This article is reprinted from Food + Wine.
I'm cutting into a $40 steak with a four-cent plastic knife. The knife isn't even painted silver to offer an illusion of metallurgy; it's as white as paper and just as sharp. The steak—deeply charred, oozing pink juice and smelling of iron and earth—patiently mocks me as I massacre it with my contemptible tool.
I'm in Terminal 5 at New York City's Kennedy airport, the first of four stops I'll be making on a coast-to-coast tour of America's best new airport restaurants. As the in-flight meal goes the way of the go-go-booted stewardess, airports are filling the void with dining options that are considerably more ambitious than the usual eat-and-run-to-the-gate fast-food and snack spots. It's about time: As ballparks, music festivals and street carts have haute-ified their food in recent years, American airports have been stuck in a rut of cellophaned sandwiches and restaurants with names ending in "Xpress." (Everyone's in such a hurry, these places seem to say, that there's no time even to spell out the names.)
The recent boom in serious airport food is great news for early birds like myself, who must be at the gate at least an hour before departure—lest the airline decide, for the first time ever, to run ahead of schedule. On my four-airport restaurant marathon, I plan to arrive for each flight a few hours early to mimic the experience of a long, agonizing delay. But the simulation won't be necessary; Murphy's Law will grant me more than enough time to eat well.
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New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport
When it opened in 2008, JFK's Terminal 5 became the undisputed leader of this new era of preflight pampering. All of its restaurants are run by OTG Management, an "airport food and beverage operator" with projects in eight airports across the country (including my final stop, New York City's LaGuardia) and many more on the way (up next is Minneapolis–St. Paul). There's the loungey sushi bar (Deep.Blue), the high-end steak house (5IVESTEAK), the Spanish tapería (Piquillo), the modern-Italian trattoria (Aero Nuova) and the petit Parisian brasserie (La Vie), each with a menu designed in consultation with a talented local chef.
With its vaulted, tiled ceiling, Piquillo looks like the inside of some modernist wine cellar, an ideal hiding spot for waiting out a delay. I sit at the bar and order a sampling of tapas and Spanish sandwiches that evoke the food that chef Alex Raij cooks at her two excellent Manhattan restaurants, El Quinto Pino and Txikito. My meal includes creamy croquetas and a flight-friendly bocadillo of serrano ham on a tomato-rubbed baguette; less portable but equally delicious is a fried-calamari sandwich with spicy mayonnaise.
I gave up on finding a decent glass of wine in an airport years ago, but the Terminal 5 restaurants share a cellar some 300 bottles deep. However, even a 1999 Pétrus ($2,400 at 5IVESTEAK) wouldn't have made it any less frustrating to try cutting my dry-aged, bone-in rib eye with a plastic knife. I have a much easier time with 5IVESTEAK's excellent hamburger, which is made from a blend of short rib, brisket and chuck from status butcher Pat LaFrieda and arrives cooked as ordered: medium-rare! In an airport! (Note to travelers: You can't dine in Terminal 5 unless you possess a JetBlue ticket or a TSA badge. It took a credentialed—and patient—escort to get me through security.)
I leave Terminal 5 to catch my plane to San Francisco in Terminal 2. There, I have just enough time to grab provisions for my flight from two of the terminal's sleek new kiosks. Both are set among a sea of iPad-equipped tables from which you can order food and play games (or, if you're me, check flight delays and turbulence reports). The first, Croque Madame, offers an anytime menu of fast French food—crêpes, quiches, sandwiches and salads—from chef Andrew Carmellini (an F&W Best New Chef 2000). I order the namesake sandwich to go and hustle over to Bar Brace (pronounced BRA-chay) for a few very good bruschette and a roasted-beet salad, both recognizably from consulting chef Jason Denton's Lower East Side restaurant, 'Inoteca, and an artichoke-and-fennel panino on par with those he serves at his West Village spot, 'Ino.
I scold myself for not allowing enough time to try more from each restaurant, especially a drink from Croque Madame's promising cocktail menu. But the gods of the sky decide to help me out: Two hours later, after an undiagnosed electrical problem and a long, hot wait in runway purgatory, I'm back at Croque Madame nursing a nerve-restoring drink called the Avant (gin and tonic with lemon, muddled grapes and basil) and my equally cold (but still tasty) sandwich. Soon, a gate attendant announces that mechanics were "unable to locate the problem" on my plane, "so we're going to give this thing another try." I order another drink.
San Francisco International airport
When I reach the San Francisco airport for my departing flight the next day, I pass a TSA-looking guy yelling something about mops and buckets into his phone as I head into the terminal. Inside, there's ankle-deep water and chaos everywhere. A construction crew has broken a pipe, and the security-line equipment has gone dark. Anticipating another day of waiting, eating and more waiting, I walk over to Terminal 2, which opened in April and houses the airport's best food spots.