Mid-1950s: The aroma of freshly prepared seafood and savories drifts down a grand staircase. With each step upwards, an air of suspense and excitement intensifies. Inside the doors of the Newarker, waiters dance between tables, delivering gourmet fare cooked up by Swiss chef Albert Stockli to the white-clothed tables of eager patrons — while Mr. Charles, the maître d’, makes certain each guest is comfortable and content. Outside, visible through the dining room’s wide windows, planes bound for exotic destinations glide into the heavens.
This is no dreamy, wine-induced interlude, nor a scene from a late-night classic movie. Rather, it’s a routine that played out on a nightly basis at Newark Airport (now Newark Liberty International) within the sparkling confines of the Newarker restaurant. Created by the late, legendary restaurateur Joe Baum of Four Seasons and Windows on the World fame, the Newarker’s reputation was so compelling, an estimated 90 percent of its guests made the drive to the airport not to travel but simply to dine.
“It was a time when there was still a sense of magic associated with going to an airport,” recalls Baum’s son, Charles Baum. “Travel was something of a mysterious experience. There were elements of glamour, heightened by the presence of Mr. Charles, with his enigmatic accent, and Fritzi, the hostess. From your table, you could witness planes taking off and see the flames flare from the exhausts of the turboprop jets.”
Or the flames headed for your table, where blazing cherries jubilee and flaming snowballs adorned with sparklers were served for dessert — unheard of fanfare in today’s airport restaurants. Following those halcyon days of the Newarker, hungry travelers in search of a great meal were in for a bumpy ride. Suddenly, oversized pastries and frozen meat patties were considered acceptable menu options, and already-stressed travelers were faced with less-than-healthy choices as they dashed from gate to gate.
The concept of good food fast crept back into the traveling consciousness in 1991, when celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck’s chain of casual restaurants made its airport debut. The Wolfgang Puck Express menu offered healthier, more interesting quality alternatives, from handcrafted pizzas with fresh toppings to roasted vegetable sandwiches and half rotisserie chickens with rosemary.
Due to modern safety regulations, flambéed treats are unlikely to resurface, but that hasn’t deterred a host of world-class chefs from expanding their empires into airports around the globe.
At Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, business travelers are willing to schedule longer layovers in order to dive into a plate of Executive Chef Duane Nutter’s “Southernational” cuisine at his One Flew South restaurant in Terminal E. Dishes meld traditional, locally sourced Southern ingredients with global influences. Fresh sushi, open-faced meatloaf sandwiches and thyme-roasted pork belly share the menu with gluten-free options and tasty takeaway that can be enjoyed in flight. At the bar, artisan cocktails run the gamut from the Georgia Bellini to the bourbon-based Pretty Brown Eyes.
“The restaurant is located at a busy international terminal, bringing in customers from around the world, and we’re rooted in the Southeast,” Nutter explains. “I felt it was my duty to showcase the culinary Southeast with hints of the rest of the world. It’s a blending of where we’re from, where we’re located and our diners’ palates.”
Adding to the overall experience is the restaurant’s soothing forest vibe, with a photograph mural of a Georgia forest dominating wall space and providing a backdrop for a sushi bar constructed of locally quarried pink Cherokee marble. The forest theme plays out with floors and ceilings made from native heart pine. Nutter says these elements were a deliberate choice, designed to give guests a break from the hectic airport environment in an oasis-like setting.
Both domestically and abroad, airport concessionaires are responding to a demand for higher-quality food choices (and lack of onboard food) with ready-to-go versions of menu staples. The evidence of an evolution underway is deliciously overwhelming: Menus at Brasserie Flo (Terminal 2F) at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport include Charolaise beef tartar seasoned to taste and grilled chateaubriand with béarnaise sauce, while Chef Carles Gaig’s traditional Catalan dishes are available at Porta Gaig in Terminal 1 at Barcelona-El Prat Airport.
The list of fine-dining venues continues to evolve, with Pacific Northwest specialties from Executive Chef Geoff Carkner at [email protected] Restaurant, located a five-minute walk from the international arrivals area within The Fairmont Vancouver Airport hotel; contemporary Spanish cuisine and classic Andalusian tapas at Lamoraga, star chef Dani Garcia’s concept restaurant in Terminal 3 at Málaga International Airport; authentic Bavarian dishes and a beer garden with site-brewed beers at Munich Airport’s Terminal 1; and marinated specialty meats at Hong Kong International Airport’s Hung’s Delicacies in Terminal 2.
Chef-driven airport dining is fast becoming the norm in London. Post-security on the upper level at Gatwick Airport, rustic Italian dishes made famous by television chef Jamie Oliver can be enjoyed at Jamie’s Italian, including Jamie’s Must Try Gnudi ricotta dumplings and wild rabbit casarecce.
