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A look at the new airport concessions

Rendering of Varasano's in Concourse A (credit: Hojeij Branded Foods)

Rendering of Varasano's in Concourse A (credit: Hojeij Branded Foods)

We’ve all had to juggle the airport food options when our flights are delayed by some combination of inclement weather in Newark, faulty deicing machinery and poltergeist. So the hunt begins. Do we have time to sit down for a burger and beer at T.G.I. Fridays or should we just hit Popeyes at the food court for a box of chicken? Isn’t there a sushi kiosk nearby? Could we make it to One Flew South on Concourse E for a cocktail that doesn’t involve a soda gun?

Now imagine the choices include your favorite Atlanta restaurants and the dishes you love. You might nosh on a plate of fried goat cheese fritters with honey and cracked pepper from Ecco, some oysters on the half shell from Twist or a Nucci pizza from Varasano’s Pizzeria, with its blanket of shaved capicola and arugula over a crisp, airy crust.

All of this will be a reality once the new lineup of airport concessions rolls out. The first wave will debut this spring with the opening of the new international Concourse F and its mezzanine, where many of the new dining options will be located. Others will follow gradually into early 2014, as previous concession-holders relinquish their spaces to the dozens of newcomers that won the Atlanta City Council’s approval this month. Thanks to these local businesses and some high-quality franchise operations, could Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport one day have a reputation as one of the nation’s better airports for dining?

Maybe. And maybe by 2014, the Falcons will make it to the Super Bowl.

In other words, we’re going to have to wait and see just how well all these new dining options approximate their intown counterparts. Each of these restaurants will be operated through a licensing agreement with a food-service operator. While many of them will take an active role in menu development and staff training, they’ll have to deal with operating partners with their own bottom-line demands as well as a very different environment at the airport. Kitchen staffs will learn to cook with knives chained to the walls and, in some cases, electric heat rather than gas. Waiters will have to accommodate some guests with major time constraints and others aghast at what will surely be premium prices for dishes that go cheaper in Midtown.

But whatever the outcome, Atlanta’s airport will no longer be the near-desert of fast food and aging chains from the fern-bar era it is now. Seriously, I can’t think of the last time I perused a bar menu that proffered strawberry daiquiris front and center, except in the Atlanta airport.

For me, the only pleasures our airport currently offers (with the exception of One Flew South) are guilty ones. A chicken biscuit, a hamburger washed down with a terrible California merlot and too many french fries, a box of antediluvian Chinese noodles. Mostly I try to make do with a yogurt cup or a salad and write the experience off to joyless healthful eating.

So I, for one, look forward to the changes underfoot at the airport. Even the food courts are poised for an upgrade with the likes of scaled-down versions of Tamarind Seed Thai Bistro, Yeah Burger, Grindhouse Killer Burgers and Rolling Bones BBQ. A decent pulled pork sandwich or cup of shrimp and lemongrass soup can go a long way when you’re a hungry traveler.

Perhaps the biggest news is the imminent opening of Ecco in the Mezzanine area of Concourse F. This Midtown Mediterranean restaurant features a number of shareable small plates, wood-fired flatbreads and salumi and cheese boards, as well as a few pastas and entrees. An excellent wine-by-the-glass list and fine glassware complete the easygoing yet quality experience.

Robby Kukler, an owner of Ecco, says the new airport version “will be very similar in look, feel and style, but a bit pared back in size.” A wood-burning oven will serve as the room’s centerpiece. Kukler knows he’ll have to make adjustments. Most airport guests will only have 45 minutes to eat (half the time they take in Midtown), and the rush will begin around 2 p.m.

Varasano’s will undergo a more significant change in format for its new berth in a space carved from the rear of Concourse A’s food court. A large, wraparound eating bar will surround the pizza oven – the same Swedish-made model used at the intown restaurant, according to owner Jeff Varasano. While there will be a few tables, this Varasano’s will be more set up for quick-turn meals.

If you want more of a sit-down meal in Concourse A, then you’ve got two well-known chains – Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen and P.F. Chang’s China Bistro – to choose from. (Honestly, I once found a bowl of Pappadeaux’ fine gumbo in a Houston airport to be a lifesaver after a couple of days of grim meals on the go.)

The other concourse we Delta-bound Atlantans know well – Concourse B – will have a simulacrum of Buckhead’s Twist. Like Ecco, this restaurant made its reputation on small plates rather than full entrees. But here the flavors skew Asian, with dishes such as chicken satay, tuna wasabi flatbread and Thai curry noodles with shrimp. There will also be sushi and raw-bar offerings as well as a spacious bar area that should be quite the draw.

“We know there will be a lot of single people,” says David Abes of Twist’s parent company, the Here to Serve restaurant group.

You heard it here first: Your next stop is Concourse B: Concourse B, as in “booty call.”

Concourse C, with its more budget-minded AirTran/Southwest travelers in the mix, will have plenty of value-priced Atlanta dining in the food court. Chick-fil-A will go head-to-head with the Varsity, offering the tantalizing prospect of a chicken sandwich washed down with a Frosted Orange. Rolling Bones BBQ and College Park’s the Pecan (a Southern bistro) will keep the flavors local. If you have time for a sit-down meal, Longhorn Steakhouse is your option.

