Sunday, March 28, 2010

Eating at the Airport

Some Bright Spots
Some Not So Bright Spots
Update 2015

When I was a kid in Oakland the world was a different place. In those days it was not uncommon for people to make an evening of going to the airport simply to "watch the planes take off".  In fact most major airports had an observation deck to do just that. Some iconic terminals still have them. Climb the stairs in Long Beach's wonderful old terminal and you'll see an example.

Even now when I visit certain airports (like San Jose CA for example) I still routinely see cars parked at the end of the runway positioned to watch airplanes come and go.

Flying in those days was far from routine, it was a special event. Most times we went to the airport  not to travel, but to greet or see a loved one off or maybe wave at newlyweds heading off to Hawaii or Acapulco. It was where we welcomed the Oakland "A"'s after they won the World Series. In times of war it was where we saw too many friends off for the last time.

Since airports were special places they frequently had real honest-to-goodness formal restaurants. I emphasize these were dining rooms with a big capital "D". People went to these restaurants to celebrate special events: anniversaries, weddings, or birthdays. They were frequently dark and had large booths that surrounded you with rich wood paneling. They offered prime rib and a view of 707's and Super Electra's taking off and landing. Precious few of these restaurants still exist but a few iconic restaurants like LAX's mid-century fantasy The Encounter still await.

As my dad noted, the food wasn't always great, but the bill was always too expensive.

In a lot of cities you could even find a "94th Aero Squadron" restaurant built right next to a runway and designed to look like a little European village from World War I.

Today the words "Airport" and "Fine Dining" rarely have need to share the same sentence. In most airports as flying went from event to routine, so did the food.

Dining rooms were replaced abysmal snack bars. These places seemed to be perpetually grim places where you could get an ever circling rotisserie hot dog, pull a bag of chips from a hook, or get a grilled burger and fries (poured direct from freezer bag into the deep fryer).

It got so bad that I remember when I first heard the news that the Minneapolis Airport had a real McDonalds in it, I was giddy. And when California Pizza Kitchen's made the scene I felt ecstasy.

Now fast forward to today where it seemed like efforts to improve airports are in full swing everywhere. Some airports are refurbishing what they have. Others (like Denver) are adding hotels and lovely railway intermodal stations. LA is building amazing new terminals and adding gates. Many are building new consolidated rental car facilities and/or massive new parking structures. And new food options are everywhere. +So welcome and so overdue.

The Good:

I love the new food court at the newly refurbished Seattle airport. It has an Ivar's Fish Bar (home of superb Manhattan style red chowder as well as clams and halibut and chips), a Dilettante Chocolate bar, the wonderful D'lish and a full Anthony's Seafood restaurant.

San Francisco's new airport offers a Boudin Bakery, an Anchor "Steam" brewpub, an Il Fornaio, the Buena Vista (the original Irish Coffee), a Fung Lum and a Gordon Biersch micro brew.

I love Portland's ariport. Great connection to light rail and the food is great too. If you know Portland, you know about Rose's Bakery. Well the airport has one. They also have Rogue Ales, Laurelwood Brewing and the Beaverton Bakery. Nice Job Portland!

Austin's Airport has live music and great food choices here. The famous Salt Lick (Barbecue) has a spot in the foodcourt. Maudies (TexMex) serves up queso and chips. Schlotzky's originated in Austin, so it is appropriate to have a spot in the airport. And Amy's (Ice Cream) is darned good, even if the service is usually indifferent.

Decent choices including Legal Sea Foods.

Oh, so awful. Tied for least favorite airport. I'm sure it looked good in plan.....
But wait, there are good dining choices here. There's representation of a number of Dallas' wonderful local restaurants. Places like the Reata Grill, the Blue Mesa, and even Pappasito's have offering's here.

The new Detroit airport is seemingly everyone's list of favorite airports. Here you can get everything from gourmet Peanut Butter and Jelly to Japanese!

Venture to the far reaches of the new Southwest terminal for the Oakland Marketplace. They have a Fenton's Ice Cream stand. Nuff said!