At London Heathrow, two of Britain’s biggest names in the food world, Heston Blumenthal and Gordon Ramsay, opened airport eateries that make a long layover almost desirable. Making sure Heathrow’s T2 is fully covered from a culinary angle, Blumenthal — famous for his scientifically based molecular food pairing techniques — brings the same vision that launched his triple-Michelin-starred The Fat Duck into the spotlight to his newly opened The Perfectionists’ Café on the upper level of the departures area. The café boasts Europe’s first wood-fired pizza oven located within an airport.
“The concept is great food, fast,” explains Julian O’Neill, head chef, The Fat Duck Group. “Heston did a BBC series called In Search of Perfection. His idea was to take the food that British people like to eat and place it in this very specific type of travel environment. Travelers, especially frequent travelers, want to arrive early at the airport so they’re not rushed, and they want to sit down and relax before they get on a plane.”
While the restaurant team makes every effort to deliver orders in 11 minutes, O’Neill is clear that providing a pleasantly memorable dining experience within an airport setting is not without challenges. Airport kitchen restaurants have restrictions that include no gas flames; deliveries that must be routed through security; and no market close by should there be a sudden need for fresh poultry, butter or a block of aged Parmesan.
“It’s very different being in this environment,” O’Neill elaborates. “An airport is a stressful place, unlike a destination restaurant. It has that energy attached to it — chaotic from early morning onwards. But good food can be fast. It comes down to organization and structure. I spent months in the test kitchen and made sure recipes were transferable to this environment without losing quality or flavor. We’ve taken all of Heston’s signature techniques, including the use of CO2 for the fish fry and a nitrogen ice-cream parlor, and brought them to the airport. We’re making adjustments all the time.”
Ramsay’s Plane Food, in the departure area of T5, is open from breakfast to dinner. Sit-down meals include braised lamb, steamed sea bass, short rib burgers and dry-aged British beef. For dessert, there’s lemon posset with crème fraîche and passion fruit, and chocolate tarts with raspberry ripple ice cream.
For travelers who are watching the clock between flights, express menus at Plane Food can be enjoyed 25 minutes from ordering. Takeaway picnics come packed with choices such as prawn and baby gem cocktail; roasted Hereford rump of beef with green salad and mustard; smoked Scottish salmon with apple, celery and walnut salad; and a selection of English cheeses accompanied by quince and berries.
Airport surveys and focus groups make it clear that in addition to a true gourmet angle, travelers want to be able to make healthier choices. Neil Maxfield, acting manager of concessions, Denver International Airport, and Anthony Lincoln, the airport’s manager of business development, explain that 6,000 travelers participated in a customer survey identifying travelers’ behaviors and what constitutes the ideal travel experience.
“The answers revealed how much time travelers were willing to invest in a meal while in transit and whether business travelers were more likely to spend free time catching up on email and fine-tuning presentations or sitting down for a meal,” Maxfield says. “When we asked, ‘What do you think is missing, and what would you like to see?’ what rose to the top of responses was clear: local, healthy restaurants.”
Airport management responded, with the result that Denver’s airport earned first place in the healthy dining category in the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine’s 2013 Airport Food Review (2014 results were not available at time of publication).
On Denver Airport’s Concourse B, Etai’s Bakery Café gluten-free choices and signature artisan breads, baked daily, feature in its made-to-order sandwiches and panini. Along with Root Down and its field-to-fork philosophy (Concourse C), the airport’s expanding choices of good-for-you foods include the newly opened Modmarket on Concourse B, with a seasonally changing menu of fresh, healthy ingredients including its signature selection of vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free options.
Are the glory days of airport dining coming full circle? Joe Baum passed away in 1997, and Hilton has since taken the Newarker restaurant name. Only the memories, and a handful of original menus, remain. At his business, Cool Culinaria, with its quirky collections of vintage menu art, Charles Baum still has a few of those Newarker menus on hand. Afloat in a calm, blue sky, the fleecy clouds on the menu’s cover suggest something heavenly waiting just inside. Before deciding on the restaurant’s famous Knife and Fork Oysters or roast loin of Jersey pork filled with spiced plums, diners were greeted with this inscription: “The essence of the culinary art is time … but … if time is of the essence — we will be happy to suggest those items ready for immediate service.”
“I think,” offers Baum thoughtfully, “my father would be impressed by how airport operators are saying good food is a good idea. As travelers, we are often anxious. Once you’re at the airport, pausing for a good meal offers an opportunity to soothe the soul and feed the senses. This provides a great distraction and relief to stress. I think he’d be pleased to see the dining opportunities available today and charmed with the evolution.”
Perhaps it’s that old menu’s dual promise of gastronomic bliss on the fly, delivered in a timely manner, that today’s chefs are striving to achieve within the limits of airport settings — edging ever closer to the days when Mr. Charles stopped tableside to say good evening and to make sure each guest was enjoying an unforgettable meal.
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