"Best of the Best" Airport Restaurants Part One

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John Purner's $100 Hamburger guide and website details all of the airport restaurants you absolutely must visit.

February 2015-

John Purner literally wrote the book on the hundred-dollar hamburger, and his guidebook and website provide all the information any aviator needs to find wonderful locations on or near runways for a perfect airport meal—including, but not limited to, those three-digit burgers.
Each year, Purner's website visitors rate the many listings, and the very best receive five stars. When those eateries are located right on an airport, they become Purner's "Best of the Best." In 2014, 26 airport restaurants made the list.
Purner writes that the "Best of" list includes "very impressive high-dollar white tablecloth uptown cafes, [while] others are down-home spots. Each is special, and every region of the country is represented."
Purner continues, "With this list, you can look forward to having a meal at an award-winning restaurant this year... they are just a flying adventure away.''
What follows is a summary of the first half of Purner's "Best of the Best" places to consume exquisite airport meals, presented in no particular order. The remaining 13 restaurants will be published next month in this magazine.

Mesa Grill
– Sedona, Ariz. (KSEZ)
The $100 Airport Burger ($12.25) is the first option pilots may notice on the lunch menu at the Mesa Grill—and with roasted chili peppers, jack and cheddar cheese, red onions and Santa Fe sauce, this option has a distinct Southwestern theme.
The restaurant's design is open and airy with large windows overlooking gardens, the airport and Sedona's famous red rocks. There is plenty of seating inside, but you may want to dine under the shade of 200-year-old pine trees on the patio.
"The Sedona Airport is awesome," Purner writes. "This is a wonderful place to fly and watch your passengers press their noses against the airplane window as they strain to get the best view possible as you arrive."
KSEZ has a 5,132 x 100 foot asphalt runway, but with a field elevation of 4,830 feet, watch that density altitude.

Gaston's White River Resort
– Lakeview, Ark. (3M0)
Gaston's 3,200-foot turf Runway 06/24 is located along the banks of the White River, a legendary waterway for Arkansas trout fishing. That creates a scenic view to enjoy a great meal surrounded by antiques and historic photography.
And while the restaurant's menu does offer various seafood items as well as steaks, Purner says, "this is the house that trout built. My favorite is the pan-seared boneless rainbow trout, and you know where that fish came from... just outside the door!
He continues, "The landing strip here is among my personal favorites—I love the sound that tires make as they kiss the grass."
The airstrip is open to everyone, not just guests staying in Gaston's cottages. While many airplanes arrive during the week, expect a full house on weekends for the restaurant's famous Sunday brunch.

Harris Ranch Inn and Restaurant
– Coalinga, Calif. (3O8)
As you cross over the massive Harris Ranch feedlot coming into the quaint 2,820 x 30 foot runway, it's hard to ignore what this restaurant is all about: beef! The 800-acre feedlot produces in excess of 150 million pounds of beef annually. The majority of that beef is shipped all over the world, but some reserve cuts end up on pilots' plates.
This western-themed restaurant is large, just like the breakfast portions. But stay for dinner because every transient flying carnivore should try the 24 oz. porterhouse, a bone-in masterpiece that Harris Ranch Inn says "offers the tenderness of filet and the full flavor of the New York."
"This is the best fly-in restaurant you will ever visit," says Purner. "The menu is overwhelming, the service is superb, the decor compliments the menu, and the prices are very reasonable given the quality of the food. Don't miss this one."

Izzy's Steaks and Chops
– San Carlos, Calif. (KSQL)
After parking by the Hiller Museum and touring the facility, take the short stroll from there to Izzy's. Its original steakhouse in San Francisco's Marina District was started in the days of Prohibition by a young, ambitious Portuguese immigrant who had a knack for making friends as well as money. The San Carlos location opened in 2005 and has much of the same atmosphere as the original.
"We don't hand out five stars lightly... this is a great place," said Purner. "Yes, they serve fish, but... come here for meat! For a steak to be good, it has to be aged—and they age their steaks for 21 days before they cook it to perfection."
The San Carlos Izzy's offers its diners an area called "Papa's Bar" that is filled with Ernest Hemingway memorabilia, where 10 large booths make for a fine private dining experience.

