St. Petersburg Times: Weekend

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Fuel for fliers

[Times photos: Fraser Hale]
The food court at Tampa International Airport’s Airside F includes Flatbreadz, Pizza Hut, Chili’s Too and Chick-fil-A.


© St. Petersburg Times,
published August 16, 2001

Have you given up on airline food? You may find a happy replacement in airport snacking. Tampa International Airport is offering more and more spots to take on good grub before takeoff.

TAMPA -- I gave up believing airline food would get better many cold lasagnas ago. Now that some airlines have also admitted defeat and urged us to bring our own, you and I have increasingly turned to the airport as the last resort for eating, or at least brown-bagging.

And here a little foolish optimism survives. In U.S. airports -- and now at Tampa International Airport -- the range of food is getting better, a little more healthful and, miracle of miracles, less expensive. Take this next with a full packet of salt: Service is turning friendlier and more thoughtful.

Although outlets at TIA fly corporate flags from Friday's to Burger King, all come under the supervision of master concessionnaire HMS Host (no longer part of the Marriott empire but a part of Autogrill, which runs the rest stops on Italy's autopistas). And while TIA profits from the concessions, airport officials say they have committed to keeping prices down.

Note the use of the present perfect tense. The improvements are in evolution, neither a given nor widespread. During two days of cruising TIA, it became clear that the present can be quite imperfect.

Decent airport food remains a matter of luck, choice and attitude. The only certainty is that travelers are stressed, no matter how many CEOs say in inflight magazines that they relax with yoga in airport lounges or get creative thinking done on board. If you're not trying to corral three kids, their luggage and video games, you're sitting next to them.

TIA's menu varies widely, depending on the airside you have to use.

Fly out of Airside D and you might as well be taking off 20 years ago. The most ordinary hot dogs, carefully sealed in plastic packages, are a shameful $2.99 and make you yearn for the sizzle and flair of a wienie hot off the c-store roller grill. Mediocre cold sandwiches cost more.

The saving graces are few. For the health-minded there are iceberg salads for $1.59 and cereal and milk for under $2, a basket of 99-cent bananas and red apples, and 25-ounce bottles of water at $1.89 (under ball park and movie theater prices). Downstairs toward the gates even anti-chain protesters will welcome a Starbucks for coffee with real aroma and blueberry scones that look like they were made by human hands ($1.79).

Airside C seems as limited (Hot Dog City and Starbucks) until you get to Frankly Gourmet down by the gates, a state of the art hotdoggery created by Host that embarrasses the stuff upstairs (also run by Host). Wieners are bigger, fresher, come with a dozen toppings from chili and sauerkraut to guacamole and sour cream. You can have up to five, and the combo costs less than the franks upstairs, plus there are fresh fries. Hot dogs and fries an achievement? In an airport, sad to say, yes.

Airside A is remodeled with sweeping, gleaming metal ceilings and a shopping mall food court, in this case Nathan's, Pizza Hut, TCBY and Cinnabon. Don't sneer too much at brand names and fast food. These are friendly to kids, familiar to adults who need to make quick decisions and easy on the budget. A small $3.19 pizza isn't in the same league with take-out Angelo's near your house, but it sure beats those dogs, and there are Caesar salads and child-size mac-n-cheese too. Again, fruit, water and milk (low-fat too) are available.

This Southwestern turkey BLT sandwich from Flatbreadz, a restaurant in the Airside F food court, is not inexpensive, but it’s hearty and large.
The only hint of local flavor at so-called Taste of Tampa Bay was a Cuban sandwich. My server knew enough to assure me "It's pressed," and it was 10 inches long and filled with regulation ingredients (except mustard in a packet). Why not black bean soup, deviled crabs, scacciatta or smoked fish spread?

Few locals would recognize the $6.79 price of the Cuban. It did include pickles, a bag of chips and a seat in a lounge with smoking privileges. Maybe that's fair, but $4.84 for a glass of jug wine ain't close.

Airside F offers a test flight of the most modern food court. The lineup includes Pizza Hut and two shopping-mall favorites, Chili's II and Chick-fil-A, the latter sticking with its closed-on-Sunday policy. The Chili's works with a shorter menu, a full bar and a sharp-eyed staff. I waited three minutes to give a server my order. The server promised the food in 12 to 15 minutes; soup came in five, the burger in 12. But if you're really pressed for time, you should try somewhere else.

That should be Flatbreadz, a Host version of an upscale wood-fired bakery complete with those beautiful tall jars of vegetables arranged like parfaits, flowers and even arugula. The last is for stuffing into sandwiches made from a distinctively thin and crusty flatbread that makes a sturdy container for a husky sandwich.

Fillings come from an attractive open bar, reassuringly stocked with fresh goods. No mystery meat, only mystery cheeses in varying degrees of blandness. My favorites were the roast beef and the turkey and bacon; the $6.99 price is not inexpensive, but it's big enough for two and beats anything on the plane.

Flatbreadz misses key opportunities by not baking more often to create a come-hither aroma and by not offering more vegetarian choices. The Mediterranean image of flatbread plus the location at the international airside made me hope for a meatless sandwich with, say, hummus, tabbouleh or portobellos or a thick vegetable soup. Alas, soups were chicken noodle and beef barley.

Wisest move is to take time to eat (or buy on-board groceries) in the main terminal, before entering the airside lottery. The fast food brand-names are here, plus an all-day Friday's with breakfast wraps starting at 7 a.m., and several oases of peace at the Marriott hotel. The Marriott sets a grand buffet with fresh berries and made-to-order eggs for $11.95 each morning and high-end dinners on the revolving rooftop at night.

Best bet for price and taste was the Wall Street Deli in a corner of the terminal forgotten by all but airline crews and the savviest frequent travelers. Soups are meat-based, and cheese of indeterminate flavor, but the pastrami sandwich has a good inch of meat, the kind with real fat and real pepper, and can be had on its own kind of fresh-baked flat bread, thicker and more herbed than at Flatbreadz. The fancy bread pushed the price to $5.49, but it's the biggest sammitch in the joint and could feed you through a couple of layovers.

So have hope -- and go early.

Tampa International Airport

  • 5507 Spruce St., Tampa
  • (813) 870-8700
  • Hours: Hours vary; Burger King-Taco Bell in main terminal open 24 hours.
  • Reservations: No
  • Credit cards: Most
  • Details: Smoking in designated areas only
  • Prices: 99 cents to $11.99 for individual items

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