The best restaurants in America's busiest airports
The Washington Post August 25, 2022
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.
HARTSFIELD-JACKSON ATLANTA INTERNATIONAL
ATL is a behemoth. Proclaiming itself as the busiest airport in the world, Hartsfield-Jackson saw nearly 37 million passengers in 2021, according to Federal Aviation Administration data. At the hub and home of Delta Air Lines, heaven forbid you try to make a tight connection. That may send you running — or boarding a Plane Train on a 3-mile loop — to one of 192 gates across its seven concourses.
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.
DALLAS FORT WORTH INTERNATIONAL (DFW)
The Texas-sized airport and major hub for Fort Worth-based American Airlines covers nearly 27 square miles between two cities. D Magazine dining critic Brian Reinhart says Terminal D has the best dining options, and travelers can take the Skylink train freely between terminals after they've cleared security.
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.
DENVER INTERNATIONAL (DEN)
A major hub for United, Frontier and Southwest Airlines, DEN is a gateway to the West with a unique fabric roof and infamous conspiracy theories. The central, multistory food court makes travel journalist and beer expert Brad Japhe feel nostalgic. ”It's like the mall food court that you remember from high school, only with cool local breweries,” said Japhe, a regular at DEN.
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.
CHICAGO O'HARE INTERNATIONAL (ORD)
O'Hare's strategic Midwest position makes it a hub for hometown United Airlines and American, with both carriers operating more than 70 gates. Across most terminals, fliers will find hot-dog shops and salad-vending machines from Farmer's Fridge. Not ready for a full meal? Grab some of the city's famous caramel-and-cheddar popcorn mix from Garrett stands in Terminals 1, 3 or 5.
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.
LOS ANGELES INTERNATIONAL (LAX)
It was tough for local experts to name a great place to eat at LAX. Farley Elliott, senior editor at Eater LA and author of "Los Angeles Street Food: A History From Tamaleros to Taco Trucks," said there's no singular spot for travelers beyond the "alt take" of walking or Ubering to the In-N-Out (about a mile away) to eat an iconic burger with planes flying overhead, a la Anthony Bourdain.
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.
CHARLOTTE DOUGLAS INTERNATIONAL (CLT)
One of the largest hubs for American Airlines, CLT is in the middle of a $600 million terminal expansion that will create more room for its famous white-painted rocking chairs. Beer geeks will be happy here, with dedicated bars for local favorites Olde Mecklenburg Brewery, NoDa Brewing Company and Asheville-based Wicked Weed.
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.
Wild card: The Broken Spoke. Freelance writer and whiskey expert G. Clay Whittaker recommends this cocktail bar from local Great Wagon Road Distilling for sampling Charlotte spirits. Concourse A.
ORLANDO INTERNATIONAL (MCO)
Millions of people fly to Orlando every year to visit the self-proclaimed most magical place on earth. But for now, most of the restaurant options are the opposite of enchanting. "The food scene . . . is pretty dire," said AJ Wolfe, owner and executive editor of the Disney Food Blog, who lives in Dallas but visits Orlando once or twice a month. A new $3 billion terminal is expected to open in mid-September, showcasing two-dozen places to eat and drink.
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.
LAS VEGAS HARRY REID INTERNATIONAL (LAS)
Las Vegas' Harry Reid airport has one goal: to get you in and out quickly. It's about two miles from the center Strip, which means you can maximize your time in the city. Al Mancini, longtime Vegas food writer and founder of Neon Feast, says the airport doesn't reflect the city's status as a dining capital. But there are a few spots that serve as gateways to local favorites, including two pizza shops.
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 of 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 at 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.
PHOENIX SKY HARBOR INTERNATIONAL (PHX)
PHX has so many local spots that it's tough for regulars to single out a favorite. Chef Danielle Leoni of Phoenix's Breadfruit & Rum Bar (which closed during the pandemic) says the strong lineup at PHX was a decade in the making. There's an abundance of local desserts — such as Sweet Republic Ice Cream and Tammie Coe Cakes — breweries and sandwich spots like Leoni's beloved Nocawich.
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.
MIAMI INTERNATIONAL (MIA)
Miami is known as a gateway to Latin America and the Caribbean — a status that shows in the food at the airport, which was the country's busiest for international traffic last year. Find ceviche, empanadas, oxtail, stone crabs to go (in season) and so many Cuban restaurants that it might be tempting to embark on a croqueta crawl before catching a flight.
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.
SEATTLE-TACOMA INTERNATIONAL (SEA)
Sea-Tac is the primary hub for Alaska Airlines and a big waypoint for Delta. The airport's one central terminal is nearing the finish line of a nearly $22 million renovation. Recent years have already seen the addition of Hawaiian-style poke bowls, barbecue and a Filson store (for the lumberjack in your life).
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.
HOUSTON GEORGE BUSH INTERCONTINENTAL (IAH)
Highway-bound Houstonians might not bat an eye, but the drive to Bush is a hike north of the city's outer loop. IAH is a hub for United and welcomed back Southwest flights in 2021 after a 16-year absence. It's massive and full of flashy vendors, but many Texans would tell you to hit the regional fast-food favorite: Whataburger.
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: Breakfast Klub Express. 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. There's also a sit-down location on the other side of the terminal with a bigger menu and a full bar. 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.
NEW YORK JOHN F. KENNEDY INTERNATIONAL (JFK)
With more than a million travelers passing through every month, New York City's main international airport has a range of recognizable chains and restaurants by well-known chefs. But despite being in one of the best food cities in the world, JFK doesn't inspire visitors to write home about any of the meals they tried in the airport's sprawling eight terminals.
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.