October 1, 2022

Advice | The best restaurants and bars at America’s busiest airports

A respectable airport restaurant is like a port in a storm. If you’ve made it through security with your dignity intact, and your flight wasn’t canceled, you’ve got time to kill and a reason to treat yourself. If you’re away from home, you’ve got one last chance to experience the culture of a different city, even if it’s the mall food-court version.

Desperate travelers will settle for less — a bag of trail mix from Hudson News, a ridiculous Starbucks concoction or a salad snatched from a refrigerated shelf. But even in the corporate wasteland of the airport, there’s quality to be found. Many of today’s shiny new terminals include classic hometown restaurants and notable chefs from the cities they’re in.

Concourse concessions come with concessions, of course. Just like at pro sports stadiums, giant management companies license restaurant names, which means you might get a watered-down version of a signature recipe. When you’re wearing airport goggles, big chains start to look better because consistency equals dependability — but we’re imploring you to go beyond the Chili’s Too.

For your preflight checklist, we consulted local experts — including food and travel writers — to get their recommendations at the 13 busiest airports in the country. We solicited input from readers, considering almost 600 responses. At each airport, from Atlanta to Denver to Los Angeles, we included one leisurely sit-down option, one quick-serve counter and wild-card picks full of craft beers, desserts and more local classics.

We hope you packed your appetite.

Sit-down

One Flew South

One Flew South has been widely credited with transcending its airport digs. There’s contemporary Southern cooking, a sushi menu and a sleek dining room full of Georgia pine. “What you really want to do is get a seat at that front bar,” says food critic John Kessler, who spent 18 years with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “They’ve always had incredible cocktails.”

Concourse E

Quick-serve

Paschal’s

Paschal’s dates back to a luncheonette that opened in 1947 and became a gathering place for leaders in the civil rights movement. Kessler praises it for fried chicken that’s “not too bready” and “not too greasy,” as well as baked chicken, collard greens, black-eyed peas and “perfect sugar rush candied yams.” Expect to see a wide mix of Southerners (and pilots) in line.

Concourse B

Wild card

Piece of Cake

If your taste in comfort food leans sweet, consider grabbing a triangular hunk of moist layer cake from this longtime Atlanta bakery. Kessler is partial to the two-tone pink strawberry.

Concourse A

Sit-down

Cantina Laredo

It’s a chain with locations in 14 states and Abu Dhabi, but Cantina Laredo has deep Dallas roots. The prolific Cuellar family, also known for pioneering Tex-Mex chain El Chico, founded the brand in 1984. A pared-down airport menu includes fajita platters with fresh flour tortillas, artichoke heart enchiladas and a mango tres leches cake.

Terminal B and Terminal D

Quick-serve

Sonny Bryan’s

Texas Monthly barbecue editor Daniel Vaughn is leery of airport barbecue because the majority is cooked off-site and trucked in, but he said that shouldn’t deter you from ordering the signature giant onion rings at Sonny Bryan’s Smokehouse. If you can’t pass up smoked meat, go with a chopped beef sandwich.

Terminal E

Wild card

Flying Saucer

Since the mid-1990s, this Dallas-area “draught emporium” has grown into a chain of craft beer bars with locations in Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee and North Carolina. Customers who drink every beer offered at a location get their own golden saucer on the wall.

Terminal D

Sit-down

Root Down

With 4.5 stars across nearly 4,000 Google reviews, Root Down is a local favorite for American comfort food such as breakfast burritos, burgers and even a raw vegan menu by request. Chef Rick Bayless, who runs the celebrated Tortas Frontera at Chicago O’Hare, recommends the cocktails. “You can only drink so many gin and tonics, and this place actually has a real bar program,” he said.

C Gates

Quick-serve

Snarf’s Sandwiches

Family-owned Snarf’s Sandwiches has run its original location in Boulder, Colo., since 1996. Snarf’s makes sandwiches from French dips to artichoke-and-feta with fresh bread that’s baked daily. You’ll also find salads, soups, desserts and a kids menu for “Snarflettes.” For a little edge, order something from the “secret” “Not-on-the-menu” menu.

A Gates

Wild card

Great Divide Brewing

Between the handful of breweries and many restaurants with local beers on tap, DEN makes it easy to sample Colorado’s best beers. Don’t miss Great Divide Brewing, Japhe’s favorite brewery in Denver. As far as the beers go, “a little goes a long way,” Japhe said. “They tend to make beers that are super high ABV … you only have to have one instead of three.”

C Gates

Sit-down

Berghoff Cafe

For Kessler, now the food critic for Chicago Magazine, seeing workers at Berghoff slice corned beef and pastrami with an electric knife always makes him think of his dad. The wood-covered cafe representing the century-old Chicago staple also serves panini, wraps, personal pizzas and its own line of German beers.

Terminal 1, Concourse C

Quick-serve

Tortas Frontera

Food writers and frequent fliers agree: Bayless’s Mexican sandwich shop makes some of the best airport food anywhere. Kessler recommended adding a protein to a guacamole Cobb if you don’t want to eat a telera roll. Dishes are assembled to order, so you’ll have to wait (or order ahead).

