Airport Dining Soars to New Heights

Elevated offerings are turning airports -- and airport hotels -- from food deserts into food destinations

Hilton Amsterdam Airport Schiphol

Everyone who travels has been there. You're en route to Los Angeles, New York, London, or Tokyo. Your flight is delayed. Or, perhaps you've got a lengthy layover. Either way, you find yourself stuck in an airport with time to kill, pacing the concourse with an empty stomach in search of sustenance. Sadly, your options are scant: a stale bagel with cream cheese, a bag of chips or licorice from the newsstand, a bland deli sandwich, a slice of pizza if you're lucky, or a Big Mac from McDonald's -- the only "restaurant" you can count on. In a world so full of delicious dining options, it's a depressing scenario.

Fortunately, it's a scenario that's rapidly changing. With people all over the world becoming more interested in where their food comes from, how it's prepared, and what flavors it represents, a growing number of airports are evolving their food-and-beverage approach from one that's focused on convenience to one that's focused on quality.

At Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), for example, hangry travelers can soothe their stomachs with a sandwich from ink.sack, a sandwich shop from Top Chef alumnus Michael Voltaggio, with options like the Frenchy, featuring turkey, brie, fruit chutney, arugula, and mayo; and the Banh Mi, with pork shoulder, caramelized onion spread, bacon, pork rinds, pickled vegetables, jalapeños, and cilantro. Meanwhile, at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport (ORD), passengers can nosh on tortas from Tortas Frontera, a Mexican sandwich shop conceived by celebrity chef Rick Bayless, whose creations include the Choriqueso, with chorizo, poblano rajas, artisan Jack cheese, and avocado, and the Pepito, featuring braised beef short rib, artisan Jack cheese, pickled jalapeño, cilantro crema, black beans, and wild arugula. At New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) you can get a gourmet burger from Danny Meyer's Shake Shack, and at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) you can dine at One Flew South, a James Beard Award-nominated restaurant with dishes like the Benton's Bacon & Goat Cheese Salad, featuring frisée lettuce, basil poached pear, and pink peppercorn vinaigrette, and Lamb Ragout with Rigatoni Pasta, featuring lamb, shiitake mushrooms, peas, carrots, and ricotta salata cheese.

"What I think a lot of people have done in settings like airports is to go for the absolute lowest common denominator -- so if one person says, 'I don't like spicy, don't make anything spicy,' nothing on your menu should be spicy," Bayless said in a 2014 interview with QSR magazine. "We said, you know what? There are all these people out there who want spicy food, garlicky food, full-of-flavor food. They want it to be made with good ingredients. I don't feel like I need to appeal to 100 percent of the people walking down that [airport] corridor. I just want the people that want our food. And there are a lot of them out there."

Thanks to Bayless and other airport innovators like him, travelers no longer loathe spending time in airports. Sometimes, they even love it. In fact, overall passenger satisfaction with the airport experience averaged 731 points on a 1,000-point scale, up significantly from 690 points in 2010, according to the J.D. Power 2016 North American Airport Satisfaction Study.

The increase is due in large part to better food and beverage, according to J.D. Power and Associates.

"Many airports, especially the nation's largest airports, were never built to handle the current volume of traveler traffic, often exceeding their design limits by many millions of travelers," says Michael Taylor, director of the airport practice at J.D. Power. "Yet airports are overcoming infrastructure limits by affecting the things they can influence. Airports are successfully applying technology to improve check-in, security screening, and the food, beverage, and retail shopping experiences."

Indeed, passenger satisfaction with airports' food, beverage, and retail shopping experiences has increased 10 points in the last year alone.

"The opening of new, innovative restaurants can drive traveler satisfaction at airports," J.D. Power observes. "One such example is the opening of a new tapas restaurant at Dallas/Fort Worth International, which [improved] 15 points in the food and beverage factor."

