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NEW YORK ( MainStreet) -- As much as people complain about airplane food, meals on the ground within the actual airport are sometimes far worse than in the air. You usually have a choice of assembly-line Chinese food, glorified snack bars and pizza restaurants that make an outpost of Chili's Too look like fine dining. Stricter airport restrictions since 9/11 made the situation worse.
In the past few years, though, a stronger travel market has spurred a wave of gourmet dining options at some of the world's top travel hubs, where layovers usually allow for leisurely meals free of paper napkins and plastic trays.
London's famous Pizza Express can also be found at Hong Kong International Airport.
Tucked within Terminal E of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport,
One Flew South can entice even a reluctant airport eater to sit down for lengthy sushi feasts and gourmet meals just a few steps past the main security shakedown area. A glassy entrance framed in a singular slab of pink Cherokee marble leads to a main dining room wrapped in photographic mural of a Georgia forest. Floors are laid in knotty wide-plank pine with modern white leather chairs and a marble sushi bar popular with the local sports and celebrity set (some of whom even skip the first-class lounge to visit). A menu of "southernational" flavors uses locally sourced ingredients when possible on such meals as pecan-dusted scallops, thyme-roasted pork belly and selections of sashimi and Japanese cut rolls.
Those flying out of JFK find no shortage of culinary options, as long as they're in the right terminal. In Terminal 5, JetBlue's NYC hub, the culinary offerings are without compromise. Former Buddakan chef Michael Schulson leads one of the best eateries from within the modern, neon-blue dining room at
Deep Blue -- serving tuna tartare spring rolls, calamari salads and glazed black cod from a sushi, robata and yakitori kitchen. Those not in the mood for Japanese find the first tapas-style eatery in any U.S. airport at
Piquillo. Its Moorish-tile walls and arched ceiling could just as easily be in Barcelona's Gothic District with an all-day menu of jamon tomate, fried squid sandwiches and grilled lamb chops with enough garlic to ward-off chatty middle-seaters.