Used to be eating at the airport meant food courts, candy bars and maybe a sorry piece of last minute fruit. With current airport security measures requiring travelers to arrive a minimum of two hours before their departure time and airlines serving less on board, travelers have more time and a greater need to eat at the airport. Sandwich shops have replaced hot dog stands, sushi restaurants in the place of fast food joints, and TGI Fridays have replaced those no-name breakfast joints that serve cafeteria-style eggs, bacon, home fries and impish apples. And finally, a recent movement from some airport management corporations obligates airport restaurants to charge the same prices as their off-airport sister shops - a welcome reprieve from the escalating cost of travel.
You can find one of the better food experiences at the Philadelphia International Airport. The busy airport just 15 minutes from the city's center, PIA just added over 100 restaurants, eateries and shops to its clean and easy-to-maneuver state-of-the-art airport facility. The range of food offered at the Philadelphia Marketplace (tel. 215/937-1200; www.philamarketplace.com) includes those less-than-healthy items like cheese steaks and Krispy Kremes, plus less pedestrian options like a full-blown sushi restaurant and wine bar. In between you'll find barista carts, European-style bistros, a rock 'n' roll themed pub and a restaurant called Jet Rock Bar and Grill that serves over 48 types of beers on tap.
For some of the best home-cooked airport fare, the Memphis International Airport (tel. 901/922-8000; www.memphisairport.org) has some excellent southern cooking. From fried chicken to barbecue, the small airport makes sure you won't be hungry for airline food on any flight, whatever the length. Jim Neely's Interstate Bar-B-Que (tel. 901/922-2587; www.jimneelysinterstatebarbecue.com) situated at Gate B-14 serves some of the best BBQ in town. One of the fathers of contemporary Memphis BBQ, Neely became a legend in Memphis for his secret sauce, pulled and sliced pork sandwiches and beef ribs. If you like it so much but don't have room to carry it on, Neely's can deliver to anywhere in the world. For fried chicken and great Southern breakfasts, Memphis family-style restaurant PK's Cafe serves good grub including grits in the main terminal. If you're in a hurry, you can always grab a bite at the now-standard airport McDonalds or Kentucky Fried Chicken. Look for the Blue Suede Service, airport volunteers walking around in royal blue vests there to help you find any airport service, including food, you're looking for.
El Paso International Airport (tel. 915/780-4749; www.elpasointernationalairport.com) is another small airport receiving high marks for its cuisine. With five sit-down Tex-Mex restaurants, a coffee shop specializing in coffees from South of the border, and a fast food taco joint not named Taco Bell, the airport food in El Paso makes flight delays much more manageable. The Sun City Bar and Grill and Tortilla Flats Bar and Grill serve up delicious burritos and quesadillas.
And take note, if you're traveling to or from Seattle-Tacoma or Baltimore-Washington International airports, thank any airport employee that you see. Airport management in those two venues have prohibited vendors from charging more for food in their airport locations than they do at their off-airport sites. In Seattle (tel. 206/728-3000; www.portseattle.org), the Asian influence with the proximity to the Far East is clear. Maki of Japan and the Manchu Wok serve Japanese and Chinese fare respectively. The Baltimore/Washington International Airport (tel. 800/435-9294; www.bwiairport.com) has restaurants that specialize in crab delicacies. O'Brians Restaurant and the Fell's Point Brew Pub both serve excellent sit-down meals. Better yet, the Flight Deck Café is a beautiful place to scope out the take off and landing scene and watch the big and small planes come and go. If you're with kids, the Observation Gallery has a 147-foot long window.
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