Their transformation from food deserts into food oases means that airports aren't just pit stops anymore; increasingly, they're destinations unto themselves. In response, airport hotels likewise are upping their game, according to Shawn McAteer, vice president of global brand management and full service brands at Hilton Worldwide, which pioneered the airport hotel concept when it opened its first airport hotel in San Francisco in 1959.

"The traditional, old-school, two-story airport hotel is becoming a thing of the past," explains McAteer, who says airport hotels are no longer reserved for one-night stays by travelers with next-morning flights. "Airport hotels traditionally were designed for convenience; our focus now is on creating a destination, and food and beverage is obviously a really important part of that."

According to Hilton, which in 2016 published a blue paper on "The Rise of the Airport Hotel," more than 8 million people travel by air every day, which has fueled a significant increase in room demand at airport hotels, from an average of 55 million room nights in 2010 to 65 million in 2015.

And yet, most travelers continue to describe airport hotels as "boring," "expensive," "crowded," and "outdated," reports Hilton, which is changing public perception by infusing its airport hotels with next-level food and beverage concepts that defy stereotypes. A common concept across many Hilton properties, for example -- including those at airport locations -- is Herb N' Kitchen, a 24-hour restaurant and market specializing in fresh, local gourmet food, including salads, sandwiches, flatbreads, and regional specialties that can be enjoyed onsite or, thanks to a grab-n-go option, in one's room. Along with standard fare like croissants and turkey sandwiches, dishes include Soy Glazed Grilled Salmon Salad, Prosciutto and Arugula Panini, and Hand Made Chicken Pot Pie. Or, there's Hilton's newest concept: an as-yet-unnamed restaurant that will serve quick lunch and dinner options around a central bar.

Both concepts are perfect for airport hotels, according to McAteer, because they introduce the elevated flavors and ingredients that travelers crave while maintaining the convenience for which airport hotels are known.

"We're moving away from the traditional three-meal sit-down restaurant and embracing the mobile/social trend that's becoming common in food and beverage," McAteer says. "Things like Herb N' Kitchen are great because they offer convenient, easy access, but they've got a great menu. There's substance to them."

While individual travelers will be drawn to concepts like Herb N' Kitchen, groups are looking for concepts that give them a taste of the city center -- even when they're meeting outside it. At the Hilton Amsterdam Airport Schiphol (pictured above), for example, Axis Lobby & Cocktail Bar offers one of the largest selections of gin in the Netherlands, while Bowery Restaurant offers three open kitchens from which guests can order dishes that are prepared à la minute and plated in front of them.

"The drink from which gin evolved was from the Netherlands, so [Axis Lobby & Cocktail Bar] is a not to gin's Dutch birth," explains McAteer, who says Bowery also has a local slant because "they get their produce locally from Dutch suppliers and farmers."

Local flavors and experiences similarly thrive at the Hilton Chicago O'Hare Airport, the Hilton Mumbai International Airport, and the Hilton Beijing Capital Airport. The first offers the Gaslight Club, which features live music and fine dining in a restaurant styled after a 1920s-era speakeasy; inspired by the Playboy Clubs that got their start in Chicago, it employs "Gaslight Girls" who serve guests steakhouse fare in period attire. The second has the Crystal Lounge, which is styled after a maharaja's 19th-century summer palace, and the Brasserie, which is known for its midnight buffet serving a variety of international cuisines, including Indian specialties like kebabs. Finally, the third has Yue Shang, Beijing's only five-star Sichuan-style restaurant.

"We're trying to bring in a more authentic local flavor to the food-and-beverage experiences at airport hotels," concludes McAteer, who says the next generation of airport hotels are bringing cities to meeting groups as much as they are bringing meeting groups to cities. "If you have an option to do more things near the airport versus having to go downtown, you might be more apt to select an airport hotel. It's a matter of bringing the things you want to do closer to where you prefer to stay."

If what you want to do is eat good food: Rejoice, and bid your pre- and post-flight Big Macs "adieu."