With these gourmet airport restaurants, you can skip the food court

Kate Parham
CompassNovember 12, 2013

For years, restaurateurs have been converting warehouses, garages, gas stations, laundromats and other unsightly venues into beautiful, chef-driven restaurants. But today’s gastronomic geniuses are taking up residence in even more surprising sites: airports. Yes, now in between McDonald’s and the generic sandwich kiosk, you’ll find delicious options from culinary superstars like Dallas’ Stephan Pyles and Top Chef winner Michael Voltaggio of Los Angeles. To wit, check out these seven chef-driven airport concepts—they make the TSA body scans worth it!

One Flew South at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport: The world’s busiest airport led the chef-driven airport restaurant charge when they welcomed One Flew South back in 2008. Helmed by chef Duane Nutter (formerly of Four Seasons Atlanta, Ritz Carlton Palm Beach, Louisville’s Oakroom (one of only 48 AAA Five-Diamond restaurants in the world), and Iron Chef America fame), the fine dining restaurant still impresses travelers with a globally inspired menu—dubbed “southernational” cuisine—featuring items like mussels and edamame with miso broth, Benton’s bacon and goat cheese salad, pulled duck confit sandwich with fig and toasted peanut relish, and even fresh sushi rolls.

Root Down at Denver International Airport: This summer, DIA’s concourse C welcomed a second location of the city’s award-winning restaurant Root Down, a farm-to-table spot known for their vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options. With two distinct menus (dinner and brunch), diners can expect many of the same drinks and plates chef-owner Justin Cucci dishes up at the original location, like carrot and Thai red curry, and sweet corn risotto with jalapeño pesto. The 4,000-square foot space also incorporates design aspects that pay homage to travel, like curved pods and booths, terraced lounge seating, and a panoramic view of the airstrip.

Ink.sack at Los Angeles International Airport: Angelenos have been flocking to Top Chef winner Michael Voltaggio’s sandwich concept, ink.sack, since 2011. But as of Oct. 31, anyone traveling through L.A. can find his innovative creations—each sandwich is four inches long (read: order two), and turns a classic option on its head, like a Reuben made with Wagyu beef tongue—at a second location inside the new Tom Bradley International Terminal, no traffic jams necessary. The menus are nearly identical—fan favorites include the cold fried chicken sandwich with house-made ranch cheese, and the Spanish Godfather, made with serrano, chorizo and manchego. Goodbye boring ham and cheese.

Barrio Café at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport: James Beard-nominated chef Silvana Salcido Esparza has been delighting those in the Valley of the Sun with her inventive Mexican cuisine at Barrio Café for more than a decade. Today, she continues to impress diners with dishes like enchiladas suizas and chiles en nogada, but now she’s got a wider audience: passers-through at Terminal 4 will find a second location of Barrio Café passionately ornamented with local street art murals.

Sky Canyon at Dallas Love Field: The father of Southwest cuisine, chef Stephan Pyles, has taken to the new Southwest Terminal with Sky Canyon, a patchwork of Pyles’ previous restaurants (Routh Street, Star Canyon and Samar), offering an ethnically diverse menu with dishes from India (Tandoori chicken butter masala), the Mediterranean (fatoush with Zatar-spiced lamb kebob), Texas (smoked brisket with chipotle barbecue), and Latin America (Ecuadorian shrimp with orange, golden tomatoes, and popcorn). The seating options are equally varied, whether you want to grab something quick at the counter, enjoy a glass of local Chardonnay at the wine bar, or linger over a long meal between flights in a leather banquet.

Boccone Trattoria Veloce at Toronto Pearson International Airport: Inside the domestic departures area in Terminal 1, travelers will now find chef Massimo Capra’s (you may know him from Mistura Restaurant and Sopra Upper Lounge) latest spot: Boccone Trattoria Veloce, a nearly 3,300-square-foot, full-service Italian restaurant wrapped in warm wood panels, whimsical graphic art, and outfitted with USB and power outlets throughout. An open kitchen anchors the space, alongside a market offering quick-serve items, like paninis and pizza, for travelers on the run. Don’t miss Capra’s perfected Bolognose—it’s legendary in Toronto.

Chef Adam Siegel’s restaurants at Milwaukee’s General Mitchell International Airport: James Beard award winner Adam Siegel has been the corporate chef for The Bartolotta Restaurants since 2000. But it wasn’t until 2008 that their empire reached the airport. First, they opened Nonna's, a Neapolitan-style pizza joint with a wood-burning oven. Then came Northpoint Custard, a spin-off of the group’s lakefront burgers and soft-serve custard hotspot, and last year Siegel launched Pizzeria Piccola, which serves Nonna’s pizzas alongside a decadent gelato counter.

See also: The top food crazes of 2013