The term "suspension of disbelief" takes on a whole new meaning when you grab one of those white-handled paper sacks from the cart on the passenger-loading bridge and read "Bistro Bag" inked on it in fat, cheeky letters. Travelers seem to agree that airline meals are about as palatable as dorm chow and hospital food. And in the past, eating at the airport has also been -- like changing the litter box, replacing your timing belt and enduring a colonoscopy -- a necessary evil. But in the late '80s, concourse cuisine began to improve in response to customer demand, a hale economy, meager airplane snacks, modernized airports that use space more efficiently and long flight delays that give passengers more downtime.
Food service at most airports is handled by corporate food-and-beverage concessionaires such as HMSHost, which operates at more than 70 national airports, including Lambert, and a few international ones. The concessionaire is usually contracted to manage all of the restaurants at each venue, from fast-food outlets like TCBY to local places like the Pasta House, which will open soon on Lambert's Concourse D. These food-service operators are trying to please customers and stay competitive in the contract-bidding process by installing a broader range of restaurants, including upscale eateries. Celebrity chefs from Todd English to Wolfgang Puck are lending their cachet to concourse cafés in Chicago, New York and other cities. And at San Francisco International Airport's new international terminal, chef George Chen recently debuted his Water Bar and Restaurant Qi, which can set guests back more than $30 a plate.
But at most airports, dining options are less pricey and more pragmatic. Eateries with regional flavor, such as Denver International Airport's Western-style Front Range Grill, are beginning to show up at Lambert. On Concourse B, Trailhead Brewing Co., a spin-off from the original taproom in St. Charles, serves sandwiches, salads and soups with its microbrews. If you can overlook the shriveled lime wedges snared between the seats and the crumpled napkins strewn about the floor, you'll have a bird's-eye view of the gleaming Trans World Express planes on the tarmac. And on frosty days, a crock of French onion soup with a malty Missouri brown ale, or maybe a platter of fish and chips with a balmy blond ale, will quell your hunger pangs better than a bag of Fritos and a Diet Coke from the snack bar.
Of course, most travelers still pick up fast food when they're high-tailing it through the terminal. Industry watchers say that the flying public prefers brand names, such as Cinnabon and Starbucks, because familiar foods ease the stress of decision-making: Customers know what they want to order, how long it will take to get it and how it will taste. Lambert's food-service concessionaire has added some new choices in fast food that frequent fliers are beginning to recognize from other hub airports. Jody Maroni's Sausage Kingdom, on Concourse A, began life as an "haut-dog" shack on the boardwalk in Venice Beach, Calif. Now a nationwide franchise, Maroni's serves a surprisingly healthful but peculiar assemblage of Cajun, German, Italian, Polish, American and other sausages. Try the smoky chicken andouille, a rustic, spicy Cajun-style sausage, or the Louisiana boudin hot links, a breakfast sausage made with pork, beef and rice cooked in duck stock. The menu board at Raving Wraps, on Concourse C, lists more than a half-dozen flour-tortilla wraps, portable flatbread sandwiches that were created in the Bay Area about five years ago and owe their success to the popularity of Mexican food and fusion cooking. Order a vegetarian or chicken caesar wrap to go and take it with you on the plane. Another new counter-service restaurant is the Gourmet Bean, a brand launched by HMSHost, located in the corridor that connects Concourses B and C. This coffee shop's seating area is isolated from gates, moving walkways, restrooms and other distractions, making it a relatively quiet place in which to spend a layover.
When Samsonite-toting transients have more time on their hands, they seem to become more adventurous, or perhaps just bored. The food-and-beverage industry is introducing trendy concepts -- or sprucing up old ones -- to entertain them. Take Los Angeles. LAX's splashy sci-fi restaurant, the Encounter, was unveiled way back in 1961. It's being updated with a Pacific Rim menu -- seaweed salad, anyone? -- and kitschy cocktails. At Lambert, the recent martini craze has inspired City Martini, on Concourse D, where you can get the selfsame cocktail, vodka martinis and a drink listed on the menu as a "Gibsontini," usually just called a Gibson, named after the demure Gibson-girl illustration penned at the turn of the century. Most customers, though, seem to prefer beer to martinis. Well, no matter. Just hop on the moving walkway and get off at the next exit, where you'll find the CyberFlyer Internet Bar Club. Each of its four computers looks so sturdy and impervious that you could probably spill an entire tall latte on the touch-pad keyboard without short-circuiting the machine. Internet time is free with a purchase at the café, although the connection was down when we visited on a recent weekday afternoon. When travelers order a "mega-byte" sandwich or a glass of Fetzer and log on, they can retrieve e-mail messages from major Internet-service providers, make trip arrangements, check weather in a destination city or just get sports scores and news.
San Francisco airport executives hope that some local diners will decide to reserve a table at Restaurant Qi rather than commute to Market Street, as much as an hour away from the suburbs. Now, let's be honest. You're not going to schlep your Odyssey from Chesterfield or South City out to Lambert for gourmet pork links if you don't have a flight to catch. But if you're about to hop on an MD-80 to Sacramento, you might just find yourself munching on a grilled chicken-apple sausage sandwich and offering that Bistro Bag to the skinny college kid across the aisle.