The Perfect Landing Restaurant
– Denver, Colo. (KAPA)
With a field elevation of 5,885 feet at Centennial Airport, you might need every one of Runway 17L/35R's 10,001 feet of length to lift off after a great meal at Jim and Sean Carter's Perfect Landing Restaurant.
Pilots might want to try the Mile-High Club sandwich for lunch, or stay for dinner and enjoy the pepper bacon-wrapped black and Bleu filet smothered in a port wine reduction sauce.
"The food is good and the service is fast," said Purner. "Park at the Jet Center and they will put you right in front of the restaurant's window with great views of the airport, Pike's Peak and the Front Range.
He continues, "This is one of the great on-field restaurants. In the evening the ambiance changes considerably, and the piano bar fires up. It's a great place to take a date."

121 Restaurant
– Oxford, Conn. (KOXC)
"121 Restaurant is located right on the runway," said Michele Savino of 121 Group, "and a wall of glass puts the wheels of the planes eye-level with diners."
Purner calls 121 Restaurant "the nicest airport restaurant that you can fly into in the Northeast... a truly upscale restaurant that is almost on the runway. It's almost too good to be an airport restaurant; I would expect to find it in New York City!"
This full-service restaurant does indeed have a distinct New York City feel, and its wood-fired pizza is a favorite. Savino calls the pizza a "must-try" menu item, along with 121's hanger steak and rigatoni with sausage. This is a popular Northeast destination, pulling in pilots for spectacular sunsets and the vibrant aviation crowd.

Jet Runway Café
– Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (KFXE)
Located at Florida's GA launching pad for flights to the Bahamas, the Jet Runway Café received five stars from Purner's readers because it has "great ambiance, great food and great service."
This is where you stop for a meal before heading out over the ocean to any one of the Bahamian islands. While you may be tempted to enjoy the Cuban sandwich for lunch or the triple-stack pancakes with blueberries for breakfast, Purner highly recommends the honey-lime salmon.
Plus, "Banyan Air Service is right at the airport," Purner explains. "They are the best FBO I've ever found. When you get ready to fly to the Bahamas, they will walk you through the process, and even rent or sell life vests and rafts to you."
John K. Hayden, Director of Properties at KFXE says, "Fly-in pilots are a huge part of the success of the café. Gaze through the panoramic windows and wait for the puddle jumpers and jets to pass by your window."

Jekyll Island Club Hotel Grand Dining Room – Jekyll Island, Ga. (09J)
The Grand Dining Room at the Historic Jekyll Island Club Hotel is not a place you show up to wearing a T-shirt and grubby jeans. From the very early 1900s, politicians and the social elite have traveled by car, boat and airplane to feast at this scenic paradise.
"This was once a Rockefeller resort, and it shows," says Purner. "The landing strip is a short stroll along a picturesque lane lined with moss-draped oaks to the hotel. Everything you might care to eat is elegantly presented and perfectly prepared. The ambiance is white tablecloths, with service to match. I recommend the Sunday Brunch."
This is traditional Southern cooking, with items on the menu including award-winning Jekyll Georgia white shrimp and grits, sautéed with garlic, butter, scallions, Andouille sausage and herbs. The bison, bacon and Brie burger is also a local favorite.

Pilot Pete's
– Schaumburg, Ill. (06C)
O'Hare International Airport sits just nine nm to the east, but it might as well be on Mars. Over at GA-friendly 06C, people enjoy great burgers at Pilot Pete's while the airport's locals and transient aviators watch the air traffic come and go.
One of Purner's $100 Hamburger website subscribers calls Pilot Pete's atmosphere "Jimmy Buffet meets the Juan Trippe/Pan Am era...a funky mix of mood lighting creatively illuminates all of the wall murals, and both large and small model airplanes hang from the ceiling."
"Pilot Pete" is a mythical aviator that travels the continents and brings back interesting recipes for the kitchen staff to prepare. Dishes such as the roasted chicken panbake, apple berry chops, autumn pork roast or the Caribbean combo will bring the flavors of the world to your table while you're overlooking the ramp and runway.

Airport Steakhouse
– Hutchinson, Kan. (KHUT)
With a location just a few miles northwest of Wichita, The Air Capital of the World, there is plenty of air traffic heading toward this local favorite steakhouse because of its perfect setting. The Airport Steakhouse overlooks a busy GA field.
"Steaks are never better than the ones you get here," says Purner. "They cook them in front of you over an open charcoal pit using the same [charcoal] you probably use at home.
Purner continues, "The restaurant is in the terminal building about 50 steps from the ramp. The entrance above the door way leading into the eating area is the tail section of a ½-scale biplane positioned as though it has just flown through the wall."
The menu offers a nice selection of entrées including appetizers, chops, salads and of course, burgers, but if you come here hungry, go ahead and feast on the 24 oz. Cowboy ribeye with chipotle cheddar risotto.

