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TH Taste: Airport Dining Takes Off

 In Fredericksburg, the Hangar Hotel’s Airport Diner offers breakfast and lunch items,  including burgers, salads, and blue-plate  specials—plus views of the adjacent runway.  (Photo by Kevin Stillman)

By Anthony Head

Let’s meet at the airport for lunch.” That’s not a suggestion that I’ve ever heard, nor one that I’ve ever made, and for good reason. Although major airports continue to woo celebrity chefs and trendy restaurant chains to set up shop in busy terminals across the country, the catch is that you have to buy a plane ticket in order to get to them—not to mention wait in long lines and endure security pat-downs.

I’m not a pilot, but people like me who are hungry for a unique dining experience have options for airport dining by thinking small. In fact, some regional airports serving Cessnas and Pipers, rather than

Dreamliners and 747s, feature independently owned restaurants. Best of all, these fly-in destinations are open to the non-flying public. An added perk is that you can watch planes land and take off while dining. Kids, especially, love it.

Brenham’s Southern Flyer Diner reinterprets the “$100 hamburger” with chiles and cheese. Actual price: about $8. (Photo by J. Griffis Smith)Take the Southern Flyer Diner, located at the Brenham Municipal Airport. Open daily for lunch, the Southern Flyer offers a large outdoor patio for customers to watch the runways while dining. Inside, the interior harks back to cafés from the 1950s, complete with black-and-white checkered floors and red-and-white booths with Formica tabletops. The servers dress in poodle skirts and can sometimes be caught tapping their saddle shoes to the ’50s hits playing on the jukebox.

Southern Flyer serves Southern comfort food. “We make almost everything from scratch,” said my server, Lizzie Hill, with a smile as I inquired about dishes on the menu. Chicken-fried steak, grilled catfish with okra and tomatoes, squash casserole, chili with cornbread—they’re all made to order in the kitchen with fresh ingredients.

In aviation circles, pilots often joke about dining on “$100 hamburgers,” a term that reflects the cost of gassing up and flying a plane to an out-of-town restaurant for lunch. At Southern Flyer, the hamburgers are no joke.  They’re huge, and they come topped with bacon, mushrooms, jalapeños—and just about anything else you can think of. And while the diner serves beer and wine, perhaps the most appropriate beverage choice for a $100 hamburger (which really costs about $8) would be a Southern Flyer milkshake made with Brenham’s own Blue Bell Ice Cream.

Of course, if you’re like me and enjoy breakfast fare at any time, the Hangar Hotel’s Airport Diner, located at the Gillespie County Airport in Fredericksburg, is a great destination. The last time I visited, I dug into what I’ll call “$100 huevos rancheros” along with pancakes and home-fried potatoes. The diner also serves biscuits and gravy, Belgian waffles, and other sunrise specialties all day, while offering a handful of salads, 10 different sandwiches and burgers, plus specialties like meatloaf and chicken flautas.

Recreational pilot Dick Estenson, who owns the Hangar Hotel, explained, “When you fly into some small airports, you might only find a machine to buy some crackers and a Coke. I wanted to create a true destination for pilots and their families.” 

Estenson designed his restaurant to resemble the railcar diners that were common in the Northeast throughout the 1940s. There are black granite countertops, terrazzo floors, a soda fountain behind the lunch counter, and mahogany-colored bar stools in front. Whether you’re eating at the counter or in a booth, there’s not a bad seat in the house for watching the adjacent runways.

Fly in or drive in. The Airport Diner in Fredericksburg welcomes all. (Photo by Kevin Stillman)“A lot of the guys from Fort Hood fly here for lunch while doing military training,” Estenson said. “It never gets old seeing a Black Hawk [helicopter] land and take off.”

On a recent trip to Surfside Beach, I stopped by the Crosswind Café, located at the Texas Gulf Coast Regional Airport in Angleton, just 20 minutes from the water. Retro tourism posters hang on the walls alongside blown-up photographs of vintage and modern airplanes. I noticed, too, that, although there were several families dining, not one kid was playing on an iPad or smartphone: They were all transfixed by the small planes practicing take-offs and landings right outside the diner’s floor-to-ceiling windows.

Crosswind’s menu is impressive, especially for seafood lovers. Being so close to the Gulf, the most popular dishes here include grilled shrimp, blackened catfish, and fried oysters. Other best-selling items include the club sandwich, chicken-fried chicken with mashed potatoes, pan-seared salmon, and the Southwestern salad. (Of the latter dish, I can attest that it’s delicious, hearty, and satisfying.)

I visited briefly with a pilot named Steve, who had flown in from Houston in his Cessna 172 SP. He told me he likes spending weekends logging air miles from one small airport to another, but he has a real affinity for Crosswind: “I’m a regular here. They usually have my ice tea waiting for me by the time I sit down.”

Steve also regularly visits the airport restaurants in Brenham and Fredericksburg, as well as others around the state, and he had nothing but praise for his dining experiences. “The food has to be good for a pilot to fly in. It’s basically a $100 hamburger,” he said with a knowing smile. After he finished lunch and paid his tab, Steve walked no more than 40 yards to his plane—and then he flew away into the wild blue yonder.

As far as I’m concerned, as long as I’m allowed to drive to these terrific airport restaurants, I’m just as happy to keep my feet on the ground.

From the June 2013 issue.

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