The Perfect Airport Restaurant, According To Plato

How to navigate the culinary hellscape between flights.

I thought my travel day couldn't get any worse. I was in Denver, finally, after hours of delays, with just enough time to visit my beloved Aviator's Sports Bar & Bar-B-Que before hopping a puddle-jumper to Gunnison. Never mind that my next flight would be canceled and that I wouldn't reach my destination until nearly 3 a.m. At that moment, all I could think about was the Sunrise Burger: an open-faced sandwich smothered in green chile and topped with a perfect over-easy egg.

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But it wasn't to be. It had been more than a year since I passed through DEN, and COVID had taken its toll. When I lowered myself into one of the shiny metal seats and lifted the menu, my beloved burger wasn't listed there. And with its absence, my personal ideal of the airport restaurant was torpedoed.

The four components of a perfect airport restaurant

In the darkest of times, we tend to get philosophical. Still, if my "History of Classical Rhetoric" professor knew what I was about to do, he'd be spinning in his grave. But I failed that class, so I don't care.

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One of the few things I took away from my first brush with ancient Greece was the platonic theory of forms. I might have referenced it while lauding Taco John's recently, but if you don't know, here's the deal: Way back, the Greek philosopher Socrates (as written by his student, Plato) put forth the idea that everything we experience is little more than shadows on a cave wall. That desk you're sitting at, or the chair beneath your butt? They're all just dim reflections of an ideal form of office furniture, the originals of which are so perfectly constructed that we can't perceive them with our limited senses.

I like to think about food this way. As silly as it sounds, it's interesting to consider that, no matter how much I'm enjoying my meal, there might be another version out there that's just a little bit better. It's something to ponder, anyway, when passing through the migraine tunnels of Detroit or O'Hare.

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But is it possible that there's a platonic form of the perfect airport restaurant? And if we'll never reach that heavenly place, just how close can an earthbound traveler get? As I chewed through my mushroom and Swiss burger (I still love you, Aviator's), four stepping stones to this nirvana rose like an escalator in my mind.

1. Local flavor

In Denver or Albuquerque, it's a burger with green chile. In Detroit, it's two 100% Kosher dogs from Leo's Coney Island. And with both of these, I like to see local beers available and on tap as early as 7 a.m. Basically, wherever I find myself, I want to taste (and drink) something that's a bit of a regional specialty.

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Hearkening back to the idea of forms, I know that whatever version I'm getting at the airport is almost certainly inferior to the "real" article out there in the city. But hey, you're in an airport, surrounded by the smell of McDonald's, bad coffee, and your fellow travelers. I'll happily pay a little extra and wait a bit longer for something, anything that has a spark of life to it.

2. Ample space

Whether I'm yearning to un-hunch my shoulders or just trying to avoid an entire family with a hacking cough, give me some goddamn space. This can be a challenging one, especially at peak travel hours. But rather than stand in line only to sit elbow-to-hip with a flock of strangers, I like to seek out spots with a bit more room to unwind.

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True, the more expensive restaurants are generally better at this. But that's not always the case. Sometimes, venues on a second level or on the far end of the terminal offer a decent alternative. Lounge 5280 in Denver is a good option, and its drink menu is on point (if expensive). Yeah, you might be able to hear the conversation of the folks next to you. But the chairs are comfy and you can generally perch there for a couple hours.

3. (Relative) peace and quiet

Yes, I know I could just keep my earbuds in. But they've already been playing nocturnes for a few hours to keep my sanity intact. At some point, you need to relax, take a breath, and let the ambient noise in.

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Summer House Santa Monica in O'Hare's Terminal 2 is generally a pretty low-impact spot for this. I've usually been able to place and receive my order in a short amount of time, and the only other nearby businesses are a few fashion spots and Wicker Park Seafood & Sushi Bar. It's at a (relatively) short kink in the hall, where no one with kids or large parties tends to linger.

4. Distraction

This can come in many forms. For some folks, conversation with fellow travelers at the bar offers a pleasant diversion. Others are comforted by a bank of televisions, playing sports or (God help you) news. For me, it's a great view of something, anything that's not made of plastic or steel. A large window looking out onto the runway and the unfamiliar landscape beyond is perfect, especially if your table is up near the glass. It's a little thing that reminds you of the wonders of travel, even when you're neck-deep in delays.

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To each their own

So, that's what I look for in a dining oasis between flights. And while I poked fun at ancient philosophy above, I do think that there's something to be said for the idea of seeking perfection, even in the crappiest of circumstances. Airports are a microcosm of the nasty, callous world we inhabit. If there's nourishment for the soul to be found there, I think it's worth the search.

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