Terminal 1, Concourse B; Terminal 3, Concourse K; Terminal 5, Concourse M

Wild card

Gold Coast Dogs

Go for a classic Chicago dog with all the trimmings. Purists may frown on the griddled “char dog” preparation of the Vienna Beef frank, but they can order an Italian beef sandwich.

Terminal 3, Concourse L

Sit-down

Border Grill

If forced to choose a place inside the airport, Elliott picks Border Grill, a Mexican restaurant inspired by a now-closed Santa Monica staple of the same name. The menu offers a contemporary take on home cooking of Oaxaca and the Yucatán. Tacos, quesadillas, burritos and “Border Grill Bowls” are served at the full bar or boxed up to go.

Tom Bradley International Terminal

Quick-serve

Slapfish

When Javier Cabral, editor in chief of L.A. Taco and an associate producer for the “Taco Chronicles” on Netflix, is down to splurge on an airport meal, he gets the lobster roll at Slapfish, a chain from Southern California that serves sustainable seafood. “Its buttery bun and fries will set you up for the best nap of your life in the airplane afterward,” he said.

Terminal 2

Wild card

Santa Monica Brew Works

For a taste of the local beer scene, Japhe recommends Santa Monica Brew Works. “They have beers that are fit for the environment — they’re beachy,” he said.

Tom Bradley International Terminal

Sit-down

Captain Jack’s Tavern

This is the airport branch of Olde Mecklenburg, which gets credit for kicking off Charlotte’s craft brewing scene. “They’re the OG brewery in Charlotte and do really great German-style beers,” said North Carolina-based food and travel writer Jenn Rice. Taps pour Copper amber ale and the Captain Jack pilsner, but food choices are limited to a few wraps and sandwiches.

Concourse E

Quick-serve

Bojangles

Founded in Charlotte in 1977, this fried-chicken chain enjoys cult status across the southeast, but especially in its home state. Cavity-inducing sweet tea, Cajun-spiced fries and crisp biscuit sandwiches call out to travelers with hangovers. “It’s never not amazing,” Rice said.

Concourse B; the Plaza

Sit-down

Cask & Larder

This “farm to terminal” spot comes from married chefs James and Julie Petrakis, who are also behind the Ravenous Pig in Winter Park and the Polite Pig at Disney Springs. “They’re kind of Orlando restaurant royalty,” Wolfe said. The menu is Southern — think shrimp and grits, chicken and waffles, and fried green tomatoes — with wine, cocktails and house-brewed beers.

Terminal A-B, Concourse 2

Quick-serve

Zaza

Breakfast, lunch and dinner — and espresso-packed colada all day — are available at this Cuban cafe near Gates 30-59. The Orlando area is home to five other locations of the family-owned chain, and while the airport menu is scaled down, travelers can still get classics such as black bean soup or a Cubano sandwich with roast pork, ham, Swiss cheese, pickles and mustard.

Terminal A-B, Concourse 3

Wild card

Bahama Breeze

The corporate parent for this national chain of “island grilles” is based in Orlando. While the city is far from Florida’s beaches, the restaurant offers tropical favorites such as coconut shrimp, jerk chicken, pina coladas, mojitos and margaritas.

Terminal A-B, Concourse 4

Sit-down

Metro Pizza

If you didn’t make it to Vegas institution Metro Pizza during your trip, you can grab a slice before your flight. New York natives Sam Facchini and John Arena opened the first location in 1980. Mancini says while the airport experience isn’t quite the same as getting Metro Pizza in town, the dough and other ingredients are the same high quality from executive chef Chris Decker.

Terminal 3

Quick-serve

Sammy’s Woodfired Pizza

Sammy’s is a Vegas and Southern California chain with “serious California pizza cred,” Mancini said. While the menu is more limited than its two other locations in the city, you can still get Sammy’s popular LaDou’s barbecue chicken pizza before your flight.

Terminal 3

Wild card

Ethel M Chocolates

You can pick up a last-minute souvenir or gift from the airport outpost of this chocolatier based in Henderson, Nev. If you are on your way into Vegas, let this be your introduction. You can visit the factory and its cactus garden — the largest in the state.

Terminal 1

Sit-down

Matt’s Big Breakfast

Even though airports operate on a clock of their own, all-day breakfast isn’t common. Then there’s Matt’s Big Breakfast, whose in-town locations are featured on Guy Fieri’s Food Network shows. Online reviewers vouch for the waffle, breakfast burrito and bloody mary, but Leoni says “get yourself anything from Matt’s — best fried eggs. Best pancakes. Best coffee.”

Terminal 4

Quick-serve

La Grande Orange

For wood-fired pizza, salad and wine, Leoni goes for the airport version of La Grand Orange, a Phoenix general store/pizzeria/breakfast spot. At Sky Harbor, you can also get breakfast sandwiches and burritos or artisan gelato, or follow Leoni’s lead with one of their sourdough pies. “They actually make the pizza there,” she said. “You can watch them.”

