Travel Maze: Flying From Terminal Food Heaven to Terminal Food Hell

The distance between food heaven and hell is often only a terminal's length at many airports these days.Certainly, getting from point A to point B quickly and at a competitive price are the key motivators for business travelers. Some business travelers also make flight choices because they want to accumulate frequent flyer miles, or hope their loyalty to a particular carrier will result in a first-class upgrade.

This is all fine and good, but why not make the best of the time you spend at the airport? I have found that a pleasant terminal meal will have you not minding that a small bag of peanuts is your only sustenance on a long flight.

So, whenever I fly out of the New York City area, I make a bee-line for the pricey-but-delicious $24 ribeye steak sandwich at Gallagher's Steak House in Terminal C at Newark Liberty International Airport. Gallagher's is one of many food choices at this hub terminal for Continental Airlines.

Why am I crazy about Gallagher's steak sandwich? The steak is aged for 21 days at 36 degrees, which tenderizes the beef and enhances its favor. It's the best steak sandwich I've tasted, and I lived in steak sandwich heaven, Philadelphia, for ten years. Gallagher's is no airport eatery; you receive the same quality as you would at the New York City flagship restaurant on West 52nd Street.

If you don't want a steak sandwich, there are plenty of other decent food choices in Terminal C, including the Japanese restaurant Sarku, the Brooklyn Brewery Jazz Bar and the Garden State Dinner. Add about two dozen fast-food choices, including Nathan's Famous hot dogs, and you'll be able to find something to meet any taste or appetite.

But just down the road at Newark in Terminal A, home of American Airlines, United Airlines and US Airways, the food situation quickly deteriorates. The best choice at Terminal A is a Friday's chain restaurant, with a scaled-down menu, much smaller than you would find at Friday's non-airport locations.

In other words, it's a losing proposition unless you like average food, above-average prices and limited choices. At Terminal B, home of Delta and most international carriers, there is a Pizza Uno Express. Trust me, Pizza Uno isn't bad, but the pizza at this airport location doesn't taste like what they serve at the original in downtown Chicago.

Terminals A and B also have significantly smaller food courts than Terminal C, and they are before security, which means you still have the worry about getting through the checkpoint after your meal. But even if you have hours to kill before your flight, Terminal A and B flyers can't access Terminal C restaurants: That food court is past the security checkpoint, so you have to be flying Continental to visit them.

SFO Stands for Serious Food Options

One business traveler I recently met, Raul Keally, is so wowed by Andale, the Mexican fast-food restaurant at the United Terminal at San Francisco International Airport, that he does take-out when he arrives back in his home city. Kelly tells me that Andale has great, tasty burritos. He likes his with tender, grilled chicken and all the fixings.

"I make it a ritual whenever I fly home on United,'' he said. In fact, the United Terminal at SFO has some of the best food choices of any airport in America. You'll find branches of some of San Francisco's most popular restaurants at this terminal: Boudin's Bakery and Café, known for its famous sourdough bread sandwiches; the Buena Vista Café, where they re-invented Irish Coffee; and the San Francisco Soup Company, known, of course, for its soups.

The airport's international terminal has a location of Burger Joint, which cooks among the best organic burgers in San Francisco, and Ebisu, a top-notch sushi joint that could hold its own in any city in the world.

But here's the rub that illustrates the point that food heaven and hell at airports is about location, location and location. Fly American Airlines at SFO, and the only restaurant around is a mediocre coffee shop called the Mission Bar and Grill. The American Terminal is connected to the United Terminal area, but it's a very long walk, and not one that you would want to take if you only have limited time.

For Departures or Arrivals, It's Hit or Miss

So how do you scope out the situation in advance so you will be at food heaven? Most airports' websites are good guides. They will tell you what restaurants are in what terminals. From there, try the Internet for reviews. Here are a few of my favorites:

If you're flying out of the new Jet Blue terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, there are a number of interesting food choices. Top chefs have opened a number of interesting eateries in the terminal including rustic Italian trattoria AeroNuova, Deep Blue Sushi, and tapas restaurant Piquillo.

At Boston's Logan Airport, three of the four terminals host branches of Legal Sea Foods. But if you're looking for the quality Boston-based seafood restaurant at the international terminal, you're out of luck.

Finally, my favorite airport restaurant: Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen. This airport franchise of the French Quarter-themed restaurant chain isn't in New Orleans, but in Houston at George Bush Intercontinental Airport: Try the excellent fresh seafood and Louisiana favorites like blackened catfish opelousas, crawfish & shrimp fondeaux or a seafood combo.

Terminal D is part of Continental's Houston hub, but Continental uses four different terminals at the airport, so the restaurant might not be near your flight. Sometimes it's the luck of the draw whether you end up in food heaven or food hell. But when you can make a choice, follow your stomach.

Happy Eating!
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