Airport Food

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Be careful what you wish for: sometimes your wishes are answered.

That’s how I felt on Sunday at the new JetBlue terminal at Kennedy Airport. I had two hours to kill: I was on a different flight from Craig, so mine arrived earlier, and I was waiting for him to split a cab back to Brooklyn. And I was starving. And here I was in a brand spanking-new terminal with several shiny, polished restaurants eager to serve me.

These restaurants, with names like 5ive Steak, Aeronuova, Deep Blue Sushi, La Vie, and Piquillo, were quite attractive with appealing menus and nice looking staff members. But they were almost totally empty (see picture above). And even though I had those two hours to kill and a huge appetite, I just couldn’t bring myself to sit down at an airport restaurant to eat a fancy meal.

Why was that?

I have to admit: it’s because I was in an airport. When I’m in an airport, I don’t want to spend my money on fine food; I just want something adequate to fill me up before my next travel move. Which is why I was happy to see Dunkin’ Donuts in the far corner. On no level can I ever argue that Dunkin’ Donuts has good food, or even, sometimes, edible food, but a Dunkin’ Donuts bagel, however hideous, is just the kind of thing I want to eat when I’m in an airport. It matches the surroundings: sterile and functional, nothing more, nothing less.

Dunkin’ Donuts was actually out of bagels that day, so I had a slice of mediocre pizza: but here’s where I’ll give the new JetBlue terminal credit. In the area with the pizza and the Dunkin’ Donuts was a totally fine looking salad bar with really decent options which, if I were stuck at the airport for more than a few hours, I’d be really grateful for. And, I suppose, if I were really, really, delayed and I had nothing to do, I’d be glad I could go to a restaurant and have a sit-down meal. It’s only in that situation that such a meal would make sense to me.

But what about you? What do you look for in airport food? Are you like me, eager to cram something down your throat with little fanfare? Or do you crave a sit-down dining experience before you fly? Have any of you eaten at the new JetBlue terminal at JFK? How was it? Was it worth it? This frequent flyer wants to know.

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47 comments

  1. I fly out of Newark a lot and my ideal meal there (the options are decidedly limited) is at the Garden State diner. A glass of whatever crappy white wine they’re serving in their giant goblet-like glasses and an omelette with spinach and mushrooms. So I’ve got energy from the protein and am…relaxed, shall we say, from the wine.

  2. I used to travel quite a bit for work and would have LOVED to have some decent food in any airport. When you’re spending quite a bit of time in airports, bad pizza gets old REAL quick. The choices are very limited for the most part, and well, before a flight, I want something that’s going to satisfy my craving, not annoy my aisle seat neighbor with me getting up to go to the bathroom from some gross food I ate just to satisfy a hunger craving.

  3. I ate in a lot of airports (freaking snowstorms, argh) over the holidays this year, and the only thing I really wished for is more options that aren’t pre-packaged: there was cheese on EVERY sandwich or salad option, and I’m lactose intolerant. I would have been positively thrilled with a salad bar.

  4. I kinda love jet blue @ jfk. i make it a habit of getting to the airport early enough for a beer or two – i hate flying, and i’ve found that i’m a not less stressed out if i have a wee bit o’ drink in me

  5. I think it is kind of nice that Jet Blue is trying to do something with their terminal. It seems to me that NYC area airports are about some of the most depressing places on earth with very few options. Now, I must admit, I wouldn’t sit down at an airport terminal for a fine dining experience… I do enjoy the comfort of a bagel, pizza or some other fast food item.

  6. I am with you totally… I travel a bit for work and I am usually the type to cram down a pre-made wrap or like you said ” bagel please”.

  7. I ate the the Sushi place in the Jet Blue terminal last time I was flying back from NY, and it’s actually pretty decent. We had a good hour or two before our flight and didn’t have anything else to do, so we decided to try it. We both thought it was really nice to actually sit down at a table and relax before a flight instead of at the terminal in one of those uncomfortable chairs.