Terminal 3

Wild card

Cartel Roasting Co.

Skip Starbucks for this southwestern chain from wife-and-husband founders Amy and Jason Silberschlag. Cartel roasts its own single-origin coffee, but Patricia Isabel Escárcega, a freelance journalist based in L.A. and former Phoenix New Times dining critic, stops by for its specialty teas (like the prickly pear iced tea) and pastry case.

Terminal 4

Sit-down

Spring Chicken

The restaurant group behind high-end fried-chicken chain Yardbird — which originated in Miami Beach — run this fast-casual concept. Kareem Tabsch, a documentary filmmaker who lives in Miami and travels about every other week, goes here when he has time to sit down for a meal. Travelers can opt for sandwiches, tenders or a salad, “so it really depends on my level of health,” Tabsch said.

North Terminal, Concourse D

Quick-serve

Café Versailles

An iconic gathering place in Little Havana, Versailles has five locations at MIA. “I often will want to make a beeline to Versailles at the airport,” Tabsch said, but the “massive line” can be a deterrent. His go-to order: iced café con leche with almond milk, ham croquetas and pan de bono or a Cuban sandwich.

North Terminal, Concourse D; Central Terminal, Concourse E Satellite and Concourse F

Wild card

Icebox Cafe

A Miami Beach mainstay for more than two decades, Icebox offers wraps, pizzas and bowls with global flavors and loads of grab-and-go items, including a variety of desserts.

North Terminal, Concourse D

Sit-down

Africa Lounge

Zebra print seat backs and a faux elephant head above the bar signal this isn’t your average sports bar. In addition to “super nachos” and chicken wings, customers can order spicy beef sambusas (stuffed pastry) served with jollof rice and plantains. Local beers from Mac & Jack’s are on draft, including the flagship African Amber with a lion on the label.

A Gates

Quick-serve

Floret

Café Flora, a long-running vegetarian hangout in Seattle, sprouted this airport counter that makes its own cinnamon rolls, grain bowls, black bean burgers and portobello mushroom French dips. Gabe Guarente, an editor for 6am City’s SEAtoday newsletter, likes to go for the Stumptown coffee. “It’s just better than going to Starbucks and waiting on the extremely long lines,” he said.

A Gates

Wild card

Beecher’s Handmade Cheese

A standby in Seattle’s famous Pike Place Market, Beecher’s serves customers grilled cheese sandwiches and bowls of mac and cheese made with its Flagship (15-month aged cheddar). “What you get at the airport is a pretty good approximation of what you’d get anywhere else,” Guarente says.

C Gates

Sit-down

Pappadeaux

The “Pappa” is for Pappas, the Greek American family of restaurateurs behind some of the state’s favorite brands; Pappadeaux (Cajun and Creole) and Pappasito’s Cantina (Tex-Mex) are two of the top picks in IAH or DFW. Pair your po’ boy with boozy French Quarter-style drinks such as the Swampthing: frozen margarita and hurricane swirled with raspberry and melon liqueurs.

Terminal E

Quick-Serve

The Breakfast Klub

Houston’s go-to for early-morning soul food, The Breakfast Klub is primarily known for two dishes: wings and Belgian waffles, and fried catfish and grits. A sit-down location with more breakfast staples and a full bar includes an “express” option for carryout.

Terminal A

Wild card

Hugo’s Cocina

James Beard Award-winning chef Hugo Ortega is hawking less elegant fare than you’ll find at the flagship Hugo’s in Montrose. At the airport you can dig into a queso flameado skillet with skirt steak and rajas, or a mushroom and cheese torta that will satisfy vegetarians.

Terminal D

Sit-down

The TWA Hotel

From the moment you arrive at the mod hotel in a restored 1962 flight center, “it’s like entering the film ‘Catch Me If You Can,’” said Ben Setiawan, a Brooklyn-based travel and food writer. There’s a food hall with NYC staples (Bagels! Jerk chicken! Mister Softee!), a cafe by Jean-Georges Vongerichten and the Connie Cocktail Lounge, built inside a Lockheed Constellation airplane.

Terminal 5

Quick-serve

Shake Shack

Is it a big chain? Yes. But it started as a small hot-dog stand in Madison Square Park back in 2001. For many travelers, Shake Shack has the only food worth eating at JFK. “If I have a morning flight, I’ll treat myself to a breakfast sandwich with sausage,” Setiawan said.

Terminal 4

Wild card

Eat & Go New York/Istanbul

You can get overwhelmed by the volume of choices in the Eat & Go display case. Avoid decision fatigue and beeline for the honey-soaked baklava.

Terminal 1

About this story

Editing by Amanda Finnegan and Gabe Hiatt. Art direction, design and development by Katty Huertas. Additional development by Junne Alcantara, Garland Potts and Irfan Uraizee. Design editing by Rachel Orr. Photo editing by Monique Woo. Copy editing by Carey L. Biron.