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Why is airport food so terrible at many US east coast airports?

Healthy, tasty options are sparse at many east coast airports while other major US airports like SFO have better options. I have been baffled by this phenomenon. I invite you to share your insights/experiences on this issue

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  1. I too get upset with out. Too many chains, and when I do find out a unique place it doesn't seem to last.

    Here's what I propose - A tapas and wine bar at every airport using seasonal and regional foods.

    Small plates appeal to everyone, and so does wine and beer.

    I think you could do this easily and then there is a convenient restaurant that's on everyone's list to visit while traveling.

    1. are you sure about this? i went to a great wine bar in DC. not sure whether it was Dulles or the other one. We also just had a great dinner at a Legal Seafoods at Logan airport. I think my hometown airport (LAX) stinks for food!

      5 Replies
      1. re: trolley

        You are probably thinking about Vino Volo in Dulles. This is a small chain that has about 10 or so airport locations around the US. They have a nice selection of wines, pricey though. They offer a few small dishes but don't really have a kitchen so the food is mostly simple things that can be prepped ahead and served cold like a cheese or meat plate, or just reheated. I also like them because they are comfortable and relaxing compared to the other airport bars which are usually overcrowded and have blaring TVs.

        Other than that I don't have a lot of great memories of east coast airports. They seem to go more for chains and quick and easy food. The Legal Seafood restaurant in Boston is an exception (I think they might even have two locations in different terminals). Very good airport food.

        The west coast does seem to have better options. San Francisco airport is a little different because they seem to encourage local restaurants to open branches in the airport there is a lot of variety. Sea-Tac is probably my favorite airport for food. Once you get past security for all terminals you walk into a huge food court with lots of choices. The most formal restaurant there is a local seafood chain and the food is always excellent and the prices do not seem to have that airport upcharge. Portland has Rogue Ale House and a few other choices as well.

        O'Hare airport in Chicago is amazingly bad in terms of food choices considering it is one of the busiest airports in the world. Minneapolis, however, is surprisingly good too.

        I've spent most of the last ten years doing a lot of business travel, in case you couldn't guess.

        1. re: pamf

          yeah, i guess i had wine and a cheese plate. not much for food there, huh? hey, pour wine in front of me and everything becomes great!

          the thing about SFO and Sea-Tac (the latter i haven't been to but i can speak to SFO since i used to live in the Bay) is that food is their thing, or at least in SF. i know SFO tries to boast what they're famous for and really it comes down to the golden gate bridge, fog, and food. i remember reading about this about a decade ago in the SF Gate when they were redoing the airport...

          1. re: trolley

            SFO just opened another remodeled terminal this year with another batch of restaurants. I think you are thinking of the International Terminal that was built about a decade ago. There is a large food court there and it is outside security so it is accessible to all travelers.

            I live in the SF Bay Area, so I don't really eat at the airport, usually just a little something for breakfast if it's an early flight.

            1. re: pamf

              yes. exactly pamf. and if you can go to the cheese board, arizmendi's or tartine before you go the airport why bother eating there? man, i miss the food in sf!

              1. re: trolley

                SFO is a major transfer airport for people heading out on international flights. Lots of people end up there with relatively long layovers, so for those folks all of the food options are quite nice.

      2. I haven't found much difference between East Coast airports and airports elsewhere. What I have found is that there are two worlds that run by distinctly different rules: There is "real world," which is populated by people who can go elsewhere if the food at a restaurant or other establishment is plain, uninspiring, and expensive, and there is "airport world" where the restaurants, fast food places, delis and mini-groceries have a captive audience. Short of an expensive cab ride, and plenty of time, as a traveler, you can't escape "airport world."

        I used to go to a top notch deli near my home and custom design a delicious lunch for consumption on the plane. Then the shoe bomber and the terrorists with the liquid explosives and others of their ilk made anything soft and/or plasticky--or wet--"SUSPECT"--like brownies, fudge, cheese, sandwiches meatballs and soft drinks. Several people have said that you can bring such items with you, but I have found that bringing such foods with you is likely to cause problems, and it is a real hassle.

