Even 19th-century prisoners got bread and water. These days, many airport travelers would envy them – water is the price of gold once you clear the security line, and the bread is mostly soggy sandwiches wrapped in plastic.
Ah, but things have been looking up in the flight world. As someone who travels by stomach, I’ve booked layovers based around stops at One Flew South at Atlanta’s Hartsfield and taken airport shuttle buses to reach upscale Italian offerings in distant terminals at LaGuardia.
Charlotte Douglas International Airport has joined the game, adding a new restaurant/market concept, 1897 Market, that’s the first of its kind. It joins other swanky-cool spots like the First in Flight sushi bar and the wine-centric Beaudevin. I took a jaunt around the airport recently looking for food experiences worth an upgrade before you leave the ground.
If you’re moving fast, you’re still prey to grab-and-go kiosks like The Local Rustic Market and The Farmer’s Market, where a single banana is $1.50 and the smallest bottle of Fiji Water clocks in at $4.56. But if you have more time and are willing to spend a little more, there are a few experiences now that are worth skipping a chance at one of those rocking chairs.
HMS Host, the company that runs the food at Charlotte Douglas, is pleased as a new parent, and rightly so. The old Chili’s Too space on the main concourse is now a 10,000-square-foot multi-experience space. It’s got fine dining, it’s got casual pizza-and-sandwich bar, it’s got a market with local brands like Queen City Pimento Cheese and local beers by the can.
You pay for the pleasure, of course. It’s still in the airport, and that 10-ounce tub of pimento cheese will set you back $8 to $9 – the same as some of the single cans of local beer. But in the fine-dining area, you get your money’s worth in attention to detail. Case in point: The $9.99 Old School Caesar salad is tossed with a surprisingly light and tasty dressing that involves roasting the anchovies, capers and garlic.
BBQ Shrimp & Grits is $18.99 and actually worth it: Fat shrimp (although only five of them) on a generous pile of creamy grits, topped with a tart, buttery Tabasco vinagrette. On a day with too many delays, it can give you the will to grab your carry-on and carry on.
This is where the grownups go, tucked into the main concourse behind the sushi bar. Inside, you can sit on luxe padded bar stools under wine-glass chandeliers. There are usually a couple of local wines on the list – Shelton and Biltmore Reserve on my visit. The daily pour list included Merry Edwards, and the full wine list had Pride Mountain, Far Niente and Caymus. Wine prices ran from $7 for a 3-ounce pour up to, well, a lot more – $37 for a 9-ounce glass of that Merry Edwards.
The food is just as interesting as the wine. The charcuterie platter comes in two sizes, for $14 and $20, and includes capicola, proscuitto, salami Calabrese and speck, along with a mustardy-sweet mostardo, crispy little pickles, olives and baguette slices.
Even better: Go for the $17 Scottish salmon sandwich on pecan-raisin bread. It sounds strange, but the herbed cream cheese, creme fraiche and feta pull it together beautifully. (Go with chips for your side, though: Instead of the traditional creamy dressing and bacon, the wedge salad is topped with diced tomatoes and cucumber, so it’s salad on salad. Save it for a stop when you feel vegetable-deprived.)
First in Flight, aka Hissho Sushi
To-go sushi is what I grab for a midday flight. But this is a nice place to sit if you have more time. You can linger for quite a while with a glass of wine and a $5.50 bowl of warm edamame.
You’ll also get more choices of sushi rolls. The Outer Banks Roll, $14, is filled with a rainbow arrangement of salmon, tuna, yellowtail and avocado. The rolls can be clumsy – they’re often too loose to handle smoothly with chopsticks. But they taste fresh and it beats hunching over cold French fries at a wobbly table.
It’s a hike unless you have the luck to leave from E Concourse near Gate 27 (is that the Rock Hill skyline?) But as fast-casual dining goes, it’s better than most airport meals. It’s French-inspired with fresh sandwiches like turkey, brie and apple, slipper-shaped pizzas, and salads that look bright and fresh.
It also has a pastry case as good as what you’d find at Charles de Gaulle in Paris. A sizable berry tart with cream cheese filling, whole berries and big slices of strawberry is $3.50. Take it on the plane and be the envy of your seatmates.
Bad Daddy’s Burger Bar
Every airport needs a sports bar, and this hits the marks – multiple TVs, loud music and lots of guys with ball caps. It also has a hometown following, from restaurateur Frank Scibelli’s chain. The burgers are definitely better than average, including the popular Sam I Am, topped with an egg and pesto.
If you need more virtue, though, go with the Cantina 1511, a black bean burger topped with green chiles, cheddar and Monterey Jack, avocado and chipotle ranch. With crispy edges and a creamy interior, it looks a lot like a beef burger and packs plenty of flavor.