I am delighted to report that Phoenix's Sky Harbor has really improved. Terminal 4 now offers an airport version of Chelsea's Kitchen (food is great, service is spotty). There is an Olive and Ivy, Modern Burger and El Bravo is still there but it has been moved from Concourse D. The truly wretched Flo's Shanghai Restaurant is now (thankfully) gone. Beyond that there is a new Wildflower bakery, LoLo's Chicken and Waffles, Humble Pie, and a Barrio Cafe. Kudos to the decision to attract local favorites instead of boring national chains.

The So-So:

Charlotte Douglas Airport offers some North Carolina barbeque (there's an oxymoron...), and a variety of uninspired food choices. The few bright spots are the great sushi mid concourse and a nice winebar. In the central atrium space I love to listen to the various artists perform on a big baby grand piano.  Although the piano and the musicians disappeared for awhile, it appears they are now back.

Passable choices here. At IAD and DCA there's a Legal Sea Foods and a Five Guys Burger stand. I'm happy.

Los Angeles International is actually pretty darned weak in the food department. Other than the "Encounter" which is outside the terminals, it does have La Brea Bakeries, a Pinkberry and Karl Strauss Micro Brews. Roadboy's not so subtle suggestions: How about an In-N-Out! Or a Stinking Rose, or pies from Du Pars, or Izaka-ya, or El Tepeyac, or Pinks, or Tommy's, or a Tail-O-The-Pup? Come on LA Sheesh celebrate yourself!

Some C+ choices, but not as inspired as it should be for one of America's most amazing City's. Yeah UNO and O'Briens are here, but dangit it's Chicago! There ought to be a Portillo's or even a Weber Grille!

Recently refreshed, It has elevated from D- to a C++. there is now a Gordon Biersch and a Pei Wei.

The pretty sad:

By the time many folks get back to the Las Vegas airport they are hung over and broke. So although there are lots of choices here, pretty much all of them are uninspired. Eat at a buffet before going to the airport.

Denver seems to be improving. While there are still some pretty dull selection of food choices keep looking.

The less than sad:

Lets just say eat somewhere before you head to Kansas City's airport.

OMG. Gag. Fugetaboutit! Awful. Ughhhh!

I'm sure I've missed some great choices elsewhere, Que Sera, Sera.

Roadboy's Travel's © 2010/2015

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

A Brand New Jesus

Why I Travel

Recently I happened upon an article informing visitors to Rio de Janero that the huge statue of Jesus on Corcovado Mountain is under refurbishment. The major structural work assures he will remain strong with arms outstretched welcoming all who visit this magic place for many years to come.

I’m not sure why exactly but it made me think about why I travel.

There are so many physical icons I associate with “places”. La Tour d’Eiffel in Paris, the Roman Forum, Seattle’s Space Needle, the Grand Canyon, New York’s Chrysler Building, Pisa's Leaning Tower, St. Peters, the Taj Mahal and of course the giant statue of Christ overlooking Rio. 

These icons have permanent addresses, you have to go see them. They never go on traveling expositions “on loan” from one city to another.

The stone by stone relocation of the London Bridge might be the one exception, but Epcot and tacky Las Vegas copies mean nothing. 

A blind person has equally powerful non-visual icons. Distinctive sounds, smells, and tastes define places. A perfect Italian beef tells me I am in Chicago. The sound of street corner jazz, coupled with the smell of mildew mixed with gumbo, is perfected in the French Quarter of New Orleans. The smell of a willow tree always whispers “Alaska” and the smell of creosote plants after a rain is "home".

When home, I spend a lot of time protecting my normally predictable world; I keep my tires rotated and check to make sure the doors are locked each night before climbing into bed.

When I travel, all bets are off. I can be a kid again. Everything is new. Even as eyesight fails and senses begin to blur, much of what I see, hear, smell, and taste is a “first time” event.

Travel is exploration. Not exploration in any Christopher Columbus (sail off the end of the earth) sense, but since I don’t know what waits on the next street it is exploration nonetheless. It is venturing into places where I hear unfamilar words. Where my skin and lungs detect a different degree of humidity.

Travel induces sensory overload. My muddled and jet-lagged brain tells all of my senses to go on full alert to protect me. It starts processing all that new “place” specific data.

So, while I am not sure when I’ll get to Rio; I know I will. 

And I am very comforted in knowing that a brand new Jesus will be waiting for me when I get there.

In my inner being, I’ve known that my whole life.

Roadboy's Travels © 2010