For the better part of the last decade, I’ve been on a plane roughly six to ten times a month. By my rough estimation, that’s about 700 flights, 700 TSA checks, 700 low-coughs to let people know that you walk to the left and stand to the right (c’mon!), and 700 chances to find the best airport bar.
I’ve learned lots of weird little things, like if you carry Devil in the White City on board, nine out of ten Midwestern salesmen will want to tell you that they “looove it, great read, really.” I’ve also learned that a life spent constantly on the road can leave you feeling like an one-woman island with nothing but a set of earbuds to your name. And during those interminable hours in the terminal, it’s the bars and restaurants that hand you a much-needed beer — or coffee, or maybe even a hug — that help you feel a little more tethered to the earth. Here are my ten favorite spots for just such a fix.
Schlafly Tap Room, Southwest Terminal
I live in Chicago but I decided to freeze my eggs in St. Louis, thanks to a family friend who happened to be a fertility specialist willing to give me a deep discount. It was a small price to pay to fly down there every other day for a week to be monitored. I’d take the 6 a.m. flights down from Midway, go straight to the hospital, and take the 9:30 a.m. back to Chicago. After maintaining this schedule for what felt like years (but was really just a week or so), I finally finished my last appointment and, full of hormones, arrived at STL...at which point I realized that I had somehow lost my ID. I had no option but to burst into tears (surprisingly easy with three shots of hormones a day) at the security counter and, miraculously, it worked. I was escorted thru security with a requisite pat-down. (And you know what? I got where I needed to go, and I am not ashamed.) My flight, meanwhile, had been delayed so I found a table at Schlafly and ordered a big breakfast. But there was a problem: I could not stop crying. Big tears, gulping sobs, snot sliding down my face — I couldn’t even tell you why. It was a scene. I was hormonal and alone in an airport. Eventually I calmed myself down enough to get the bill and saw that they’d only charged for me for toast. The bartender gave me a hug; someone handed me a pile of tissues. I think about that snotty wad of Kleenex all the time.
Tortas Frontera, Delta and United Terminals
I try to avoid O’Hare if possible — that shit is cray — but not enough can be said about the micheladas at Tortas Frontera. Those acquainted with the Chicago food scene are well versed in the Rick Bayless empire and his Frontera Grill, and I know what you’re thinking: how could an airport version of a delicious restaurant ever compete? Somehow, against logic and common sense, it holds its own. I never pass this place by. I had the smoky garlic shrimp torta and Mezcal Margarita before my flight to a lesbian wedding in Mexico; I couldn’t tell you what I had to eat when I was actually in Mexico.
Sky Canyon, Main Concourse
After a particularly long corporate retreat in Dallas, my flight home was cancelled. On the verge of full breakdown (I hadn’t seen my dog in five days. Five days!) and waiting for Southwest to rebook my ticket, I bellied up to Sky Canyon. It’s Texas; they know a little bit about meat. The burger was perfect, juicy, red in the middle. Twice, an anonymous man sent drinks over to me and the only other woman in the bar. No flirtatious messages; the bartender just said the guy wanted to buy all the ladies some drinks and wasn’t looking for thanks or acknowledgment. This didn’t creep me out; after the day I’d had, I would’ve happily waved. But nope. He just wanted us to enjoy some free drinks. Thank you, anonymous Texas traveler.
Café Patachou, departures level
Occasionally, a girl who travels often will find herself convention cities, crossing paths with the crowds that accompany national gatherings. Such was the case when I passed through Indianapolis for work during the NFL Combine two years ago. The Indianapolis Airport setup is a little odd; all of the best restaurants and bars exist outside of TSA security. A little to the left, I followed some Chicago Bears executives to Café Patachou, where you can get a BLT and a Bloody Mary that could kill any hangover. Despite desperately craning my neck, I heard nothing of my beloved Bears’ top prospects — but the Bloody Mary was so good, I didn’t care.
Legends of San Francisco, Southwest Terminal
I love San Francisco: It hosts some of the world’s best restaurants, a handful of nature’s most beautiful spaces, and a cluster of my favorite people. Whenever I leave, the emotional comedown is painful. It’s a long flight home, and how do you beat pasta at Nopa? Dim Sum in Chinatown? You don’t. Legends of San Francisco forces you to accept that your time in culinary paradise is over; it’s a little restaurant that doesn’t try to be anything more than what it is, a countertop with a menu consisting of approximately two sandwiches. You can get chips on the side. It forces you to truly feel your post-vacation depression over a turkey panini and a Bud Light. It’s also “cozy,” so you’re probably sitting in the lap of the person next to you, but misery loves company.
Sam Adams Brew House, Concourse A
Maybe I don’t fit in in Memphis or the South in general. Every time I go down there, I feel a little bit like a square peg in a round hole — but I do my best to fit in and speak softly and put a little more effort into my hair and make-up. It’s a lot of work. It’s a lot of time being “on.” And at the end of these stints, all I want to do is get home, talk to no one, and not have to force a smile or pretend I possess a modicum of charm. The bartenders at the Brewhouse understand this; there is no expectation of Southern gentility. They’ll make it a double with nary a “bless your heart” in sight.
Ike’s Food and Cocktails, airport mall
My job has required me to spend far more time in the Twin Cities than nearly anywhere else. I arrive early in the morning and return to Chicago the same day, sometimes at lunchtime, sometimes — in the case of bad delays — in the dead of night. Which is to say, I’ve spent all hours of the day at MSP. As far as airport restaurants go, Ike’s is special: a nice steakhouse, cloth napkins and all, smack in the middle of the terminal. I started going there simply because I was amazed by how fancy it looked (granted, the bar is very low in an airport). And baked potatoes! They don’t pass judgment if you order a Bloody Mary at a weekday lunch and they’ve always substituted hash browns for me without a charge. Particularly dazed after a ten day swing across the country, I left my computer at the bar for a solid 40 minutes. Appropriately panicked, I ran back. There it was, waiting for me, and the staff seemed genuinely concerned (it’s not often a business traveler stumbles out without her laptop and takes more than two minutes to realize it). Every time I’m at MSP, I go back. I know they’ll take care of me.
Legal Seafoods, National Hall
I once saw Ted Kennedy at a Legal Seafoods in D.C., and this implicit endorsement is enough for me. The DCA outpost is a good place to watch politicos come and go; congressmen and “famous for D.C.” types are invariably heading back to their district with that look in their eye, the one that says, “Do you recognize me? I don’t want you to... I just want to do some work on my Blackberry... But if you do recognize me, that would be okay, too… Do you recognize me? Do you? Do you?” If that’s not reason enough to swing by, DCA can have very heavy traffic but Legal Seafoods is tucked away, comparatively quiet, and you can get a good scotch.
Hissho Sushi, Atrium
At CLT, you’ve got your choice of, like, three separate Bojangles. However, if you’ve recently spent much time in Charlotte and are on your way out, my guess is that you’ve had about as much barbecue as you can take. Maybe a palate cleanser is in order? For that, there is Hissho Sushi. It’s great if you’re looking for something a little lighter before you get on the plane. (And unless you like being the person with gas on the airplane, you want to eat light.) True story: I was once offered a job while sitting at the bar. I took it.
Image via Shutterstock.
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