        So, the triumph of "airport world" is complete. One of its ancillary rules now is that you MUST buy all foodstuffs from the ridiculously overpriced, under-qualitied vendors of "airport world," which exist throughout the world.

        The exceptions are the few airports like Singapore's where the government regulates prices, providing that vendors may not charge more than the average price for food or restaurant items back in the "real world," adjusted for rental costs of airport space. This ups the price a little, but, amazingly, not that much. (And no, I do not normally favor price regulation. It generally lowers quality, but perhaps it is necessary where there is no price or quality competition, like in "airport world." Anyway, it works at Singapore's airport.

        "Airport world" is a classic example of monopolies in action.

        Many years ago, Chicago columnist Bob Greene wrote an article about O'Hare Airport, home of the $6.00 hot dog. I can't imagine what hot dogs must be going for there now.

        4 Replies
        1. re: gfr1111

          i have never had difficulty bringing food on a plane and I travel often. I usually carry cheese, crackers, trail mix, and fruit and, if it's a long flight, a manageable sandwich or wrap from one of my favorite boston places (michaels, curry's or seven subs and I have the them cut the sandwiches and wrap the individual halves). I've never been questioned, stopped or bothered about my food. On the other hand, it isn't convenient for everybody to prepare in advance and it's too bad there aren't better, healthier and more affordable options.

          1. re: gfr1111

            I just came back from a trip where I had a hunk of cheese, several different sticks of cured meats and bag full of pastries. It was no problem getting it passed.

            It's not unusual for me to fly back with room temp safe items. I always make sure things are wrapped clearly and I pull it all out and have it sitting to be xrayed through on top of my bag. I'll try to pre-empt by mentioning it as my bag gets into the machine.

            At most it's an extra 5 minutes after the bag goes through and they question me. Once in a while, they'll want it run through again with just the item in the bin. The extra 5 minutes is well worth it to me for the good food. Never really had a problem but I always exhibit calmness,patience and a willingness to explain what's in there.

            1. re: gfr1111

              I've never had any trouble bringing solid food through security (although my yogurt was rejected one morning). There are many threads on chowhound about what foods to take when flying.

              SFO also has rules about businesses charging more at the airport than they do at locations outside the airport.

              1. re: Ruth Lafler

                Vancouver has that as well. I typically have an 8 hour evening layover, and get a nice dinner in the International terminal.

            2. I'm actually amazed that the food is as good as it is in any airport (domestic or otherwise).

              Think about it. What motivation is there to make decent, much less good, food at an airport concourse. You literally have a captive audience. People are either waiting to bored and/or tired, or are delayed, or on some god-forbidden layover. People ain't going nowhere, they're board, and what do people generally do to pass the time when they are board? Eat.

              There are also constraints with eating establishments -- at least the ones past the security checkpoints. Most notable constraint? Real silverware.

              But with all that said, like I mentioned up above, I'm still amazed that the food is still as good as it is. Yes, the prices are high (even though some airports have "street pricing"), but generally the food is pretty darn passable given the circumstances.

              1. I don't see much difference. The main reason why airport food is mostly bad is because the restaurants don't have repeat customers and they go for the lowest denominator: cheap ingredients delivered by Sysco.

                1. I think there's also constraints of time -- some people do have time to sit down and have a regular meal with silverware -- but lots more people transiting an airport have a time to grab something fast on the way between terminals -- something they can grab and toss in their bag or carry on the plane.

                  So it needs to be relatively temperature stable (because at best it's going to be 20 minutes or more before the customer gets on the plane and they turn off the seatbelt lights) -- not too smelly -- we've all ended up next to the guy with a curried-tuna-with-onions sandwich. Ugh Ugh Ugh.

                  By the time you combine fast and portable, temperature stable, and not too greasy/smelly -- there just aren't many other options. At least the amount of fresh fruit on offer seems to have improved in recent years (not necessarily the quality, but....)

