Air travel these days can feel designed to make a harried flier feel like nothing more than a piece of cargo.
From the interminable security lines to boarding cattle calls, anonymity is the order of the day, and that often extends to the food court. In a sea of endless soft pretzel vendors, undistinguished subs and sad, wan salads, it's always a treat for a hungry traveler to come upon an airport that's serving food specific to its city.
While the fare might not always be quite on par with what's served at these restaurants' in-town flagships--hey, it's hard to cook in an airport!--these 10 offer up the next best thing to a long layover, a rental car and a trip back through security.
The Varsity, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport
"What'll ya have, what'll ya have?" Servers at this Atlanta institution have been singing out that chorus for 85 years now, and your answer at the F- or C-Gate airport outposts should be the same as it would be at the downtown drive-in: a chili-cheese dog and a fried peach pie. Pair it with a Varsity orange drink and board your flight full and happy.
The heady scent of smoked meat beckons hungry travelers the moment they step off the plane, and plenty of people have even been known to get to the airport early to enjoy some pit-smoked (obviously not on premises) brisket and sausage. Of course, it's nowhere near the same experience as you'd get driving out to to their decades-old, cash-only, BYOB restaurant in the Texas Hill Country, it's a darned sight better than having no barbecue at all (plus the line may be just a smidge shorter).
Where Salt Lick stands strong for Texas-style brisket and sausage, Jim Neely's joint makes the case for slow-smoked, sauce-smothered pork ribs, served up Memphis-style. Follow your nose, grab a heap of napkins, and build in a little extra time if you're planning to eat in (service can be as sloooowww as the cooking process). And don't skip the BBQ spaghetti. It's an only-in-Memphis treat that you owe yourself to try at least once.
Waylon Jennings, Patsy Cline, Willie Nelson and scores of other country legends got their start strumming and singing for customers at Tootsies Orchid Lounge. While the airport locale is miles away from the mini-chain's flagship behind Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, the same caliber of live performers grace the stage while travelers munch on their burgers (the food isn't anything to write home about). As with most of the town's honky tonks, there is no cover charge, but it's awfully good manners to toss a few bucks in the tip jar, especially if they take a request.
Chef Leah Chase is often referred to as the "Queen of Creole Cooking," and for good reason. Her versions of Louisiana classics like shrimp etouffee, red beans 'n' rice and catfish are considered definitive, and the airport renditions stand faithfully. While you owe it to yourself to visit the original Treme location, where you can take in Chase's astonishing collection of African-American art, her bowl of gumbo at the airport will let you know where yat.
It's Bawlmer, hon! You gotta try a crabcake. Marylanders love few things more than debating the merits of various restaurants' renditions of their city's signature blend of lump crab meat, mayo, egg, seasonings (usually Old Bay) and just enough crumbs (either bread or saltines) to keep the whole mess together. Though the original Obrycki's, which had been slinging up crabby delights in Baltimore's Fell's Point since 1944, has closed, the BWI locale sticks pretty close to the formula that made the restaurant a Charm City classic. (You can also grab Obrycki's at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport.)
Where else in the world can you tell your significant other that you're just going to duck out for a three-way and have them ask if you can bring them back some extra crackers? Cincinnati natives will squabble 'til they're blue in the face over which chili parlor reigns supreme: Gold Star, Skyline, Empress or Dixie, but they'll all agree that this soupy, Greek-style chili is the single finest spaghetti topping, alongside handfuls of fluffy, shredded cheddar (three way), onions or beans (add one for a four-way) or all of the above (five way). Sop up any spare sauce with oyster crackers, or add a cheese coney (chili and cheese on a hot dog) for a perfect Queen City experience.
If it's this seasonal and artisanal, it must be San Francisco. These two local legends team up to serve sandwiches that are not just excellent for airport eating, but worth wrapping up an extra to take take home. The cheese maker and baker take great care to source their ingredients from local farmers and purveyors, making this collaboration a perfect bite of the Bay Area.
Red or green? That's the state question, and it's ably answered by the New Mexico specialties served up at this airport food court counter. The question refers, of course, to the color of chiles -- served atop enchiladas, burritos (both standard and breakfast) and other regional delights. "Christmas" -- red and green together -- is also an acceptable answer, and the carne adovada (long-cooked, heavily-spiced pork) is a must for expats traveling through to less chile-centric destinations. The Motor City takes its hot dogs as seriously as it takes its hot rods, and a Coney Island experience is a must. While the style isn't exclusive to this chain (there are more than 100 Coney Islands by name in the Detroit area), National Coney Island serves up a solid version of the grilled, natural-casing dog, nestled in a steamed bun, topped with all-meat beanless chili and chopped, sweet onions and a stripe or two of yellow mustard. It's a bit messy to eat on the run, so grab it and race on down to your gate to enjoy, or opt for one of the sit-down locations.