Last Friday afternoon, as weary travelers waited in a lengthy line to pass through Philadelphia International Airport security, we self-importantly strode past them, under the protective wing of our escort Ruth, a Philadelphia Airport executive. Armed with spiral-bound notebooks in lieu of luggage, our goal was not to depart from the airport but to determine whether there was anything edible within it.
Airports are notorious fast-food meccas. It's often a toss up as to which is worse: the bite you can grab before your flight or the compartmentalized meal you'll be stuck with during it. To be sure, the Philadelphia airport has its share of franchises -- McDonalds, Burger King, Chick-Fil-A, TCBY and Sbarro all beckon the hurried flyer with familiar neon signs. Those who feel they need one last cheese steak before leaving Philly can find it, however inauthentic, at Philly Steak & Gyro. The most original aspect of the central food court was the "live entertainment"-- an elderly gentleman's rendition of "Under the Boardwalk," complete with boom-box backup.
Even two admitted food snobs, however, left the airport unexpectedly well fed. Hidden among the countless chains, cell phone vendors, costume jewelry and language cassette kiosks are a few culinary diamonds in the rough. If you've got just a few minutes before takeoff and you know that the teeny pack of peanuts won't tide you over, there are some noteworthy options for snacks. Philly Bends and Twists has pretzels far more original -- and cheaper -- than those at Auntie Annie's further down the concourse. Try the cinnamon apple, cream cheese or jalapeno. For the true gourmand, Caviar Assouline sells its namesake delicacy in 1 oz. jars, perfect for munching on toasts in flight and making your fellow coach passengers water at the mouth. High rollers opt for the $120 Royal Beluga, but those on a budget can still indulge in salmon roe for just $2.50. This upscale shop also offers a range of gourmet salads, sandwiches and chocolates to go.
Even every traveler's worst nightmare, a delayed flight, can be mitigated with a good meal. There are a rare but impressive handful of sit-down cafes that belie their airport locale. Host your own personal wine tasting at Cibo Bistro & Wine Bar, with a selection of 32 wines by the glass. Their menu is predominantly traditional Italian, with bruschetta and antipasto platters to start, a range of panini and generous salads, classic pastas like tortellini carbonara and familiar entrees such as chicken marsala. Cibo's food is thoughtfully prepared with fresh ingredients and flavorful sauces.
After a lap through the terminal, we seated ourselves in the sleek glass and cobalt blue dining room of Sky Asian Bistro. With votive candles, slatted wood blinds and extensive martini and wine lists, this place epitomizes "airport-chic." We forgave the fact that the tables were so close together that we could read the emails on our neighbor's laptop, and concentrated on the lengthy menu of pan-Asian cuisine. Our Ahi tuna appetizer was optimally fresh and seared perfectly, accompanied by greens dressed in a sweet sesame sauce. It was encouraging to see a live person behind an airport sushi bar and watch him make our Alaska roll (broiled salmon, avocado, cucumber and roe). The large heap of seaweed salad was refreshing and free of the sliminess that often plagues the dish. The menu is replete with Chinese and Thai inspired entrees, ranging from Kung Pao scallops to Pad Thai. Our chicken version of this classic noodle dish was more than adequate, if a bit undercooked.
Both Cibo and Sky Asian have take-out counters with more limited menus, so you can take a full meal to the gate. Further catering to their airport clientele, they and many other eateries offer a variety of breakfast items serving commuters from the wee hours of the morning.
Terminals A through D are all connected, and it may be worth grabbing a map and venturing off rather than settling for the nearest fast-food counter. However, if your boarding pass reads Terminal E or F, bring a sandwich. We too fly Southwest often, and it seems like those who seek out the bargain flights are just shit outta luck.