Here’s the straight dope: There is no airport meal that will beat its non-airport version in price or quality. Some truths we must accept.
But for the weary traveler who whimpers at the thought of another limp fast food burger, a feast of flavors awaits to break the curse of mediocre airport dining.
TERMINAL 1, LINDBERGH
The beauty of MSP’s Terminal 1, home to the majority of airlines and the main hub for flights out of the Twin Cities, is that both the north and south security checkpoints dump you right at the edge of some of the airport’s best dining options. The Mall, an indoor boulevard of shops and restaurants, sits smack dab in the middle of everything, with separate concourses radiating out from its central locus.
Breakfast/Brunch: In an industry where sugar-laden yogurt parfaits tend to languish in open-air coolers, French Meadow serves real-deal breakfast on real (okay, plastic) plates. The kitchen turns out dozens of exemplary protein-packed breakfast options: eggs and toast, organic oatmeal, breakfast burritos, fruit and nut pancakes, and abundant pastries.
Lunch: It’s pricey, but the Smack Shack lobster roll ($21.95) outshines your typical grab-and-go bite and comes with addictive Cajun-spiced fries and bright slaw. They also do a decadent lobster Hollandaise egg sandwich for breakfast, in case the more sensible start at French Meadow isn’t your bag.
Snack: If the hour of your layover calls for a leisurely nosh, opt for the cheese plate (3 for $13, 5 for $17, with bread, crackers, olives, and fruit compote) at Lake Wine Kitchen + Bar, and supersize your leisure with a wine flight. They’ve also got bruschetta, crostini, and hummus small plates for more nibbling, and an array of sandwiches and entrees. Take your cava and a seat on the “patio” in the center of the mall and watch travelers hustling to make flights, if you’re into that.
Dinner: Fans of Black Sheep Pizza’s coal-fired pie will find all their favorite varieties—the hearty meatball, ricotta, and garlic or the chicken and pickled peppers—in 10-inch rounds. If you’re trapped here in the wee hours of the morning, there are a handful of breakfast pizzas, such as the bacon, mushroom, and egg pie.
When you’ve planned for a long layover or run into an unplanned delay, coast into Ike’s Food and Cocktails, one of the few restaurants that actually feels totally separate from the foot traffic and noise. You will feel briefly transported to a cozy supper club, with glowing golden orb sconces and beckoning mahogany booths. Grab an ice cold martini and a bacon-wrapped steak and channel the days when flying was an elegant affair.
Drinks: Stone Arch is a beer emporium on the mall’s southern edge, with a tap list boasting Surly, Fulton, Bent Paddle, Insight, Indeed, Utepils, Summit... the list goes on. We were especially keen on the selection of bombers, 750mL of specialty beers like the 56 Brewing Dark Chocolate Coconut Stout. They also open at a shocking 4:30 a.m. with a surprisingly extensive breakfast menu, including some reasonably healthy options.
Breakfast/Brunch: In a new section designated “Food Truck Alley,” find burgers, brunch, and bloody Marys at Red Cow. Looking for a quicker, sweeter bite? Peruse the selection of exquisite pastries by Salty Tart, sold out of an old-timey truck parked in the terminal.
Lunch: The Mediterranean flair of Holy Land Deli might be our favorite addition to the restaurant roster, largely because of the relative dearth of fast-casual Mediterranean food in American airports. Go for a full-on plate of stuffed grape leaves or lamb kebab if you have time to wait; otherwise grab one of their many flavors of hummus and a container of to-die-for pita chips and happily wipe the memory of Sabra from your mind.
Dessert/Coffee: Across from the robin’s-egg-blue Salty Tart truck, find the glimmering white Angel Food Bakery, where some of the prettiest and tastiest donuts are baked on-site. The coconut brown butter cookies are not to be missed. Then mosey down toward the tail end of the concourse to find Roasting Plant, a very fancy coffee joint with an emphasis on a variety of beans roasted right in the shop.
Dinner: Also near the last gates of Concourse E, LOLO American Kitchen presents a viable sit-down dinner option. LOLO, which stands for Locally Owned, Locally Operated, is native to Stillwater, and does cheffed-up standards like Korean BBQ tacos and burgers topped with pork belly or bacon jam.
Breakfast/Brunch: Another outpost of French Meadow offers all the variety of healthy, organic morning meals you could possibly need while jetsetting, but traveling occasionally calls for something a bit stiffer. If you need a cocktail instead, venture deeper into the concourse to Ike’s on Summit, where an epic bloody Mary stuffed with garnishes awaits.
Breakfast/Brunch: What’s better than a breakfast from a French brasserie? Beloved local chef Russell Klein of Meritage knew as much when he opened Mimosa. This charming little spot at the head of Concourse G evokes gay Paris, complete with bubbly, eye-opening cocktails, French toast, crepes, and eggs Benedict. The only sticking point may be the iPad ordering system; if you forget to swipe your credit card, your order won’t go through.
Lunch: Ramen isn’t the most common airport offering, but Shoyu has been serving bowls here for years. Stick with pork ramen and dumplings and shy away from the sushi—remember, you’re in a landlocked state. And an airport.
Dinner: If your hankering is for Italian fare, Doug Flicker’s Volante should be at the top of your list. Grab a glass of vino and a plate of spaghetti all’amatriciana and then cruise right into your in-flight nap. More interested in rustic American classics in a finer setting? Mill City Tavern does things you never envisioned an airport restaurant doing. Steelhead trout gravlax and a Berkshire pork loin chop, for instance.
Concourse A, B, C
For Concourse A and C travelers, a jaunt to the Airport Mall is still your best option for dining. If a sprint to the center of the terminal is out of the question, accept your fast food fate (PeiWei, Dairy Queen Grill ’n’ Chill, Chick-Fil-A, etc.), succumb to the sports bar (Twins Grill, a nondescript but locally branded sports bar with a red-blooded American menu that neither delights nor offends), or wash away your cares with wine at the Vino Volo chain, a popular wine bar known for flights and small plates.
Where Concourse C ends and splits off into A and B, you’ll spy the Itasca Grille, another generic, vaguely Minnesota-branded restaurant that serves walleye sandwiches and grilled meatloaf. Just across the walkway is a second small food court with Quizno’s, Godfather’s Pizza, A&W, and Caribou Coffee. Beyond these refueling hubs, you’re on your own, with only the modest Skol Café in Concourse A to save you from starvation.
God help you if you’re traveling in or out of Concourse B. The only food option that awaits is Home Team Sports, another generic bar, this one without the wherewithal to actually name the home team.
This wee concourse has just two dining options in the vicinity, but the Airport Mall is just a quick walk away. Within D, McDonald’s sits mirror opposite burger-and-beer bar Republic, where musicians from McNally Smith College of Music regularly perform on a small stage. Best to stick to the burgers here; a recent attempt at fish tacos was mightily underwhelming.
TERMINAL 2, HUMPHREY
Options are predictably limited for the smaller of the two terminals. But if you’re flying Southwest, Icelandair, Condor, or Sun Country, don’t fret. Surdyk’s Flights still operates its popular wine, cheese, panini, and salad shop in Terminal 2. A number of breakfast options—poached eggs on grilled bread, scones, yogurt and granola—will ease the morning hangries. And Cocina del Barrio does tacos and tequila, for when the layover calls for a quick fiesta, followed by plane siesta.