                  1. I"ve found Midway in Chicago to have a good variety of reasonably-priced food. As previously mentioned, Legal Seafood at Boston Logan is also good; I also like Obrycki's at BWI. Otherwise, apart from SFO and Seatac, airport offerings seem to be pretty mediocre all across the US. I'm sure there are exceptions here and there.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: Steve Green

                      heh -- I remember when Midway was this dank, dark little cave of a place and if you were hungry, you'd be better off starting in on your luggage. Yeah, it was that dire. Got *much* better after they opened the new terminal.

                    2. airports are just bus stations with runways. why should there be good food in one?

                      1. There are some background factors at work that may be opaque to the public but that help explain some of this.

                        Prices for food, and everything else at airports, are determined not by the vendors but, effectively and sometimes explicitly, by the airport authority. The airport authority has to cover it's cost of providing the airport, and we're talking not just millions but billions of dollars at big airports. Every vendor at every airport is paying the AA concession fees to be there, and obviously passing them along to customers. These vary, but can be huge. Concession and space rental fees are important revenue sources for airports. This is why things typically cost more at airports--you are paying for the thing, and on top of it a fee that goes to the AA and helps pay for the airport itself. This is a major reason why food is expensive at airports. It also explains why rental cars cost more at airports than city locations. Let's not even talk about high parking rates, the big revenue enchillada for most airports (in the US anyway).

                        In the days before boarding passes, when families could actually go out the concourses to meet passengers, food vendor fees were viewed as a great way to increase airport revenues, since that and parking were the main ways to make something off of non-travelers. That approach is still embedded in airport authorities' ways of doing business.

                        Due to complaints over the years, AA's have sometimes adjusted fees so that branded fast food could be sold at airports for prices that were more typical of street prices. But at most airports you still will not see much of the specials you see outside, so the actual meal cost does remain higher.

                        As to food quality, I don't know if West is better than East--I doubt the difference, if any, is large. Maybe enough folks in SFO demand green so there's a tendency to provide it. But in general chowhounds like us are a tiny fraction of the population, and few people go to airports expecting to find significant upscale or even really good offerings, so my suspicion is that airport food quality generally mirrors what the market's average expectation is. One would think that, if there were more profit in "better" food, there would be more of it.

                        1. Actually, I think that it is just much "airport food," in general.

                          On the East Coast, well sort of... Charlotte has some decent food.

                          Denver, obviously NOT on the EC, has a couple of really good restaurants.

                          Phoenix had one great restaurant in the old Concourse 2.

                          San Francisco has two good restaurants, on the United concourse.

                          Los Angeles, seems to not have discovered good food, at least not even close to any gate that UAL flies out of - maybe elsewhere?

                          As a side-note, we went to JFK (was that terminal 4?), so wife could do mass, and ate at some tropical-themed bar, as our hotel had horrible food. It was really quite good, and the bartender was a hoot. Not sure how many people will go to an airport to attend church, and then eat, but we did just that.


                          1. Acme Oyster House has a branch in the New Orleans airport, Interstate BBQ has a place in the Memphis airport. I've never actually eaten at either one of the locations, but I'm thinking that given the parent company, neither would be an awful choice.

                            On another note, there is a Popeye's in Hartsfield in Atlanta that would rival any in the country just because the morning crew is so much fun! Unfortunately, I can't remember what terminal...

                            2 Replies
                            1. re: Clarkafella

                              I've had several early morning breakfasts from the Popeye's in ATL terminal B - the food and service were some of the best I've had from fast food. The Sbarro's in terminal B earned my love last year when they stayed open all night while I was stranded in the airport overnight (along with a couple hundred others).

                              1. re: Clarkafella

                                I think there's a beignet place in the NOLA airport too. I can't think of many airports I'd rather be stuck in and hungry than MSY.

                              2. Don't have a huge amount of experience with East coast airports, but I feel like the pizza is usually a good bet because the bar is set higher out there. One of the best slices I've ever had in my life was from a sad-looking randomly selected airport pizzeria in New Jersey.

                                1. One thing that I'm not sure anyone has taken into account is that post 9/11 (AKA when the airports went bat shit crazy) all the utensils that make edible food possible (Knives, food processors, corkscrews etc) were removed from these establishments. The reason the food is garbage is because that is all they can sell. Also, if anybody has driven by an Olive Garden at 5:00 on a Tuesday, garbage is what the 'Merican' people seem to want....Just saying.