  8. I’ve eaten at the JetBlue terminal twice. the first time was for breakfast at a no-name place in between the food court and where that picture was taken. It was the worst restaurant meal of my life. Seriously. Awful. Bad food, bad service, bad attitude. Seriously… how hard is it to get a second cup of coffee at 8am in the morning?!?!?!?!?

    The second time was at a sports bar further down in the terminal. That was quite tasty. In fact, it was possibly one of the better airport meals I’ve had (other than Legals Seafoods in Boston).

  9. I can’t say anything about the new sushi place, but they had one in their old terminal that was delicious. Of course when you’ve been traveling long enough anything tastes delicious so perhaps I’m not a good judge.

  10. On most domestic flights, I’m right with you, Adam. But I make frequent international flights, so that means I’m frequently in airports for four or five hours at a time. When you have a layover like that, sit-down restaurants are a species of salvation. They’re fantastic time-killers!

    Incidentally, if you ever happen to be stuck in Minneapolis/St. Paul International, you should have a sit-down lunch at French Meadow. The “real” French Meadow in Minneapolis is amazing, but I was shocked by how good the food was at the airport version! You almost forgot you were in an airport!

  11. The sit down meal thing is strange, I wouldnt want a three course meal in an airport, I wouldnt feel right about it. I would however like good food in a restraunt bar situation, which is less formal.

  12. I was in a long-distance relationship for about a year until we moved in together, and now I’m in a long-distance family/social circle. So while I’m not jet-set, I have flown at least once every three months or so for the past year and a half, usually between Philly International or Newark and Jacksonville International.

    While I’m the kind of person who would rather patronize the mom-and-pop establishment (“You have $3 well drinks during happy hour? How nice for you!”), when I’m at the airport, I usually go with the chain, and usually shoot for the cheapest non-McDonalds establishment I can find. At least that way, I know what I’m getting, and my expectations are reachable. The few times that I’ve breached that rule have resulted in disappointment. The example that springs to mind is the Irish pub at Newark, but then again, I don’t know why I expected food that touted itself as Irish to be anything but bland.

  13. I’m like you, Adam — whatever is cheap and quick. I only really fly between school and home, so when I do I’m not looking for an elegant experience, just a quick mode of transportation. Starbucks (or similar), quick sandwiches — food that travels easily, mostly.

    As an aside, I hate JFK (Delta specifically) with the fiery burning power of a thousand splendid suns. I had the most appalling experience there last Thanksgiving, which I won’t get into for the sake of my blood pressure. Thank God I ran into a more travel-experienced classmate also heading back to school or there might have been bloodshed.

  14. As a vegetarian, I quite like the new JetBlue terminal. Theres a salad bar at Cibo Express or some such, in the food court that is really not too shabby – veggies, greens, cottage cheese and fruit. At 7.99/lb, it is slightly overpriced but better than pre-prepared food of murky origin :-)

  15. I like liquor.

    Actually, the best food airport I’ve seen is Austin — there’s a branch of Salt Lick BBQ and Amy’s Ice Cream.

  16. Depends. When I’m traveling with family, money is no issue and I would prefer a high end sit down meal so that I could enjoy my moment with them. If I’m alone and I have some time to waste, I would see which is the least crowded. If the food court is quiet, I would go there. But if the food court was jammed packed, I would seek a quieter spot even if it means paying a little bit more.

    That hot/cold salad bar is actually by Whole Foods in case you didn’t notice the big green bowls on the side and its wonderful. Always fresh with a wide array of options, I love how I could choose to eat as much or as little as I like. The price $7.99 is the same as what Whole Food charges as well.

    Lucys Asian makes a spicy pad Thai with huge jumbo sized shrimps.

    Pommes Frites station sucks.

    Jamba juice is always popular.

    Blue Sushi(moved over from former terminal)is packed on certain times and I heard its fresh.

