Flying food

Airport food has acquired a reputation for high prices and low quality, but as some of the world’s seasoned travelers show, eating on the wing can be a pleasant experience

Rosa Rivas
Aire Tapasbar at Alicante airport, which is run under the direction of chef Quique Dacosta.
Aire Tapasbar at Alicante airport, which is run under the direction of chef Quique Dacosta.

Haute cuisine is slowly making its way into the world's airports. It is still largely true to say that this improvement in standards is far from widespread, with the haute more applicable to prices than quality, but to judge from what passengers say, there are grounds for optimism. Away from the chains that fail to satisfy demanding palates there are experiences to be found that will leave a pleasant taste in the mouth. Among the airports winning over global gourmets are Amsterdam's Schiphol, which offers fresh seafood and fish, á la Caviar House Oyster Bar, with champagne included. Hong Kong and Singapore serve up the best of Asian food, and have recreated the street stalls that cook up fresh ingredients while you watch. Even the United States has more to offer than the ubiquitous hamburger, with gourmet outlets to be found in New York, San Francisco and Atlanta cooking up contemporary southern food, sushi, Spanish cured ham, and even pizza cooked in a wood-fired oven. In Scandinavia, the emphasis is on juices and organic salads. Closer to home, Barcelona now has traditional Mediterranean food, and good tapas are available in Málaga and Alicante—the latter includes the time it takes to prepare each dish for those with an eye on the clock.

AENA, the body that runs Spain's airports, says that it has "undertaken a serious commitment to renovate the image of airport restaurants." In 2011, with the goal of "helping to strengthen Spanish gastronomy, which is held in high esteem internationally," and with the goal of "satisfying the demands of other types of users," AENA began introducing "establishments with stars and run by auteur chefs." Among the big names now cooking for airline passengers are Carles Gaig in Barcelona (Porta Gaig); Beatriz Sotelo at Madrid's Terminal 4 (El Madroño); Quique Dacosta in Alicante with Aire Tapasbar, and Dani García in Malaga (La Moraga). Other initiatives are the use of shared tables by different establishments and the inclusion of ethnic food in open access areas "due to the multicultural nature of the airport environment," says AENA.

Addressing the long-standing complaint over the cost of airport food, AENA, which has 100 concessions and 350 sales points, says that the rules governing bids to set up franchises in its airports include "a clause regarding prices that means restaurants may not charge more than they would in their establishments outside the airport." It says it monitors prices closely. But passengers still say that the open access areas of airports have largely failed to come up with healthy, economically priced food to eat on the hoof or to take aboard the plane.

EL PAÍS invited a selection of globe trotters to share their experiences of the world's best airport eateries.

Martín Caparrós, writer

"Everything is more expensive and usually of worse quality in an airport than just about anywhere else: it's glorified fast food, so I tend not to eat in airports. Instead I prepare a sandwich, which is always tastier than the chicken or pasta option that one comes up against time and again: part of the pleasure of eating one's own food is turning the in-flight menu down," says the Argentinean writer. Caparrós' latest book is entitled Crónicas comilonas (Dining chronicles): "a book about travelling and food." Caparrós adds that as a result of avoiding airport eateries, he is "no great expert." That said, he still remembers one pleasurable airport culinary experience from 20 years ago. "I was travelling from Hong Kong to Buenos Aires and we stopped over in London, and I learned that I had won an important literary prize, so I decided to treat myself, and ordered half a dozen oysters and a glass of champagne at the Caviar House Oyster Bar at Heathrow. It was my own little prize. I also enjoy the rare occasions when somebody else is paying for a first class ticket and I can enjoy the food in the VIP areas in Madrid and Barcelona: a slice of bread with a drizzle of top quality olive oil, washed down with a glass of fine Spanish wine. It's the best way to prepare oneself for being hurled through the air at 800 kilometers an hour."

Ferran Adriá, chef

"In general, there is nothing exceptional to be found in airports," says the founder of el Bulli, who is considered one of the best chefs in the world. He concedes that Terminal 1 at Barcelona's El Prat offers "good, traditional cuisine" at Porta Gaig, run by Michelin-starred chef Carles Gaig, who has brought dishes from his Fonda Gaig in the city such as oven-baked macaroni, baby octopus with artichokes, or salt cod and anchovy pancakes. Adriá also eats at Semon, which offers takeaway dishes. "A fried egg with griddled vegetables and real potatoes, not frozen ones," is his idea of fast food. He also rates El Prat's selection of gourmet shops offering top quality wines, liquors and chocolates. "It is surprising that the airports in a city with the reputation for fine eating that Paris enjoys are so poor when it comes to food," he points out.

Adriá's impressive collection of frequent flyer cards means that he has become an expert on the world's VIP areas. "The best is Virgin's at Heathrow. The ones in Qatar and Singapore are also very good. Food is an important element within an airport, it can be a showcase for a country's cuisine," he says. "I prefer small restaurants, with quality food cooked on the spot by young cooks, and I like self-service. I don't think that using famous names is necessarily the solution: look at the fast-food outlets in the stalls at Singapore, they offer fresh, appetizing food using the best ingredients."

