Finally, good eats on the fly

We’ve all had to juggle the airport food options when our flights are delayed by some combination of inclement weather in Newark, faulty deicing machinery and poltergeist. So the hunt begins. Do we have time to sit down for a burger and beer at T.G.I. Fridays or should we just hit Popeyes at the food court for a box of chicken? Isn’t there a sushi kiosk nearby? Could we make it to One Flew South on Concourse E for a cocktail that doesn’t involve a soda gun?

Now imagine the choices include your favorite Atlanta restaurants and the dishes you love. You might nosh on a plate of fried goat cheese fritters with honey and cracked pepper from Ecco, some oysters on the half shell from Twist or a Nucci pizza from Varasano’s Pizzeria, with its blanket of shaved capicola and arugula over a crisp, airy crust.

All of this will be a reality once the new lineup of airport concessions rolls out. The first wave will debut this spring with the opening of the new international Concourse F and its mezzanine, where many of the new dining options will be located. Others will follow gradually into early 2014, as previous concession-holders relinquish their spaces to the dozens of newcomers that won the Atlanta City Council’s approval this month. Thanks to these local businesses and some high-quality franchise operations, could Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport one day have a reputation as one of the nation’s better airports for dining?

Maybe. And maybe by 2014, the Falcons will make it to the Super Bowl.

In other words, we’re going to have to wait and see just how well all these new dining options approximate their intown counterparts. Each of these restaurants will be operated through a licensing agreement with a food-service operator. While many of them will take an active role in menu development and staff training, they’ll have to deal with operating partners with their own bottom-line demands as well as a very different environment at the airport. Kitchen staffs will learn to cook with knives chained to the walls and, in some cases, electric heat rather than gas. Waiters will have to accommodate some guests with major time constraints and others aghast at what will surely be premium prices for dishes that go cheaper in Midtown.

But whatever the outcome, Atlanta’s airport will no longer be the near-desert of fast food and aging chains from the fern-bar era it is now. Seriously, I can’t think of the last time I perused a bar menu that proffered strawberry daiquiris front and center, except in the Atlanta airport.

For me, the only pleasures our airport currently offers (with the exception of One Flew South) are guilty ones. A chicken biscuit, a hamburger washed down with a terrible California merlot and too many french fries, a box of antediluvian Chinese noodles. Mostly I try to make do with a yogurt cup or a salad and write the experience off to joyless healthful eating.

So I, for one, look forward to the changes underfoot at the airport. Even the food courts are poised for an upgrade with the likes of scaled-down versions of Tamarind Seed Thai Bistro, Yeah Burger, Grindhouse Killer Burgers and Rolling Bones BBQ. A decent pulled pork sandwich or cup of shrimp and lemongrass soup can go a long way when you’re a hungry traveler.

Perhaps the biggest news is the imminent opening of Ecco in the Mezzanine area of Concourse F. This Midtown Mediterranean restaurant features a number of shareable small plates, wood-fired flatbreads and salumi and cheese boards, as well as a few pastas and entrees. An excellent wine-by-the-glass list and fine glassware complete the easygoing yet quality experience.

Robby Kukler, an owner of Ecco, says the new airport version “will be very similar in look, feel and style, but a bit pared back in size.” A wood-burning oven will serve as the room’s centerpiece. Kukler knows he’ll have to make adjustments. Most airport guests will only have 45 minutes to eat (half the time they take in Midtown), and the rush will begin around 2 p.m.

Varasano’s will undergo a more significant change in format for its new berth in a space carved from the rear of Concourse A’s food court. A large, wraparound eating bar will surround the pizza oven — the same Swedish-made model used at the intown restaurant, according to owner Jeff Varasano. While there will be a few tables, this Varasano’s will be more set up for quick-turn meals.

If you want more of a sit-down meal in Concourse A, then you’ve got two well-known chains — Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen and P.F. Chang’s China Bistro — to choose from. (Honestly, I once found a bowl of Pappadeaux’ fine gumbo in a Houston airport to be a lifesaver after a couple of days of grim meals on the go.)

The other concourse we Delta-bound Atlantans know well — Concourse B — will have a simulacrum of Buckhead’s Twist. Like Ecco, this restaurant made its reputation on small plates rather than full entrees. But here the flavors skew Asian, with dishes such as chicken satay, tuna wasabi flatbread and Thai curry noodles with shrimp. There will also be sushi and raw-bar offerings as well as a spacious bar area that should be quite the draw.

“We know there will be a lot of single people,” says David Abes of Twist’s parent company, the Here to Serve restaurant group.

You heard it here first: Your next stop is Concourse B: Concourse B, as in “booty call.”

Concourse C, with its more budget-minded AirTran/Southwest travelers in the mix, will have plenty of value-priced Atlanta dining in the food court. Chick-fil-A will go head-to-head with the Varsity, offering the tantalizing prospect of a chicken sandwich washed down with a Frosted Orange. Rolling Bones BBQ and College Park’s the Pecan (a Southern bistro) will keep the flavors local. If you have time for a sit-down meal, Longhorn Steakhouse is your option.

By the time we get to Concourse D, with its competing airlines bringing in travelers from all over, we will have a more touristy vision of dining in the South. Here’s where Ludacris will open Chicken N Beer, the restaurant named for his rap album. Georgia Grown — the brand established by the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association — will operate a grab-and-go sandwich kiosk. The rendering shows a farmers market design, though I can’t imagine any travelers will want the turnips and whole melons pictured. It would be beyond swell if Georgia Grown offered some peaches or muscadines in season — those would be airport snacks worth paying a premium for. (Repeated attempts to contact the kiosk’s management company were not answered by the time of publication.)

What else? Concourse T will have a branch of Goldberg’s Bagel Company and Deli (expect all New Yorkers to hate it). Offerings in Concourse E, which recently changed its concessions, remain the same.

I only have one regret when I look at the new plans, and that concerns the airport’s atrium. Longtime food court tenant Paschal’s will be gone, replaced by a stall from Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen. (Paschal’s will move to Concourse B.) My favorite guilty pleasure in all the airport is Paschal’s stewed-to-oblivion greens with a corn muffin crumbled into it. I almost always get a cup when I have time before a flight or when I’m waiting for someone to arrive.

Sorry, Popeyes. All these new options at the airport sound great, but I’m going to miss my greens in the atrium.

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