    5ives steak- although I’ve never eaten here, I have seen the size of their steaks and they look good.

    The termial(with the exception of Dunkin Donuts) brews illy’s coffee which is always good and smooth.

    Revolution makes a good omelet.

    Overall, I love Jetblue new terminal. Now if only they had a fried chicken station….

  17. I agree with you about not having the desire to eat a fancy meal at an airport. I generally eat pretty healthy so I use being at the airport as an excuse to eat the bad foods that I love. For example, during my layover in ATL on my last trip a few weeks ago, I had one of my favorites for breakfast. Biscuits and sausage gravy…mmm…

  18. I can’t say that this is a recent experience, but about a year ago, I took my first trip to New York. Before I headed back, I checked off all of the things I needed to eat while I was in New York minus a Papaya King hot dog (recommended by Anthony Bourdain). Fortunately, they had a Papaya King in the JetBlue terminal, so I lucked out. It wasn’t the best hot dog I ever ate, but it got the job done. I thought the options they had out there were vast, to say the least. I can’t say I’d ever be looking for fine dining in an airport, though. It’s usually a bag of peanut M&Ms for me, and that’ll get the job done.

  19. I’ll admit it: I always get McD’s at the airport. Relatively small chance of gouging, keeping it limited to pre-flight meals ensures I won’t eat fast food more than a few times a year, and I can’t imagine a sit-down airport meal either.

  20. Well, i’m from singapore and our airport here is more like a shopping centre. me and my friends often go to the airport just for shopping and food, rather than sending or recieving ppl.

  21. I’ve flow out of JFK quite a bit but I have been there lately.

    I seem to recall that the pizza pie place isn’t too bad, it’s edible but not quite Manhattan.

    If you’re brave the Papaya Dog place is authentic.

  22. Depends on the trip I suppose.

    Most of the time I’m fine with coffee and a donut in the morning, or a quick sandwich in the afternoon.

    However, if I’m leaving my grandmother’s place in PHX, you can find me downing “thank god the trip is over” margaritas at the Taverna del Tequila in the US Airways wing.

    Never really felt the need for any kind of fancy meal at the airport.

  23. The Tom Bradley terminal at LAX (which is the one I fly out of when I go home to visit the folks) is dire. I have often commented that LAX is the most boring airport in the world. At Gatwick and Heathrow in London you can take your pick from any number of restaurants, including the Caviar House which serves very fresh seafood. My parents usually camp themselves there and have a glass of wine with a light dinner. I would be delighted if there were such a choice at LAX.

  24. I was in that very terminal in February. I didn’t have much time because my taxi ride and trip on the LIRR had taken ages, but I was hungry and eager to grab something decent before boarding my non-stop flight to CA. I spotted Chinese food (in the food court thing that also had Boar’s Head, Italian, etc.), and I’m crazy for rice so I headed that way. The food was overpriced (as airport food always is),and I was confused by the computerized ordering system, but it was also tasty and way better than plane food. I was a bit hesitant about taking Chinese onto a flight, since my choice wound up being more fragrant than I’d hoped, but my regrets were gone as soon as I saw that I wouldn’t be getting out of my window seat for the duration of the flight. If I was going to be stuck, at least I’d be able to enjoy my meal. Plus, one of my seatmates had some kind of Indian food with her. Overall, I give the terminal’s food options a thumbs up. :)

  25. To expand on Angry Brit’s comment, airports stateside pale in comparison to food/ambiance in airports abroad. Maybe it’s the allure of the foreign, but I’d probably be more willing to try something upscale/sit down because I know they’d probably do it with more panache and freshness.

    That said, the simple rules in airport lounges abroad, with fun crackers, nuts and other things to try along with guaranteed great coffee.

