorite portmanteau—and has turned Food & Wine critics’ heads at Talde, his eponymous restaurant with dishes like halo halo, a traditional Filipino dessert that he tops with Cap’n Crunch cereal. Dale’s food is about as serious as an afterschool snack eaten while watching cartoons, so the dumpling and noodle-centric Little Purse fits right into the terminal environment with buffalo-wing-like Firecracker Dumplings, with chicken and blue cheese; and a modern PB&J in the Peanut Butter &Walnut Buns, with seasonal jam.
INSIDER TIPNewark’s United Airlines terminal is flush with 6,000 iPads for ordering your food.
Cat Cora’s Kitchen
WHERE: San Francisco International Airport, George Bush Intercontinental Airport (Houston), Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport, and Salt Lake City International Airport
In 2005, Cat Cora became the first female Iron Chef on Food Network’s Iron Chef America—a national acclaim that cemented her star-chef status. Raised in Mississippi in a Greek community and mentored by Julia Child, Cora is a fan of fresh and local, which she attempts to pull off in her airport restaurant with a raw oyster bar and fresh catches that appear in lettuce wraps and a hearty fisherman stew. A for effort. If the raw bar falls flat, there’s always one of the restaurant’s signature cocktails: the Ouzotini with ouzo, chilled vodka, and pomegranate and pineapple juices. Getting your food to go? Cat Cora’s Kitchen uses eco-friendly and biodegradable to-go plates, utensils, and boxes.
WHERE: Pittsburgh International Airport, Washington Dulles International Airport, Cleveland Hopkins International Airport
Since Food & Wine named Michael Symon a best new chef in 1998, he’s climbed the rungs of renown with bold flavors, hearty portions, and, as viewers of ABC’s The Chew can attest, lots of cheese (literal and figurative). The Iron Chef’s Bar Symon delivers hearty comfort food in a tap-house setting, with dishes like the Fat Doug, a burger with coleslaw, pastrami, and Swiss cheese; and a potato and cheese pierogi with kielbasa, griddled onions, and mustard sour cream. You might be praying for a layover for a little more time to digest. The third Bar Symon opened in the Cleveland native’s hometown in April 2017.
WHERE: Newark Liberty International Airport
Amanda Cohen, chef/owner of Dirt Candy, a restaurant lauded in the New York Times and Michelin Guide, opened the first all-vegetarian restaurant at a North American airport with Thyme. Cohen, the self-described “veggie queen,” competed in the first vegetarian battle on Iron Chef America. Although veggie-first, Cohen aims to please meat-eaters, too, with dishes like mushroom tacos (Cohen’s specialty), falafel burgers, and purple yam fried “rice” with kimchi, grilled carrots, and sunchoke ratatouille. Hey, it’s probably better than that smashed protein bar at the bottom of your carry-on, right?
Wolfgang Puck Express
WHERE: Logan International Airport (Boston), O’Hare International Airport (Chicago), John Glen Columbus International Airport, Indianapolis International Airport, McCarran International Airport (Las Vegas), John F. Kennedy International Airport (New York), Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, T.F. Green Airport (Warwick, Rhode Island)
Austrian chef Wolfgang Puck has become a marquee chef since he took over Ma Maison in West Hollywood in 1975. These days, when he’s not catering Oscar galas, he’s building a restaurant empire, as the list of Wolfgang Puck Express airport locations attest. Puck is aiming for the United Nations of fast-casual restaurants with a combination of classic French technique with a dash of California freshness and Asian flavors. Example? The Chinois Chicken Salad combines baby greens, pickled ginger, crispy wontons, and ginger-sesame vinaigrette.
INSIDER TIPMeatloaf is a homey staple, but it gets an elevated twist by wrapping it in bacon and smothering it in a port-wine sauce.
WHERE: John F. Kennedy International Airport (New York)
Best-selling cookbook author and media darling Marcus Samuelsson grew up in Sweden and Ethiopia, but he’s channeled America’s culinary roots into restaurants like Harlem’s Red Rooster. At Uptown Brasserie, the James Beard Award–winning chef walks the line between soul food and sloppy with dishes like blackened catfish and grits, chicken and waffles, and the Lower East Side pastrami sandwich.
WHERE: Los Angeles International Airport
Michael Voltaggio’s culinary bona fides include a spot as Food & Wine’s 2013 best new chef, but he earned popular attention as a winner of Bravo’s Top Chef. He achieved both with a modernist approach that blends French technique and innovation. With Sack, however, he stays safely in the airport grab-and-go lane with sandwiches, albeit with a few improvements. For example, a classic BLT gets an avocado-class upgrade, and a pork shoulder Banh mi is topped with bacon rinds for an extra salty crunch.
WHERE: Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport
Washington, D.C.–based chef and three-time Top Chef alumnus Mike Isabella is growing a Beltway dynasty with more than a dozen restaurants in the metro area. Kapnos Taverna has an Arlington, Virginia, location, as well as the airport location. The Greek-inspired tavern may aim for beachside dishes à la Santorini, but the food is still served security-adjacent. Family-style dining is rare in airports, but Kapnos Taverna’s whole lamb shoulder with ancient grain salad is the noteworthy exception if you happen to be traveling to a big, fat, Greek wedding.
INSIDER TIPA second location is slated to open at Baltimore-Washington International Airport in 2018.
WHERE: O’Hare International Airport (Chicago)
What Julia Child did for French cuisine, Rick Bayless helped do for Mexican and Latin American cuisine. For a champion of authentic cuisine, Bayless only serves a dollop of it in his airport diner that focuses on Mexican griddle-baked sandwiches. One of the tortas is stuffed with cochinita pibil, a Yucatan pork dish (we’re wondering if it gets the full slow-cooked treatment). The guacamole bar does up the avocado ante with a “naked” option or toppings like artisan bacon, toasted pepitas, and slow-roasted peppers.
Tortas Frontera’s menu lists the local farms and purveyors where it sources ingredients, including El Milagro stone-ground corn tortillas and Kindred Creamery artisan cheeses.
WHERE: Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport
Andrew Zimmern may have crunched into meals of dung beetles and bamboo rats on episodes of Travel Channel’s “Bizarre Foods,” but the longtime Minnesotan thankfully doesn’t push the taste envelope that far in his airport restaurant, Minnibar. The sandwich shop does, however, reflect the three-time James Beard Award–winner’s well-traveled taste buds. The menu features the Sloppy Ko, with Korean barbecue, kimchi, and a fried egg; a burger with a brisket-blend patty; and an indulgent foie gras dish. Is it still luxurious if you’re wearing a neck pillow as a necklace while eating foie gras?