Bistro Le Relais
– Louisville, Ky. (KLOU)
It is impossible for aviators to not feel the decades of aviation history at Bowman Field, the oldest continually operating commercial airfield in North America. It was a huge deal when Charles Lindbergh landed the Spirit of St. Louis here in 1927 to the admiration of 10,000 spectators.
Bistro Le Relais is set apart from many airport restaurants because of authentic 1940s Art Deco styling. For more than 25 years, it's been part of the airport's historic terminal, which is one of many in the gorgeous collection of architecturally-pleasing buildings in the Bowman Field Historic District.
Purner says, "Without a doubt, this is the best airport restaurant in Kentucky. It's like going back in time... the food is French, and the décor reminds you of Rick's Café in the movie 'Casablanca.'"
Managers of the bistro say you must try the four-course prix fixe menu available Tuesday through Thursday for $34.50, and also recommend the live jazz on Sunday evenings.

Nick's Airport Inn
– Hagerstown, Md. (KHGR)
Back in 1961 when Nick Giannaris and his wife Tina purchased the inn, it was just a one-room luncheonette. Today, it has grown into a well-known airport restaurant that Purner says is "famous" for one menu item that he cannot resist.
"Park at Ryder Jet Center and borrow one of their courtesy cars to drive to Nick's, which is about a mile away," Purner recommends. "Nick's is not your typical airport café, and they are known for their crab cakes. I ordered them once, and now...when I go to Nick's, that's what I always eat."
This is one of the more interesting menus you will find at any airport eatery. For lunch, try the FGT Burger, with fried green tomato, bacon and goat cheese smothered in sweet red pepper aioli. A dinner entreé worth a look has to be Paul's Chicken "Under a Brick"—if only to find out what "under a brick" means.Nancy's Air Field Cafe
– Stow, Mass. (6B6)
In this neck of the woods, apples are everywhere, with plenty of "U-pick" orchards to fill your baggage hold with exceptional varieties such as Braeburn, Gala, Winesap and the completely awesome Honeycrisp.
Along with an empty baggage hold, show up with your fuel tanks ready to be filled too, because as Purner says, affordable fuel is just one treat found here.
"This is a great place to fuel your body and your plane," he said. "The food at Nancy's is really good and deserving of the awards and accolades it has received. The fuel price is one of the lowest in the country and certainly the lowest in New England."
On Nancy's brunch menu, you most likely will not go wrong with the Johnny Cakes, a scrumptious cornmeal-bacon pancake favorite served with sweet corn and chipotle butter. The restaurant is known for an ever-changing seasonal menu flavored with fresh herbs from the kitchen garden. Dishes such as hand-filled tortelloni with cider-sage sauce are sure to be memorable.

One of aviation's coolest endeavors
There is no limit to the joys we can find when we point our airplanes in almost any direction. But of all those things that make being a pilot worthwhile, landing at a great airport restaurant and going inside for a meal is one of aviation's coolest endeavors.
We've all heard that food just tastes better when we are camping in the woods. But if you ask most pilots, they'll tell you it is probably impossible to find a better meal than the one served in front of a giant picture window overlooking a General Aviation airport.

Dan Pimentel has worked in journalism and graphic design since 1979, and is the president and creative director of Celeste/Daniels Advertising and Design (celestedaniels.com). He's an instrument-rated private pilot and has been writing the Airplanista Aviation Blog (airplanista.com) since 2005. You can find him on Twitter as @Av8rdan. Send questions or comments to .

121 Restaurant
Oxford, Conn. (KOXC)
Airport Steakhouse
Hutchinson, Kan. (KHUT)

Bistro Le Relais
Louisville, Ky. (KLOU)

Gaston's White River Resort
Lakeview, Ark. (3M0)

Harris Ranch Inn and Restaurant
Coalinga, Calif. (3O8)

Izzy's Steaks and Chops
San Carlos, CA (KSQL)

Jekyll Island Club Hotel
Grand Dining Room
Jekyll Island, Ga. (09J)

Jet Runway Café
Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (KFXE)

Mesa Grill
Sedona, Ariz. (KSEZ)

Nancy's Air Field Cafe
Stow, Mass. (6B6)

Nick's Airport Inn
Hagerstown, Md. (KHGR)

The Perfect Landing Restaurant
Denver, Colo. (KAPA)

Pilot Pete's
Schaumburg, Ill. (06C)