    When in U.S., I, like Amateur Gourmet, prefer function over flashy, since flashy will usually underwhelm and be over-priced. I find that every US airport has a certain food i tend to stick with… I like the Cosi station they have at LGA for the signature salad, I like Einstein’s Bagels for toasted sesame bagels when I’m in denver, when at MIA I go to la carreta for a cafe con leche and pastelito de guayaba… i steer clear of au bon pain in general, as their stuff seems to come off an assembly line into the cases… chili’s actually does a decent salad when you pair it with a cold corona… wolfgang pucks at O’hare… that Whole Foods salad bar sounds perfect, so i hope they are getting a good response and replicate in other airports.

  26. I used to have a consulting gig in Boston. When I flew out on Thursday evenings, I would love to stop at the Legal Seafoods at the USAir terminal. That being said, I wasn’t paying for it… the company was, but I enjoyed the meals and it was a nice end to my hectic travel filled work week.

  27. I have a theory about the best food to eat in airports: smoothies. Here’s why: (1) they are made right in front of you so you are aware of what’s going into them; (2) they have the potential of fresh fruit and while not totally healthy, they are way better than that greasy McD’s burger; (3) they always fill me up, and (4) they can be held with one hand, so you can still roll your bag around or hold your ticket, and stay on the move.

    Admittedly, smoothies are most appropriate for stays of about 2 hours or less – not good for long layovers. If I had to be there for longer, I’d definitely try a sit-down place, though I don’t think I’d ever get sushi in an airport (unless the airport was in Japan).

  28. Once I had an 10 hour lay-over at the Ho Chi Minh City airport. Long story. Without a visa, I couldn’t leave. The shops looked like a 80s version of a NJ strip mall, and the food on offer was attempting to be ‘American’. What I didn’t know was that with my layover I got a meal.. some kindly soul actually searched for the displaced American girl to give her a plate of rice noodles. Many travels later I can still say that was my best airport meal ever.

  29. My best airport eating experience was in Japan. Somehow it felt more like I was at an old train station with a patina of age over everything (I mean that in a positive way — wood accents, soft lighting, etc). The restaurants were tiny or medium sized normal looking restaurants: that is, they had normal doorways (many with the traditional Japanese curtain), normal furniture, and normal lighting. That is what is missing — your photo is of a barren gleaming echoing space. No way would anyone opt for that experience! You are exposed like a bug on a specimen tray!

  30. I love airport restaurants. Last year, coming home from a conference in Boston, my partner and I were left with about a bit of time to kill around dinner. We ended up at a seafood restaurant/bar at Boston Logan, and let me tell you, it was the most civilized airport experience I’ve had in awhile. You sit down, someone brings you food, you nurse a glass of wine and watch the hockey game. The wait staff are really lovely about letting you linger over your food. It beats a waiting room chair any day. This year, we ended up on the same flight, but delayed four hours, so we did the same thing. I’m veg, so all I could eat was a salad and fries, but I think I enjoyed that meal more than any other restaurant meal this year, just for the relief from airport-ness.

  31. I was like you and wanted only bagels or a sandwich at an airport.

    And then I went to the San Fransisco International Airport (new and renovated) to take my flight to India (I had to check in 2 hours early for the international flight) and I was hungry after checking in.

    So I went to get a bagel and there were ONLY nice looking restaurants. So I went to the Chinese and the food was so so good!

    After that, we would skip dinner when we were leaving the country so that we could eat at the airport! The food was so good that if we didn’t have to pay $10 for parking for 2 hours, we might have even gone there for dinner! lol! Sorry for the extra long comment!

  32. I’ve done my fair share of flying and if I have a particularly long layover I suppose I’d be tempted by a sit-down meal at a nicer establishment. But for quick jaunts I’m happy to grab-and-go, either something from a Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts. I also like to keep the cost factor down, and airport food can be costly business!

  33. I don’t know about food but because I live in Palm Springs I find myself flying via Dallas to go anywhere. At the Dallas airport they have the most wonderful wine bars. They serve good wines including local Texas wine, (wine from texas who’d a thunk it?) With the great wine they serve nice little gourmet snacks. Of course it ain’t cheap but, what the heck I’m on vacation!

