THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Gourmet to go gives new zest to dining in the air

Email|Print| Text size + By Michelle Higgins
New York Times News Service / March 5, 2008

Airline food has gotten so bad that Padma Lakshmi, cookbook author and host of "Top Chef" on Bravo, often heads to the airport with a container full of spinach leaves and leftovers like grilled chicken, along with a separate container of dressing. Once on the plane, "I put it together and shake it up," she said.

And Nina Zagat, co-founder of the Zagat restaurant survey, travels with her own pepper mill and the fixings for an elegant sandwich. "I usually bring the best smoked salmon I can find and very thinly sliced whole-grain bread, and I put that together on the flight," she said.

For travelers who don't want to make their own meals, a host of new dining choices at America's airports now offers an alternative to the dried-out turkey sandwiches or unappetizing snack boxes that airlines sell on most domestic flights.

With hot meals in coach virtually gone, airport terminals are filling the void (and tapping a captive market) by presenting better and healthier food choices, often with takeout services.

Instead of just outlets of McDonald's, Panda Express, and other fast-food standards, airports are now offering organic salads, local barbecue chicken, and even small bottles of chilled wine, complete with screw tops, that passengers can bring onboard (although Federal Aviation Administration rules technically forbid the consumption of alcohol not served by the airline).

At the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, travelers can choose from an 8-foot-long refrigerated counter full of pre-made sandwiches, salads, waters, and juices at the SweetWater Draft House, an outpost of a local microbrewery. Philadelphia International Airport is bringing in Chickie's & Pete's, a local sports bar chain known for its crab fries. Cibo Express Gourmet Market, which offers a wide array of pre-made sandwiches, salads, and specialty foods, made its debut at Kennedy Airport in New York five years ago and has since expanded to airports in Philadelphia, Washington, Boston, and Tucson.

Some of the new takeout options are decidedly upscale. At Terminal 2 at Kennedy, the specialty grocer Balducci's opened a 700-square-foot shop in concert with Delta last year, serving tuna nicoise salads and sandwiches made from chipotle lime-marinated grilled chicken. Vino Volo, a wine bar and lounge that opened in 2005 at Washington Dulles International Airport, has been rapidly expanding to other airports, allowing coach passengers to cobble together meals that would make business-class passengers envious. On its menu: small plates like duck confit or smoked salmon rolls (about $8 to $11). At some airports, Vino Volo even has a cold takeout case stocked with half and full bottles of pinot grigios and chardonnays.

Airports are brimming with new food purveyors, but how do you find them? Farecast.com has an Airport Survival blog (farecast.com/blog/category/airport-survival) that offers food and drink recommendations for some of the busiest US airports. Looking for tasty grub at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport? "Hop the train to Terminal D for good and varied eats including sushi (Blue Bamboo Xpress), Tex-Mex (Cantina Laredo), and Texas-style barbecue (Cousin's BBQ)," the site suggests.

In some ways, airport terminals are playing catch-up with low-cost carriers: Since the carriers never offered full meals onboard, many had turned the pre-boarding area into a mini-food court. At JetBlue's Terminal 6 at Kennedy Airport, there is a sushi takeout counter, a Boar's Head Deli with made-to-order sandwiches, and a Cibo Express Gourmet Market, which offers 10 different waters and kosher, vegetarian, and gluten-free items.

"We always want to work very closely with terminal vendors in locations we fly in case our customers want to bring something more substantial onboard," said Bryan Baldwin, a spokesman for JetBlue.

The new Southwest terminal at Baltimore/Washington International Airport has a Silver Diner, the first airport location for that Maryland-based chain. The 150-seat Silver Diner serves classic American fare like three-egg omelets, burger baskets, and hand-dipped malts. It also offers a takeout case with pre-made sandwiches and salads, as well as a hot-pressed sandwich counter for customers with a little more time.

But the main draw, at least for harried and hungry travelers, is a self-serve computer kiosk that relays the order directly to the kitchen, so all you have to do is swipe your credit card and pick up the order. And soon you won't even have to pick it up yourself. Silver Diner plans to install kiosks at departing gates and begin delivering orders to passengers, perhaps as they're in line to board.

Just because you can bring your own first-class meal into coach doesn't mean you should ignore other rules of etiquette. "Be mindful that you'll be in a confined area and not everyone might like the smell of your particular dish," said Marco Lopez, who heads up Farecast's Airport Survival blog. In other words, he said, stay away from the garlic fries.

And, of course, not all food is conducive to carry-on. Think of it like packing a school lunchbox. Heavily dressed sandwiches, like tuna with mayonnaise, generally don't hold up well. And if you get sushi, don't wait until the end of a long flight to eat it.

Some airlines, perhaps realizing they may have gone too far in stripping their coach cabins of flavor or nourishment, are bringing back more food options. American is testing new items like $5 smoked turkey sandwiches, $3 Fuze green tea, and $10 fruit-and-cheese plates on certain routes.

Delta has hired the celebrity chef Todd English to create onboard dishes for purchase like Nutella, grape jelly, and banana slices on a ciabatta roll ($4), and a grilled Mediterranean shrimp salad ($9). The meals were rolled out last fall on nearly all domestic flights longer than 2,000 miles or four hours.

Whether the new airline menu works remains to be seen. How the meals taste will hinge on preparation, both before and after takeoff, English said. "They have to make sure they do it well," he said, adding that he only signed a one-year contract with Delta, "or I'm out."

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