I’ve had some of the best food of my life in New York. The steakhouses are world famous. There’s a little Korean place in Brooklyn where I suddenly understood bibimbap. I had breakfast pancakes that came with a butterball the size of an ice cream scoop. And then I went to John F Kennedy Airport and had to have a packet of crisps for lunch before my flight back to London.
This is usually the case: you travel across the world to eat amazing food, and then at the airport you’re stuck with a choice of a dry sandwich or junk food. We’re a captive audience once we’ve passed security, true, and if you’re hungry you’ll eat whatever is available.
But as people are becoming more interested in good food, this is surely a missed opportunity for airport authorities. There’s only so much Toblerone you can buy – and what better way to soothe the restlessness ahead of boarding a plane than to have something to eat? At the airport we’re stuck with nothing to do but wait – It’s the perfect time for a snack.
Yet this is a desire that seems destined to go unfulfilled. There are glimmers of hope as airports around the world will occasionally surprise, and the situation overall is less terrible than it used to be. But usually, the pickings are slim. Barcelona may be a tapas paradise, but the airport is a sad story for gastronomy. When I went to the brand new Doha Airport in Qatar, the best I could do was an over-refrigerated chickpea salad. Last summer, when I was stuck for several hours at Amsterdam Schiphol – one of the best-designed airports I’ve ever been to – I ate McDonald’s. Twice.
Then there was the occasion last year, when I made the mistake of going to Berlin Schönefeld airport before having breakfast, and I have to admit things got a little hairy as I searched for something to eat that would be more substantial than a chocolate bar. There was plenty of gluten – lots of baguettes and randomly, pasta salads – but as one of the rising number of poor sods with food intolerances, the airport is a stressful place when your blood sugar is dropping.
In the end I found a Burger King, and as I placed my order with shaking hands didn’t even care that it would mean an end to my 15 year streak of successfully avoiding junk food chains. I might have been fresh from a week in Berlin, where I ate endless plates of excellent food, but I remember that sad chicken salad as one of the most gratifying meals of my life.
To be clear, I’m not asking for sympathy for having to eat junk food here – I know there are real problems in the world. But I can’t help but ask: why does airport food have to be so miserable? The bread is always dry, the salad is always limp, the coffee is always burnt, and it’s always a little more expensive than you’re comfortable with.
In fairness to the people running airport food establishments, it’s actually a really tricky thing to do. There’s not a lot of space for storage or specialist equipment, which limits the menu. Security restrictions can mean knives need to be attached to the wall. Everything that you bring in has to be screened, and there may be limitations on the times when food can be brought in at all, meaning it may not be fresh.
Some airports won’t allow gas ovens, meaning everything has to be done with electric heat. The place is busy and frantic and every customer is constantly in a hurry, meaning speed takes precedence over quality. And ultimately there’s not that much competition within the airport, meaning you only have to be the least bad option. You don’t really rely on repeat trade anyway.
For a discerning traveller, the solution is usually to pack your own snacks ahead of going to the airport. You can bring pretty much any food through security as long as you adhere to the liquids restrictions (be careful with anything with a pudding consistency), and finish things like fruit or meat before you land at a destination that may have food restrictions.
But having said that, there’s one city where you can rock up at the airport without as much as a packet of nuts in your pocket and you’ll be fine – and that is London. The move towards a better eating experience started in earnest with the opening of the hotly anticipated Heathrow Terminal 5 in 2008, where an ambition to “put the glamour back into flying” meant including a restaurant by Michelin-starred chef Gordon Ramsay,a novel idea at the time, as well as inviting in more upmarket chains like Carluccio’s, Wagamama and Apostrophe.
In the decade that followed, the city’s other airports have followed suit. And, slowly but surely, London airports managed to escape this global bad food curse. There’s always something nice enough to eat no matter which London airport you go to.
There are, for example, 11 options for getting food after the security gate at Heathrow Terminal 2. If you just want a sandwich there’s an Eat and a Caffe Nero, if you want something nicer there’s Heston Blumenthal’s The Perfectionists' Café. Or, if you’re like me and want something quick but substantial, there’s a Leon and a Yo! Sushi.
They may be serving the food at a slight sprint at the Nando’s at Gatwick Airport (South terminal, after security), and it may not be what you’d have chosen to eat in the city – but it’s undoubtedly head and shoulders better than a pre-packed sandwich from WHSmith. Airport food in London could always be better of course, but just wait for your return flight from wherever you’re going: you’ll soon remember that it’s usually far, far worse.