In an era of cramped flights without meals—when even a free bag of peanuts feels like a luxury—one thing has improved about airline travel: Airport food is better than ever. The New York Times even dubbed this recent evolution “The Golden Age of Airport Restaurants.”
Sure, everyone loves a cinnamon roll now and again. But the days of choosing between sticky, sweet treats or generic fast food have given way to airport restaurants that showcase regional favorites and offer healthy options.
That’s especially true in California. In its latest survey, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine named Los Angeles International Airport the country’s top airport for healthful eating, while San Francisco International Airport placed third.
Of course, there’s a whole world beyond kale and quinoa, and at California’s airports you’ll also find choices that reflect the best of the state’s incomparable food scene: delectable ethnic cuisines, local wines and craft beers, and branches of popular city restaurants serving dishes made with seasonal, organic ingredients. Here are some of the best reasons to arrive early to these eight California airports, listed south to north.
In this beer lover’s town, toast your journey with a local pint from Ballast Point, Green Flash, and more at Terminal 1’s Craft Brews on 30th Street—named for the stretch of road that Men’s Journal has dubbed “the nation’s best beer boulevard.” Pair a local brew with the tavern’s caprese sandwich, made with heirloom tomatoes, or a flatbread pizza topped with citrus-marinated shrimp. For more local San Diego flavors, try Bankers Hill Bar & Restaurant, the Terminal 1 branch of the farm-to-table spot near Balboa Park.
Since first opening in Tustin in 1987, Zov’s has grown into an Orange County mini-empire with several locations, serving contemporary dishes inspired by the cuisines of the Eastern Mediterranean. Helmed by James Beard Foundation honoree Zov Karamardian, Zov’s now operates two outlets at John Wayne: the Zov’s Grab-and-Go in Terminal A for sandwiches and salads, plus a sit-down restaurant in the airport marketplace with a fuller menu, including Zov’s acclaimed golden lentil soup.
Frequent fliers love the ease of this relatively small L.A. County airport, as well as its dining selection that showcases popular Long Beach restaurants. Regulars swear by the have-it-your-way breakfast burritos at Taco Beach in the North Concourse, and the gyros at George’s Greek Cafe—a pita stuffed with seasoned beef and lamb, plus tomatoes, red onion, and cucumbers, topped with yogurt sauce—earned raves from the OC Weekly. The publication cautioned travelers to eat the sandwich before boarding: “It’s messy and massive, the 747 of gyros.”
When LA Weekly named ink.sack, in the Great Hall food court, the best place to eat at LAX, it described the sandwiches invented by chef Michael Voltaggio as “creative, high-quality, and delicious.” Take your pick from sandwiches like the banh mi or a Spanish Godfather (reportedly an homage to chef José Andrés), which combines ham, chorizo, manchego, and tomato. Meanwhile, Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger of Bravo’s Top Chef Masters have brought an elegant twist to traditional Mexican cuisine at their famed Border Grill, and their two airport outposts (one in the Great Hall and a food truck outside Departures) offers such favorites as the Yucatan pork tacos.
On the way to San Jose, flights often come in over the Santa Cruz Mountains, where more than 60 wineries and 200 vineyards take advantage of this coastal range’s unique microclimates. Discover the region’s premium Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays at the airport’s Santa Cruz Wine Bar, where you’ll also find charcuterie plates and a selection of artisanal cheeses, plus Mediterranean specialties. Or keep it old-school with the veal parmigiana and other Italian classics at San Jose Joe’s, the airport outlet of downtown’s Original Joe’s, a family-owned favorite since 1956.
Get a taste of history at a pair of institutions with deep Oakland roots. Heinold’s First and Last Chance saloon was built using the planks from a whaling ship in the 1880s, and, even if lacking the original’s decidedly weathered charms, its airport location (outside security) uses rustic woods and brickwork to channel the spirit of the Jack London Square landmark. Stop in for a nice, stiff drink—especially the morning Bloody Mary—or an assortment of beers. And the airport’s Terminal 2 is your last chance for a scoop of the handmade ice cream from Fentons Creamery, which dates to 1894. Try classics such as Toasted Almond and Rocky Road, or indulge in a sundae topped with Fentons’ homemade caramel and fudge sauces.
“Farm to Flight” is the promise at Napa Farms Market, a gourmet emporium that’s like an artisan food hall in this airport’s Terminal 2. Its greatest hits collection from Bay Area food purveyors—Acme Bread, the cheeses of Cowgirl Creamery, and the rotisserie chicken at Tyler Florence Fresh—helped earn Napa Farms honors as one of the country’s top airport dining spots from both Food & Wine magazine and USA Today. With its focus on seasonal, organic ingredients, the menu at Napa Farms is ever-changing. Best of all, they’ll pack everything to-go for your flight.
The Squeeze Inn’s burger, with its trademark “cheese skirt” (crispy melted cheddar that extends far beyond the boundary of the bun), was called “the craziest thing I’ve ever seen” by admiring Guy Fieri when he featured the Sacramento restaurant on Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives. The capital city’s airport location is in Terminal A. Nearby is the Iron Horse Tavern—a branch of the popular gastropub in Sacramento’s hopping R Street corridor—whose handsome bar stretches into the recently remodeled Terminal A food court.
For a burger tasting tour, try another local favorite, the Niman Ranch–powered, handheld feasts at Burgers and Brew in Terminal B—perhaps paired with the brewpub’s own Rapture Imperial Brown. Terminal B is also home to the airport version of downtown’s Cafeteria 15L—offering elegant takes on comfort foods, like truffle tater tots and short-rib popovers—which ranked No. 2 on a recent USA Today list of the best airport restaurants for soothing ambience.