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,
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
-- 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
. 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.
In Chicago, chef Rick Bayless oversees
, dedicated to the famous Mexican street sandwiches, in Terminal 1 of O'Hare International Airport. It's edible bliss, as long as you don't mind standing while you eat. At Los Angeles International Airport many flock to iconic
-style martini bar and retro eatery, but in the Southwest-dominated Terminal 1 you'll find creations from one of the country's best bakers at
offering a counter of fresh scones, cheesy sandwiches and French-inspired salads.
You'd think that the best culinary airport offerings on the European mainland would be in a city such as Paris, but rather surprisingly the famous Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport is lacking in worthy dining experiences aside from the Alain Ducasse meals created especially for those in Air France's La Premiere Lounge. What many consider the continent's best airport restaurant can actually be found in
Amsterdam Airport Schiphol
, where Bubbles lures showy travelers to its grand seafood and wine bar. It has a lofty two-story space and long bar serving a trove of cured seafood platters a dice throw from an in-house casino. Those that know the difference between Beluga and Sevruga find an elegant caviar presentation complete with spooned accouterments and champagne or vodka pairings on request.
, within the main departures area of London Heathrow Airport's 3-year-old Terminal 5, offers an all-day culinary playground owned by Gordan Ramsay and overseen by Buenos Aires chef Cesar Bartolini. Designed by Bentel & Bentel architects, who created the look of New York's Craft and Gramercy Tavern, it bears giant industrial buttresses as frames to windows overlooking the main airplane gates, infusing the space with almost blinding light in a city famous for its gloom. Modish design elements such as chairs with a nod to midcentury design and a long bar with an overhead mural feel miles away from the main terminal as plates of eggs benedict, chicken liver parfait, roasted cod with polenta chips and 28-day aged ribeye offer a pre-flight foodie fix.
At Hong Kong International Airport, business travelers often find themselves with multihour layovers at the most random of morning hours. In Terminal 1 is
, offering a traditional dining room of wonton, congee and local specialties that's open at 8 a.m. as well as 8 p.m. Those preferring something a bit more western find London's famous
on level 7 in the departures area offering wood-oven specialties such as baked dough balls and ricotta cannelloni as well as grilled chicken salads and Roman or Neapolitan-style pizzas with toppings such as truffles or even Peking Duck (also available for carry-away, or fly-away).
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Michael Martin is the managing editor of JetSetReport.com, a luxury travel and lifestyle guide based in Los Angeles and London. His work has appeared in InStyle, Blackbook, Elle, U.K.'s Red magazine and on ITV and the BBC.