Dani García, chef

"I like a good sandwich, made for you on the spot, like the ones at the English chain Upper Crust (also to be found in Sweden); a terrine of foie gras, a seafood salad, or oysters, like Caviar House has, are also a hit: they're expensive, but appetizing. I think that airports are beginning to take the question of food more seriously, they are now beginning to take into account what people want. I would say that the future is about offering tasty food to take on board. I would love to open a branch of Manzanilla Exprés, my restaurant in Málaga, in the airport here." He intends to open a version of the upscale tapas bar in New York by the end of the year, and currently manages La Moraga at Málaga airport, as well as contributing to the menus Iberia offers its business class passengers.

Javier Reverte

"My idea of good airport food has always been those rather singular looking bars in Schiphol and Heathrow, where the customers eat at the bar. They usually have seafood, or sushi, Swedish smoked salmon, Dutch pickled herrings, along with oysters and clams, all washed down with nice cold white wines. They are very expensive, but when one arrives at the airport after a lengthy flight across the oceans, waiting for a connection, one soon convinces oneself that one deserves a treat. I can never resist the temptation. I will soon be returning to Spain, and I will be stopping over at Heathrow: you can imagine where I am going to be sitting," he says by email.

"I am in China at the moment. In every train and bus station, as well as airports, they sell these little plastic containers with noodles and dried meat that people buy and then pour boiling water on. But the big airports have a lot of restaurants, almost all of them horrendous and very expensive. They have wine called The Great Wall, which is a combination of corked, mixed with a distant aroma of diesel."

Lisa Abend.

Time magazine's correspondent in Spain says that in her experience, the best airport restaurant in the world is One Flew South, to be found in Atlanta's international terminal. "To be honest, at first it looked a bit dodgy, because part of the menu is sushi: which prompts the question as to why anybody would want to eat sushi in an airport in Georgia. But I was about to take a flight to Madrid, and I had a long wait, so I went in. The place offers a modern version of southern US cooking, and it's delicious. The waiter recommended merguez—a North African sausage—with succotash—a mix of okra, corn, tomatoes, and lima beans—and it was sensational. In fact it was so good that I ordered a sandwich to go—pulled pork. It is a typical barbecue dish; the pork is almost shredded, and very tender. It was in a soft roll with coleslaw. And it was also delicious. Three hours later, in the middle of the Atlantic, it gave me a great deal of pleasure to be able to turn down the disgusting sandwich on offer by the airline's crew."

Geoff Dyer.

"The majority of US airports, where I waste huge amounts of time due to cancelled or delayed flights, are awful places to eat," says British film critic and travel writer Geoff Dyer from Iowa. "San Francisco is the exception. There is a very good pizzeria, which even has a wood oven. In the domestic terminal there is a splendid restaurant offering American food, I can't remember the name, but it is almost a pleasure to be trapped there."

Maria Canabal. Food journalist. Le Nouvel Observateur

"I take a flight just about every week, something like a hundred times a year, and that means 100 airports. Half of the time I leave from Charles de Gaulle, which is terrible, but no worse than Orly: they are both a nightmare when it comes to food," says Le Nouvelle Observateur's food writer. "It's a disgrace. Firstly, because France is the world's number one tourist destination; secondly, because we are in the country that invented haute cuisine," she says. Canabal is also critical of Barajas: "dried up ham, sold as ibérico, along with a glass of fifth-rate Rioja. Aimed mainly at fooling foreigners. In Europe, fast food rules, but Schiphol is the exception: you can eat sushi, seafood, and fresh fish at Bubbles Seafood and Wine Bar." She also recommends the fresh oysters at Copenhagen airport.

Among her top airports are JFK in New York, Singapore's Changi, and Hong Kong. "At JFK, the Piquillo has Spanish dishes like chorizo, ham, and even octopus, but don't touch the croquettes."

She is even more impressed by Singapore and Hong Kong: "How come they are able to offer varied menus at a reasonable price?" she asks. "Singapore's airport food is as good as anything you'd find in the rest of the country. Changi has 80 restaurants offering anything from halal, vegetarian, and even special food for people suffering from jet lag. Prima Taste has perfect Singaporean food. Bar Harry has great desserts. In Hong Kong it's possible to eat really good pasta, and its risottos and ossobuco are fantastic, as of course are the Chinese noodles. If it is possible to eat really well in Hong Kong, then why not in other airports?"

Gabe Ulla.

"I rarely arrive at airports with enough time, so I tend to prefer informal places with good food," says Ulla, who writes for gastronomy website Eater.com. "I am lucky because that seems to be the general rule with airport restaurants. In Heathrow, I always go to Wagamama. In Los Angeles, I go to the Loteria Grill and Pink's Hot Dogs, and in Chicago to Rick Bayless' pancake place or Garret's Popcorn. At the risk of sounding like an idiot, sometimes there is nothing better than a MacDonald's hamburger. At the same time when you realize that an airport is offering something beyond the routine, it's very impressive. You suddenly realize that it is possible to eat well in a restaurant, that it can be a pleasurable experience. In La Guardia, for example, they have recently opened outlets run by butcher Pat LaFrieda, baker Jim Lahey, or pizza maker Dom DeMarco. JFK has gone further: it now has a Riad Nasr and Lee Hanson restaurant, the guys who run the kitchens at Balthazar and the Minetta Tavern; along with a sandwich joint run by Andrew Carmellina, and a branch of the classic steakhouse The Palm."

"I pass through Spain frequently, and to be honest, I have to say that the food at Barcelona, Madrid, or San Sebastián has never impressed me much." As a foreigner, she points out another problem: "The websites of Spain's airports have no information about restaurants or maps showing where they are. I think that is something they need to look into."

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS