Trapped Outside Paradise -- and Starving -- at Denver International Airport

Try as I might, I haven't been able to catch that famous chicken walnut sandwich on molasses bread at the Denver International Airport, but I may yet get my chance after all.

Here's my problem: On my frequent trips between the East and West Coasts, I make my airline connections at night.

Denver International has been one of my connecting points on several occasions in the last few months, and initially, I was thrilled to spend an hour or more at an airport known for its varied selection of restaurants.

Who would have thought that an 8:11 p.m. arrival would be too late for the famous chicken walnut sandwich at the Paradise Bakery & Cafe?

Trust the Flight Attendants' Recommendations

I had heard about Paradise, a Scottsdale, Ariz., chain with two locations at the Denver airport, from flight attendants last spring in a casual conversation about their favorite airport food venues. They raved about its yummy sandwiches and delectable chocolate-chip cookies.

On that specific occasion, I opted for the expensive steak dinner at another airport restaurant but vowed I would conquer Paradise during my next visit. Little did I know just how hard that would be.

The problem is that my United flights have always arrived in Denver's Terminal B between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m.

My craving for chicken and walnuts intensified as I ran up the stairs to the mezzanine level. Reality set in less than a minute later as I saw the man behind the counter cleaning up for the day. It was too late, even for a cookie, the man stated. Turns out, Paradise closed at 8 p.m.

At least I didn't arrive after 9 p.m. Then, I wouldn't even have been able to get the overpriced smoked turkey sandwich at Wolfgang Puck, which closes at 9 p.m., or even a warmed-over slice of Domino's pizza at the food court in Terminal B, which also closes at 9 p.m. Then, my only choice would have been the ubiquitous Quiznos, which stays open till 10 p.m. And getting to Quiznos could be a very long walk in the mile or so long terminal.

Airports Set the Rules on Hours

Airports vary in what times they allow their concessionaires to close. The better managed ones, like Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, have policies that require restaurants and shops to stay open till near the time when the last flight leaves.
A DFW spokesman told me that generally, if a shop or a restaurant is within five gates of the last departing flight of the night, they are required to stay open until 30 minutes of the last departure.

The airport, he told me, also has a policy that requires restaurants and shops to stay open 24 hours a day during specific circumstances, such as in a snowstorm.

I've also had good experiences at San Francisco International Airport and Mineta San Jose International Airport where many restaurants stay open late.

Unfortunately, at other airports, whether you'll find restaurants and shops open in the evening is more hit-or-miss.

Both airports and vendors cash in from the high prices charged at various terminal restaurants and shops. In exchange, one might expect airports would ensure that essential facilities stay open until the last traveler leaves for the night. This should especially be the case for restaurants, given the lack of food on planes -- especially at key hub airports, where changing planes is the name of the game. Perhaps business wouldn't always be great at night, when there could be fewer customers, but isn't that the trade-off for the price gouging that allows for maximum profits?

Many Passengers, Few Options

In fact, at Denver International, there are plenty of potential customers even after 8 p.m. It's one of United Airlines major hubs, and there's certainly no shortage of flights in terminal B between 8 and 10 p.m.. A total of 54 United flights depart on most days during that span, the majority after 9 p.m. -- and that's not counting US Air and Continental flights.

A similar number or flights arrive during that period, bearing passengers who have time to kill before changing their planes.
To make matters even more confusing, even planning ahead won't assure you a meal at Denver International Airport: The airport's website lists the wrong hours of operation for some of its eateries.

For example, Paradise was listed as closing at 10 p.m. On the other hand, you could miss eating at Wolfgang Puck, which stays open to 9 p.m., if you relied on the website's stated 8 p.m. closing time.

My Chance to Taste Paradise

I'm not sure that Denver airport officials have seen the light, but at least one restaurant will be staying open later. The manager at Paradise told me on Thursday that they've been ordered by airport officials to extend their hours until 10 p.m.

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In an email earlier this month, airport spokeswoman Laura Coale said that all restaurants in the terminal are required to stay open to 10 p.m. unless they have a waiver from airport officials. I was guessing every restaurant in Terminal B expect Quiznos had a waiver, since they all close before 10. But apparently, Paradise did not.

"Paradise Bakery's agreement is to be open until 10 p.m," wrote Coale in a new email after I spoke with the Paradise manager. "We believe there may have been miscommunication regarding how to submit a change of hours form. Due to your inquiry and information, we've asked Paradise Bakery to adhere to their agreement. If they want to change their hours, they've been notified regarding the appropriate process."

My calls made to Skypoint, the owners of the airport franchise of the Paradise Bakery & Cafe, went unanswered, so I can't tell you if they'll be filing for the waiver. But I won't be taking any chances.

I'm already booking my next trip connecting through Denver. Hopefully, I'll get to the airport before Paradise files that waiver and closes early again.

I can already taste the chicken walnut sandwich.