                                  1. A mostly transient clientele holds little inducement for airports to serve great food. Their food is generally for the masses.

                                    1. The east coast airports are older and not all have been modernized, or don't have the space or funding to do so. A few refreshing ones are Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Jacksonville. Miami has a nice vibe, but the area is scary. Laguardia and Hartsfield are still a cry for help, as is Dulles. Western airports like Dallas and Denver and McCarran had the luxury of endless land and modern planning, no surprise they are comfortable. Kansas City is nice, but way too far from town. And Cleveland - why did it take 10 years to remodel an airport? 'Splain it to us, Dennis.

                                      As an aside, the rents merchants pay in municipal airports could choke a horse. I have a golf buddy in Denver who has 9 spots at DIA, and he whines that he works for the landlord. But he always has a shoeshine and a smile, so I take him with a grain of salt. And he can get up and down from anywhere.

                                      My biggest beef with all of them is the cost to park for a week or so. Extortion.

                                      2 Replies
                                      1. re: Veggo

                                        Charlotte has a brand spanking new airport (those bankers like to fly in style) and lots of food, although I didn't try any myself. The best-looking restaurant I've ever seen in an airport was a French bistro in Terminal 3 at Heathrow. Of course, Terminal 3 at Heathrow also has a Tiffany's -- just the place to stop off and buy a bauble for the wife on the way home from a long business trip (or a naughty weekend with the mistress).

                                        1. re: Veggo

                                          Pittsburgh Airport is "refreshing"? Is there another PIT I am unaware of, as I don't recall there being any better option than a TGIFridays and the whole place had the look and feel of 1985. Granted, last time I was there was about 1.5 years ago.

                                        2. It probably has a lot to do with the overall state of some airport in the east, La Guardia strikes to me as being of the worst looking and feeling airport i've been to in the east coast of USA, and food after the security checkpoint is the same.

                                          However, i was pleasantly surprised with Philadelphia when i had a connection there in july, a nice beer restaurant serving close to 100 different kind of beers and many micro brews

                                          1. Why are you baffled? It needs to be fast and inexpensive because you've spent a bundle on an airline ticket. You are not in the airport to have a culinary experience. I find that here in Seattle it's decent food. You can get a sandwich that has more protein than bread and some decent fish and chips...what more can you expect? Especially when they are probably regulated regarding price, etc.

                                            1. Here is a link that gives a flavor of the airport concession business--this relates to San Diego.


                                              In general, many if not most airport authorities hand the concessions over to a master operator who then operates the various locations, even those who are national brands or locally famous places. There are exceptions--San Francisco made an explicit decision to a few years ago to bring in local food operators to a major extent as a way to showcase local cuisine. But this is still not a common way to go.

                                              1 Reply
                                              1. re: johnb

                                                To Veggo's point upthread, airport age has something to do with it.

                                                I think the type of airport matters to. Regional airports or domestic oriented hubs ( like Midway ), with smaller load factors and less long layover international traffic, are more prone to having only fast food. That being said, I once walked pretty much every terminal in the humongous Atlanta airport and only found fast food, so that rule of thumb doesn't always hold.

                                                I haven't been to Logan airport in over a decade but everything I have read would suggest it has some decent food. Still not enough to make me drive down there from NH though.

                                              2. I think it's because they know that if you're eating at an airport it's not because you're looking for culinary pleasure or adventure -- it's because you're trying to not pass out from starvation during the next leg of your journey. And to find other options you'd have to cross a forbidding moat of parking lots, into the unknown of an unfamiliar city with limited time to get back. You are trapped.

                                                1. There is a Cheesesteak place at the Philadelphia airport that is pretty dang good, although it IS overpriced. I just wish I could remember the name.

                                                  1 Reply
                                                  1. re: PotatoHouse

                                                    You might mean "Chickies and Pete's" more known for thier crab fries than for the steaks. It was also named the #1 sports bar in North America in an ESPN poll. There's I believe 4 locations all around PHL.

                                                    Also tasty is "Earl of Sandwich" in Terminal D