Airport dining has come a long way in the past few years. Sure, there are still many airports where you can't do better than a Whopper. But airport restaurants have woken up to their captive audiences, and they're starting to offer real food for real flight delays: quality ingredients, local flavor, and interesting concepts.
It was surprisingly easy to find 10 high-quality airport restaurants this time around, and more are coming. Restaurant managers Delaware North have partnered with the Food Network to bring celebrity chefs' dishes to more airports, for instance. But I still have a soft spot for airport outposts of local favorites, and you'll find those on this list, too.
The following list is in order of city, not order of preference. Add your favorites to the comments -- I stopped at 10, but you don't have to.
Atlanta (ATL): I've heard about people being trapped in Atlanta for days, so we might as well go classy. One Flew South (www.oneflewsouthatl.com) in Terminal E is the first fine-dining restaurant at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta airport, with a strange yet interesting mix of Southern and Asian influences: pork belly with black-eyed peas versus seaweed salad and a sushi bar. With a full selection of cocktails, you can kick back here for a few hours and pretend you're not in an airport.
Baltimore (BWI): There seems to be a small cult around Obrycki's crab-cake sliders. Tucked next to Gate B11, this outpost of the 60-year-old Baltimore crab house is even open during the winter when the main restaurant is closed. It has a full casual-style menu, but really, stick with the crab, which the place offers in about a dozen different ways.
Boston (BOS): Legal Sea Foods (www.legalseafoods.com) is part of an international empire, which makes some people a little suspicious. But Boston is where the empire started, so think of this particular Legal as a hometown favorite. According to our review, Legal "enjoys an international reputation for serving only the freshest, best-quality fish, and shellfish, which it processes at its own state-of-the-art plant … and it's all splendid." There's actually a different Legal concept in each Logan terminal. Terminal A, after security, has Legal's Test Kitchen (shortened menu, fast delivery). Terminal B, before security, has Legal C Bar (lots of beer options along with the usual menu) and Terminal C, before security, has the traditional restaurant.
Chicago (ORD): The master of Mexican food, Rick Bayless is one of the nation's most celebrated chefs. So I was thrilled when he opened Tortas Frontera in O'Hare's Terminal 1 (with a second outlet coming to Terminal 3.) According to Bayless, this Mexican sandwich joint uses the same fresh bread as his downtown eatery Xoco, which he then layers with beef, pork, chorizo, guacamole, and other top-notch ingredients. The result is hot, luscious, and slightly messy.
New York (JFK): JetBlue's new Terminal 5 has more high-quality dining than some entire airports. It's almost not fair, considering that certain other JFK terminals are practically food deserts. It's hard to make a pick from Terminal 5's broad offerings, but we'll go with Deep Blue Sushi, because it has the pedigree of Manhattan restaurant Buddakan behind it. Lovers of cooked food, don't worry; this is a full-service Japanese restaurant, with meat, fish and tempura as well.
New York (LGA): Delta recently redid their LaGuardia terminal with an entire high-end food court where it's hard to lose. There's a full steakhouse (Prime Tavern) and a French bistro (Bisoux) but if you're on the run, it's hard to beat a good burger. Custom Burgers by Pat LaFrieda gives you the same meat you'd get at the sit-down Prime Tavern for a lot less dough, along with milkshakes from the local Ronnybrook Dairy.
Los Angeles (LAX): Encounter at LAX (www.encounterlax.com) is truly unique, inhabiting a wacky outer space-themed building all by itself on the Los Angeles International Airport campus. According to our review, it's "a 1960s Star Trek set gone Technicolor," serving "art-food" (American classics in oddball visual arrangements) that's simultaneously hip and kid-friendly. "At least come up and have a blue cocktail at the lava lamp-festooned bar, because quirky Encounter is worth an encounter," we say.
Minneapolis (MSP): Ike's Food and Cocktails (www.shopsatmsp.com) is a spinoff of a beloved 1940s-themed restaurant/bar in downtown Minneapolis. They've opened a fine-dining steakhouse before security in the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. The menu is old-fashioned: steaks, a "hot turkey dinner," pot roast, burgers, shakes, and plenty of vegetable sides in thick, buttery sauces. But you can also just enjoy the ambience by sitting at the old-timey bar and ordering some $10 cocktails. Ike's is in the Lindbergh Terminal "mall," near Concourse E.
Raleigh, NC (RDU): According to one Yelp reviewer, "You have to eat at 42nd to really be a Raleighite." OK, OK -- so head to the Raleigh-Durham International Airport outpost of the 42nd Street Oyster Bar ( www.42ndstoysterbar.com), which is the best you'll get at Raleigh's airport. You'll get big, messy seafood dishes -- shrimp you have to shell yourself, shrimp 'n' grits and briny, unrinsed oysters. Take time, and bring napkins.
Seattle (SEA): Ivar's (www.ivars.com) is a branch of one of the most celebrated restaurants in Seattle. Ivar's has been dishing up chowder and seafood since 1938, and while the airport spinoff doesn't have the fishy ambience of the original, it's probably the best restaurant in Seattle-Tacoma airport. Fish and chips, scallops and chips, clam and chips, and chowder are the specialties here, and according to the company, they "use only wild Alaskan deep water halibut, salmon, and Pacific True cod caught straight from the Katie Ann vessel." You'll find Ivar's in the central terminal area after security.
Have you found a great airport restaurant worth flying to? Tell us in the comments below.