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 The Brancatelli File

joe WHERE TO EAT
NEAR THE AIRPORT


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

August 7, 2003 -- There's been a blizzard of stories recently telling weary, hungry frequent flyers where to eat at airports.

Well, you know what? I don't want to eat at an airport. Airports are depressing and crowded and full of people whose taste buds have been pummeled into fast-food submission.

I fancy myself an expert at finding great places to eat near the airport. I could write a book about where to eat near the airport. In fact, that's a snappy book title: Where to Eat Near the Airport. But since I don't write books--I like my column, it's short, as the John Belushi character said in Continental Divide--I thought I'd write a column about great places I've found near airports.

Eating near the airport is risky, I admit. If you're not careful, you could be lulled into a false sense of normalcy. You know, you're acting like a real person, eating where real people eat, instead of insanely racing through an airport terminal with your carry-on bag in one hand and your turkey-wrap sandwich in the other. And, heaven forfend, you might occasionally overstay your welcome and miss your third connecting flight of the day.

But I think eating near an airport is well worth the risk. Here are some of my favorites. And notice that not one of them is named McDonald's or Pizza Hut or the SkyGrill.

DALLAS/FORT WORTH: CLOSE IS A RELATIVE THING
I once clocked the drive from the car-rental lot to the outer gate of DFW at nine miles, so it's fair to say that nothing is near the DFW terminals. But if you've got a couple of hours to spare, drive over to Las Colinas (about 8 miles away) and have a meal at Via Real. It fancies itself as a Southwestern-style Mexican restaurant, so there are all kinds of riffs on Mexican cuisine. I like it because there are also some creative vegetarian choices on the menu. If Via Real doesn't light your culinary fire, the Four Seasons Resort at Las Colinas has three restaurants and three bars. And if you've got a long layoff between flights, you might even be able to squeeze in 18 holes, a couple of quick sets of tennis or take advantage of the hotel's swanky spa.

LONDON: A PASSAGE TO INDIA--OR ENGLAND
For an airport that runs full tilt 24 hours a day, London/Heathrow suffers from a typical English shortcoming: a dire shortage of late-night dining options. Restaurants on the airport grounds and hotel dining rooms on nearby access roads close by about 10 p.m., forcing many travelers to settle for the drive-in window of a nearby McDonald's. But a little sleuthing and a few quid in cab fare will bring you to the New Heathrow Tandoori. It's everything you expect of an Indian restaurant in London: unassuming, cheap, with reliable Subcontinental fare, good beers and a friendly staff. Officially, it operates until midnight, but serves much later on weekends. (482 West Road, Hounslow; 0208 572 1772) Just seven miles from Heathrow is the Stoke Park Club, the oh-so-English hotel and golf club made famous in Goldfinger. It's a wonderful spot for a meal, but the distance is deceiving. The 7-mile drive once took 45 minutes in mid-day London traffic.

LOS ANGELES: THE DINER OR THE BIG DEAL
Big, sprawling LAX has a half-dozen terrific nearby dining options, but I keep coming back to Mariposas at the Hacienda Hotel in El Segundo, about two miles away. Make no mistake about it: Mariposas is a diner, and a dive diner at that, all blue-vinyl banquettes and brown laminate countertops. But it offers a killer breakfast, several terrific Mexican dishes and a nice California club sandwich. If that just won't do, the Ritz-Carlton Marina Del Rey is just six miles away. Call the concierge (310-823-1700), arrange to be picked up and grab a meal at the Jer-ne Restaurant + Bar. The dining room is fancy, but LA showy rather than Ritz-Carlton stuffy. The food is typically California eclectic. It's outrageously pricey, of course.

NEW YORK: ABRUZZO VIA LAGUARDIA
You don't need me to tell you that LaGuardia Airport has the incredibly dubious distinction of being the nation's most chronically delayed airport. But every problem is an opportunity. The next time you're delayed for a few hours, hop into a cab and head for Trattoria L'incontro. It's a sweet little mother-and-son restaurant in Astoria, about ten minutes from the airport we all love to hate. The homey, casual place specializes in surprisingly authentic Roman and Abruzzi dishes. There are plenty of Southern Italian appetizers to nibble ($8-$10), brick-oven baked pizza (prices start at $6) and a long list of pastas (from $10 for angel hair in tomato sauce to $19 for a pasta studded with shellfish). My favorite: gnocchi (potato dumplings) in a rabbit ragu, a traditional preparation not often seen in Italian restaurants on this side of the pond. Meat and fish dishes start at $15.

OAKLAND: TWO APOSTROPHES AND LOTS OF WEIRDNESS
More and more savvy travelers duck the consistently bad weather at San Francisco International by flying into and out of the Bay Area via Oakland Airport. And just a block from the front gate is Dewey Bargiacchi's Francesco's, as bizarre a restaurant as you'll find on the road. Besides the double possessive (remember Jim's Mario's from Taxi?), this huge family-owned joint is an odd agglomeration of diner, old-style Italian-American family-dinner restaurant and brown-liquor meet-and-greet hangout. Open since 1968, the walls are plastered with photos of the old days in and around Oakland Airport and the floors are patrolled by tough-talking waitresses right out of central casting. The place serves a little of everything: Red-sauced, Southern Italian pastas and seafood dishes are the specialty, of course, but Wednesday is ham-hocks-and-lima-bean night and the menu also offers omelettes and sandwiches. Portions are gigantic, prices are low (a salad is $4, a plate of spaghetti and sausage is $10) and the whole experience is too funny to miss.

SAN FRANCISCO: REAL CHINESE REAL CLOSE
I was in San Francisco on 9/11 and moved to an airport hotel near SFO while waiting for flights to resume. An in-room guide was promoting a Chinese joint called Grandview in Burlingame, which is about six miles from SFO. Expecting nothing, I drove over and found a surprisingly comfortable and attractive dining room packed with locals and expat Chinese. The term "hidden gem" doesn't exactly do Grandview justice. The menu is vast and leans toward Shanghai-style cooking. Both the basics (scallion pancakes, dumplings, familiar pork and chicken dishes) and the more exotic offerings are delectable. There are plenty of noodle and vegetarian dishes and wonderful shrimp and chicken preparations that you stuff into lettuce leaves. Grandview isn't cheap by Chinese standards--two people could easily run up a $75 bill without wine or beer--but it's more than worth it.

I've got about two dozen more suggestions, but, like Belushi said, a column is short and I'm out of Cyberspace. But why not send me your favorite dining spots near the airport and we'll come back to this topic in a few months.

This column originally appeared at JoeSentMe.com

Copyright 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.