October 22, 1998 -- If business travelers ever had a Camelot, wizened road knights insist it was an enchanted place called the Newarker, an airport restaurant so good that normal people would drive to Newark Airport to eat there.
Opened in 1953, The Newarker was the brainchild of Joe Baum, the brilliant and flamboyant restaurateur who later went on to create classic dining rooms such as the Four Seasons and Windows on the World. Baum's death from cancer at 78 earlier this month has led to a flood of reminiscences from hungry business travelers.
"To this day, the Newarker may be the best restaurant I ever ate in," said Norman Richardson, who E-mailed from Seattle. "Whenever I had an assignment in New York, I tried to fly into Newark instead to squeeze in a meal at the Newarker. If I couldn't, I'd always bring a client out there. It was worth the ride from Midtown Manhattan."
Jerry Restini, writing from Chicago, was one of more than a dozen frequent flyers whose electronic prose turned purple when discussing the Newarker's oysters, a gigantic strain called Absecons. "The menu listed them as 'knife and fork' oysters because they were so big you really did use utensils to eat them," Restini recalls. "And, when you ordered a half dozen, you got seven every time."
Nostalgia often coats memories with an undeserved patina of grandeur, but that's not the case when it comes to the Newarker. Food historians and restaurant experts all agree that the Newarker was something special. It not only was the best airport restaurant that ever was, the experts say, the Newarker was where Baum experimented with style and form and content. Without the Newarker, they say, there wouldn't have been a Four Seasons, and, without the Four Seasons, there wouldn't have been the American dining revolution of the 1960s.
Unknown at airports in those days--and today, too, for that matter--Baum outfitted the Newarker for luxury: good china, fine fittings, impeccable service and a balanced, well-designed menu. The Newarker's copious portions are the stuff of legend and Baum became famous for setting almost everything alight. "Customers like to see things on fire," Baum once said. "And it doesn't hurt the food that much."
Restaurant lore says the Newarker lost the then-outlandish sum of $25,000 in its first year. By 1955, however, there was lush profit on annual sales of $3 million. And the Newarker was serving a thousand meals a day, 90 percent of them to customers who came to Newark Airport to eat, not to fly.
It goes without saying that airport dining has never been the same. The generation of airport restaurants following the Newarker was an unbroken string of generic burgers, soulless bars, institutional cafeterias and cuisine that almost made airline food palatable.
But if we're not likely to see the likes of the Newarker ever again, it must be said that airport dining has improved dramatically in the last few years. There are signs of life, albeit at a less ambitious level.
I have had great chicken at Lefty's Mile High Grill at Denver International. My friend Chris Mack tipped me to the wonderful bratwurst stand at General Mitchell Field in Milwaukee. They ain't Absecons, but the oysters at Midway in Chicago draw raves from shellfish fans. Wolfgang Puck's inside LAX is silly, but the food is tasty. There is a branch of Legal Sea Foods at Logan in Boston. The Yummy Korean BBQ stand in the inter-island terminal at Honolulu has lovely mauna pua, a popular local stuffed-meat bun. The Oriental Tea Garden at Vancouver International Airport serves outstanding dim sum. As a Brooklyn kid who grew up with the franks and fries at Nathan's in Coney Island, my soul and stomach are warmed whenever I see a Nathan's in an airport.
And while they may be metaphoric miles from the personal vision of Joe Baum at the Newarker, the airport food courts operated by Host Marriott Services do their job. You want a Whopper at Burger King? They got it. A cup of Starbucks? It's there. One of those absurd creations from California Pizza Kitchen? It's there. Host Marriott also controls the airport rights to TCBY, Cinnabon, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, Dunkin Donuts, Baskin Robbins and just about any other fast-food brand for which you have a guilty passion.
Les Cappetta, Host Marriott's vice president of business development, has no delusions of Joe Baum-like grandeur. "We're in the business of maximizing our clients' revenue," he told me recently. "But we do take quality street-side food concepts and customize them for airports."
For one enchanted moment there was an airport restaurant known as the Newarker. Joe Baum was a genius whose likes may never come again. In the meantime, I'll happily settle for a hot dog and fries wherever Les Cappetta wants to plug in a Nathan's stand.This column originally appeared at biztravel.com.