Farm-to-table dining isn’t exactly a concept most people associate with airport food. Long the bastion of fast food chains, for the past several decades airport dining has been more about necessity than the pursuit of a memorable meal.
But that’s all changing, according to industry experts.
The latest trends in airport dining include offering more local brands and ingredients; fresh produce, antibiotic-free meats and organic foods; and catering to a variety of dietary preferences including gluten-free, vegan, vegetarian, kosher, and more.
In other words, the days of airports offering a choice between McDonald’s and Pizza Hut, with an occasional coffee shop added to the mix for good measure, are rapidly becoming a thing of the past.
“Consumers are demanding higher quality food. And their dietary preferences have also changed, there are more people eating vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, and dairy-free,” says Alea Kilgore, strategic partnership manager for Mission Yogurt, a group that recruits new restaurants for airports in Denver, San Diego, and San Jose.
Kilgore is certainly someone who would be in-the-know about the latest trends in airport dining. She shared her thoughts during a few moments of downtime at this year’s Airport Revenue Conference & Exhibition, an industry event billed as the largest gathering of airport decision makers and concession executives of the year.
To be clear, no one is saying that the fast food chains many people continue to love will disappear. Instead, says Kilgore, they too will be updating and expanding their offerings.
“We will still see many of those brands survive. They won’t be going away for good. But there will be more of a local and national brand mixture,” Kilgore continues. “And those bigger chains like Burger King and Wendy’s—we will see them incorporating more local ingredients, and we are going to see them having more dietary preference options because airports are requiring this.”
Kilgore is not alone in observing the seismic shift in airport dining. RewardExpert just released a study on this topic. Titled the 2017 Airport Dining Scorecard, the study involved combing through about 75,000 customer reviews and trawling through menu data for the country’s top 20 airports in order to identify the best airport dining experiences across the nation.
Some of the report’s biggest takeaways include:
–Denver International Airport scored first overall in the RewardExpert ranking for its quality of food offerings. It scored second for affordability and also scored second for a variety of food choices.
–Houston George Bush Intercontinental Airport ranked first for being the best airport for vegetarian and vegan options. (Something of a shocker in a meat-loving state like Texas.)
–LaGuardia, John F. Kennedy, and Newark airports all came in at the bottom of the rankings. The airports are all home to a plethora of low-rated chains and lack a variety of food options.
“There’s a really big movement in airport restaurants to get up to date with the food trends outside of airports,” says Taylor Palmer, an analyst for RewardExpert. “And airport operators are making sure there are more options for travelers…We can really see that these airport owners are trying to reflect what’s happening in the culinary world.”
This effort to make airport dining an experience in and of itself even includes installing many celebrity-chef-driven restaurants—including venues from the likes of the Food Network’s Cat Cora, The Naked Chef’s Jamie Oliver and Austrian chef Wolfgang Puck.
All of which sounds pretty mouthwatering doesn’t it?
So the next time you’re on the prowl for an airport meal, don’t settle on the first fast food chain you come across. Keep your eyes peeled for one of the restaurants listed below, identified by travel industry experts and the RewardExpert study, for being among the top in the nation.
8 First Class US Airport Restaurants
Root Down – Denver International Airport (DEN)
A favorite among Denver residents, (the first location was in downtown Denver) Root Down is an award-winning restaurant known for its field-to-fork offerings that emphasize ingredients from local providers. The airport location of this popular restaurant continues the theme, serving up colorful, globally inspired cuisine for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Chelsea’s Kitchen – Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX)
A restaurant that describes itself as a roadhouse providing high-quality, honest food, Chelsea’s Kitchen gets high marks for its vegetarian and gluten-free options. Some of the most popular menu items include the shredded kale and quinoa salad, short rib tacos, Dixie pan-fried chicken, and the deviled eggs. The restaurant’s ambiance (think great music and calming lighting) is also a big pleaser among weary travelers.
One Flew South – Hartfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL)
Upscale global fare is the theme at One Flew South. And like many of the other restaurants on this list, One Flew South emphasizes premium ingredients provided by regional farms and purveyors. Among the offerings are sushi, cheese plates, pulled-duck sandwiches, salmon hot pots, and potato leek soup.
Aldo Lamberti Trattoria- Philadelphia International Airport (PHL)
Travelers have described Aldo Lamberti Trattoria as the best dining experience they’ve ever had inside an airport and its pizza has received equally glowing descriptions—ranging from the best slice of airport pizza ever to pizza that rivals the best contenders around the country. Run by a family that opened its first location 30 years ago in New Jersey, today the Aldo Lamberti Family of Restaurants includes numerous locations throughout the region. All of them emphasize homemade dishes made from fresh ingredients. The menu includes pizza, salads, sandwiches, pasta, and breakfast.
The Country Cat – Portland International Airport (PDX)
This full-service, farm-to-table restaurant describes itself as a place that reflects the values, tastes, and lifestyles of today’s Northwest customers with a hearty Southern flare. The majority of the produce is hand-picked from a local farmer’s market. Menu items include a variety of rotating dishes such as white wine steamed clams, carrot-ricotta raviolis, and brined and smoked duck.
Bar Symon – Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD)
A restaurant created by the James Beard Award-winning chef Michael Symon, Bar Symon offers yet another take on the farm-to-table craze. Offerings include Symon’s famous mac & cheese, a variety of unique, decadent burgers served with rosemary fries and an extensive list of craft beers and signature cocktails. The restaurant was named one of the Eight Must-Go Airport Bars for the Craft Beer Obsessive by Travel + Leisure.
Petrossian Caviar and Champagne Bar – Los Angeles International Airport (LAX)
In a city of stars, it’s only fitting to have an airport restaurant serving caviar that ranges in price from $60 to $394 per ounce. The Petrossian Caviar and Champagne Bar singlehandedly elevates airport dining to something far, far beyond the days of Burger King and Wendy’s. They even offer caviar picnic packs to go, which include blinis, and crème fraiche in an insulated carry-on Petrossian pouch. Now even your carry-on food can be an airport status symbol.
Cat Cora’s Kitchen – Houston George Bush International Airport (IAH), San Francisco International Airport (SFO), Salt Lake City International Airport (SLC)
For those who’d like to experience a celebrity chef restaurant while passing through an airport, look no further than Cat Cora’s Kitchen. The restaurant focuses on using fresh and organic ingredients to create innovate tapas and cocktails. They also offer fresh local seafood via a raw bar.