Fly & dine: Airport restaurants have gone haute

With two kids and a husband in tow, Jenn Lane had arrived early at Denver International Airport for a flight to New Jersey. Then she learned takeoff would be delayed three hours. In the past, her dining options would have been limited to a fast-food chain or expensive “bar food” like nachos or greasy chicken wings.

But Lane had done her homework. She knew that Root Down, one of her neighborhood’s most popular restaurants, was opening a new location in Terminal C. “It’s nearly impossible to get a table at the one near our home, but we’d eaten there and knew the food was great,” she says. “I said, ‘Let’s see if Root Down is open.’ ”

It was. Not only was the family seated immediately, but when they told the hostess they were looking to waste time, they were told to hang out as long as they liked.

Lane and her husband, Steve, ordered several appetizers including Colorado lamb sliders and bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with goat cheese.

“And the children’s menu was awesome,” she recalls. For $9, kids get an entree such as buffalo sliders with sweet potato fries or gourmet mac and cheese with dessert and drink. “The food was as good as the original Root Down and it was money worth spending versus an unsettling pricey hamburger,” she says.

A good meal at the airport? It’s hard to believe but at many, you don’t have to resort to fast food or overpriced grab-and-go fare. Airport restaurants are getting haute. Today’s passengers can expect dining that includes gourmet fare and fine wines. Often, upscale airport eateries are branches of popular local restaurants, some of them by celebrity chefs

Chicago’s O’Hare’s city-centric dining spots include Tocco, Tortas Frontera by Rick Bayless, Tuscany Cafe and Stanley’s Chicago Blackhawks Restaurant.

“Restaurants with a local connection are a way to bring the flavor of the city to an airport,” says Rosemarie Andolino, Chicago Department of Aviation Commissioner, who adds that half the people who travel through O’Hare never see the city. “It’s a way to not only distinguish the airport, but showcase a city.”

So important is food to the travel experience that O’Hare has installed an indoor aeroponic garden. Produce and herbs such as Swiss chard, sweet basil, cilantro, lettuce, habanero peppers, tomatoes and green beans are harvested and used by airport restaurants.

Miami International boasts Beaudevin, a wine bar where you can get a Nickel & Nickel merlot to accompany the spinach and artichoke fondue. Passengers can order a six-ounce filet mignon at Shula’s Bar & Grill, Veracruz-grilled salmon at Top of the Port Restaurant and Caribbean jerk chicken at Lorena Garcia Cocina.

Bobby Van’s, a classic New York steakhouse, now holds court at New York’s JFK airport with a menu that includes Porterhouse, sirloin and ribeye steak, all premium cuts prepared to order. This restaurant even serves a sit-down breakfast with morning entrees such as the Grand Breakfast Sandwich — eggs, bacon, ham, tomato and cheese on challah. Piquillo at JFK’s Jet Blue Terminal 5 is the first authentic Spanish tapas restaurant in the airport.

Reata Restaurant is a Fort Worth institution famous for its cowboy cuisine. Travelers making their way through the Dallas Fort Worth airport can try a sampling of Reata’s Tenderloin Tamales, Carne Asada with Cheese Enchiladas and Reata Rib Eye.

For nearly 17 years Cowboy Ciao has made Scottsdale its home. In 2012, the restaurant opened a Phoenix airport location dishing up cornbread bread pudding, truffled mac n’ cheese, and a petite filet mignon on grilled ciabatta with a cabernet demi-glace and a side of Maytag blue cheese-melted potato chips. Wash it down with one of 50 wines by the glass.

One Flew South is the first upscale restaurant in Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Says Craig Hacklander, vice president of operations, “Not only is One Flew South a pleasant surprise for leisure travelers, but we’ve become a place for regulars who frequent the restaurant two or three times a week and hang with the servers and bartenders.”

“If you look back over the last 10 years, the Food Network has really changed the landscape,” says Reggie Washington, operations manager of One Flew South. “The public is more educated about food. They appreciate it and are willing to pay for a better meal, no matter the location.”

Of course, even the finest of restaurants has to deal with the challenges of its airport environment. “The first question a server will ask is, ‘what time is your flight?’ so we can ‘course’ the food,” Washington says. “Where a normal restaurant might stretch a meal over 90 minutes, we try and get them served, without feeling rushed, in 50.”

Peggy Bendel lives in Tuscon, a city with excellent tortilla soup. Yet the public relations consultant, who connects through Chicago’s O’Hare at least once a month, says the best tortilla soup in the world is at Tortas Frontera, where hometown celebrity chef Rick Bayless serves his modern Mexican dishes. “The broth, fresh queso fresca, cilantro, slices of chicken and crunchy tortilla chips to add as you eat so they don’t get soggy is delicious,” she says. “If my plane is delayed and I can’t get there, I feel cheated.”

Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport plans to roll out dozens of new dining options through 2017 as part of its massive re-do — Air Margaritaville, Tarpon Bend Food & Tackle, serving fresh local fish and other entrees sought after in the restaurant’s downtown Fort Lauderdale location, as well as Sergio’s with its traditional Cuban fare. Other local restaurants setting up shop include Rocco’s Tacos & Tequila Bar, BurgerFi and Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza.

Chefs aren’t just lending their name to airport restaurants. They are engaged in creating the menus to ensure diners find the same flavors whether they’re eating downtown or at the airport.

Silvana Salcido, chef at Barrio Cafe and Barrio Queen in Scottsdale, was skeptical when offered the chance to transform a defunct Wendy’s into a Barrio Cafe at Phoenix International.

“As a chef I was cautious, but optimistic. The restaurant is operated by an airport concessionaire and they bring those skills to the table, but I have to protect my brand, so I set the menu. I go to the airport and work with the chef. I motivate the staff. I am determined to bring street flavor to the airport,” says Salcido Esparza, who called Miami home for nearly a decade. Barrio Cafe serves her famous Cochinita Pibil (pork slow-roasted for 12 hours), a roasted poblano stuffed with dried fruit, nuts, chicken and guacamole prepared tableside. The tiny bar offers one of the largest tequila selections in Phoenix, which is saying something.

“We know passengers are interested in a variety of choices,” says Deborah Ostreicher, deputy aviation director at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport, which serves more than 100,000 passengers a day..

“But what amazes me is many nearby hotels are sending guests here (via a free public light rail) to eat at Chelsea’s Kitchen, Joe’s Real BBQ or LoLo’s Chicken and Waffles in the airport’s pre-security area. The coolest thing is not only the feedback, but the fact that people are actually coming to the airport just to eat.”