  34. I’m a little disappointed in you, Adam. As a food blogger, it should be your responsibility to report on food trends and news, especially when it is right in front of you!

    I tried the Italian place at JFK a few months back, and although it was pricey, it was really delicious. I’d rather eat something a little fancier while at the airport. What if I died on the flight and that was my last meal (is that super neurotic)? I would have loved to hear your thoughts on the food at Terminal 5. Next time!

  35. i usually just get quick bites when im at airports, except that is, whenever we stop over at Narita Japan and im just compelled to get authentic japanese sushi!

  36. I’m a fan of the new Jet Blue terminal! Back when I had a job, I’d almost always meet my boyfriend at the airport after a full work day anytime we were taking a trip, and it was so nice to feel like we were having dinner together rather than wasting time together.

    Also, you mentioned the fancier dining places and the D’n’D, but, with the exception of the salad bar, did not mention the range of decent options in their food court. To me, this is the best part — being able to eat a decent meal that’s not fine dining and not total, unhealthy crap. As an added bonus, instead of sitting at a table, you can walk your little tray over to the airport bar and wash your decent food down with decent cocktails and not be tied to eating bar food.

    The yoga in the middle of the terminal is the weird part.

  37. One of the great things about flying out of Logan in Boston is the Legal Seafoods at the United Terminal (it may be the same one mentioned above as being in the US Air Terminal). A great way to have one more fix of the New England seafood I crave (particularly the excellent clam chowder and unbelievable fried clams) before flying back home to the Midwest.

  38. I always tend towards those bar/grille/mcfunster type joints that always have baskets of deep fried things and burgers and whatnot – it’s probably because I can get my drink on there as well. Aint nothing like flying the friendly skies with a full belly and a good buzz.

  39. I fly, about twice a year, from Australia to Europe. It is a long, long flight. Singapore is where I stop. Now, Singapore airport is known for its shopping, its gardens and the 30 minutes massage one can get in every terminal. But food? Still, I like to sit down at a rather crappy Thaiporean restaurant where I can have a hot and very spicy soup. It is nothing exceptional, but at least it is not plane food. And that’s the point, really, it is a notch above the reheated plastic blandness of limp zucchini in a little tray with no movement allowed. It comes in a bowl! on a table! It reminds me I can be human again.

  40. I agree that sitting down for a nice meal at an airport seems like an oximoron. When you pay a fine price, you want to feel like you’ve gone out for the evening, and not like you’re in an airport killing time. Considering I doubt anyone thinks to themselves “I want to go try 5ive at the JFK airport for dinner tonight!” (or that they can even do that without a plane ticket), I doubt they get much business at all.

  41. Traveling and being at the airport is actually my excuse to eat unhealthy food. I get ice cream, cinnamon rolls…haha. :)

  42. If you ever happen to fly in or out of PDX airport there’s a local short order everything cafe called Caper’s Cafe. I highly recommend stopping here, you can get anything from sushi to pizza to burgers to breakfast burritos. The quality of food is really good.

  43. I fly between JFK and Burlington, VT pretty often… going home on the 10:50pm flight. Having dinner at JFK lets me spend some extra time with friends before heading to the airport.

    The salad bar is great, it’s very fresh and it’s rare build you own salad at an airport. Can’t remember the name of the sports bar, but their quesdilla is pretty good, filling and not completely overpriced.

    I haven’t tried 5ives Steak, but I’ve heard great things about their food and they have tons of wines by the glass.

  44. I love the JetBlue Terminal at JFK. It sad, I know. I live in Florida and I always buy a pre made sandwich and a treat for the flight when I’m on my way home. It’s a tradition that I hope to revisit soon. I keep saying that I”m going to try Deep Blue, but I always wind up with a sandwich.