By the time we get to Concourse D, with its competing airlines bringing in travelers from all over, we will have a more touristy vision of dining in the South. Here’s where Ludacris will open Chicken N Beer, the restaurant named for his rap album. Georgia Grown – the brand established by the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association – will operate a grab-and-go sandwich kiosk. The rendering shows a farmers market design, though I can’t imagine any travelers will want the turnips and whole melons pictured. It would be beyond swell if Georgia Grown offered some peaches or muscadines in season – those would be airport snacks worth paying a premium for. (Repeated attempts to contact the kiosk’s management company were not answered by the time of publication.)

What else? Concourse T will have a branch of Goldberg’s Bagel Company and Deli (expect all New Yorkers to hate it). Offerings in Concourse E, which recently changed its concessions, remain the same.

I only have one regret when I look at the new plans, and that concerns the airport’s atrium. Longtime food court tenant Paschal’s will be gone, replaced by a stall from Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen. (Paschal’s will move to Concourse B.) My favorite guilty pleasure in all the airport is Paschal’s stewed-to-oblivion greens with a corn muffin crumbled into it. I almost always get a cup when I have time before a flight or when I’m waiting for someone to arrive.

Sorry, Popeyes. All these new options at the airport sound great, but I’m going to miss my greens in the atrium.

Tastes of Atlanta on airport’s new menu

Expect an array of local flavors once Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport rolls out its new concessions lineup. That begins this spring with the opening of international Concourse F and its Mezzanine and finishes sometime in early 2014. Here’s a sampling of the airport’s Atlanta-centric eats and where you’ll find them.

  • The atrium: Houlihan’s will be replaced by a bar and grill called Atlanta ChopHouse. Paschal’s, the iconic Southern restaurant, loses its spot in the food court to Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen.
  • Concourse T: Grindhouse Killer Burgers will have a stand, along with Goldberg’s Bagel Company and Deli.
  • Concourse A: The big news here is Varasano’s Pizzeria, which will occupy a newly formed space in the rear of the food court. Expect a piano player and a curved eating bar. Owner Jeff Varasano said he will use the same Swedish-made electric oven he used at his South Buckhead restaurant. Tamarind Seed Thai Bistro will open a food court stall.
  • Concourse B: Look for a branch of Twist when you come up the stairs from the train. Like the Buckhead original, it will feature a raw bar, sushi menu, international tapas, satays, sandwiches and a major bar . Flight delayed? This is your hang. Also, a new Paschal’s will open in the food court.
  • Concourse C: Local restaurants populating the food court will include Rolling Bones BBQ, the Original El Taco, the Varsity and the Pecan.
  • Concourse D: Here’s where you’ll find Ludacris’ new spot, Chicken N Beer. Expect a kiosk from Georgia Grown, where you can pick up a locally sourced salad and sandwich, and learn a bit about the state’s agriculture.
  • Mezzanine/International Concourse F: What most excites me is a branch of Midtown’s Ecco, complete with wood-burning oven for appetizers and pizzas. Yeah Burger will serve you your last burger fix before you jet off to a distant land.

- by John Kessler for the Food & More blog

24 comments Add your comment

Grasshopper

January 16th, 2012
7:24 am

I’m not one of those that can eat a heavy meal before flying so no temptation for me here. But it’s good that some local spots have made the cut.

I guess we’ll see how long they last or if the inevitable lawsuits against the bidding process and the Jackson machine derail any of these plans.

jack trent

January 16th, 2012
9:23 am

these restaurants are such a terrible interpretation of atlatnta

mrmambo

January 16th, 2012
9:27 am

Are you in love with Varasano’s? You and Jeff need to get a room.

- photo is of Varasano’s
- you mention them by name 5 times
- while others’ food gets mentioned as “a plate of” or “some oysters”, Varasano’s is a “blanket of” meat and greens over a “crisp, airy crust”
- and guess what? The “big news in Concourse A” is, of course, Varasano’s!

Wow, John. Does your wife know?

jonnymack

January 16th, 2012
10:04 am

I will hope for the best but expect the worst. At first glance, this would be a really great addition to what is traditionally a terrible place for food.

[...] Atlanta plans to shake up airport food and dining [...]

anonymous

January 16th, 2012
11:51 am

would love to see something similar happen at turner field. Just offering Varsity hot dogs would be an improvement

Copywriter

January 16th, 2012
1:27 pm

What is salumi?

gator32301

January 16th, 2012
1:28 pm

seems fairly well thought out. of course these are pricier options, but considering the huge markup on standard assembly line fast food available there now i don’t see it as that big of a deal. interesting to see how bad the food service bean counters screw it up.

John Kessler

January 16th, 2012
4:28 pm

Copywriter: Salumi is the collective for cured Italian meats, akin to the French charcuterie.

Traveler

January 16th, 2012
9:20 pm

What about fresh 2 order? I thought they got a contract too?

carla roqs

January 17th, 2012
8:54 am

Deanna

January 17th, 2012
10:36 am

With all these meat-centric additions I hope each concourse will provide a place to get a meatless salad or other fresh light food options. Eating heavy food before or on a flight is not what I want.

Bubba

January 17th, 2012
5:58 pm

I go to the airport to reach a destination, not eat. Plus, all the shenaginans in the bid/contract process have really turned me off.

art

January 17th, 2012
6:48 pm

The ladies who manage and run the Popeye’s on Concourse B are the epitome of charm and hospitality. The manager recognizes me each and every time I visit and makes a point to provide not only good albeit fast food but excellent customer service. If I owned a restaurant in Atlanta, I would hire her away in a heartbeat and make her my front-of-house manager. Thanks to her and her staff, the place runs like a well-oiled clock.

jasons

January 17th, 2012
11:52 pm

I’m going to miss Houlihan’s in the atrium…don’t thnk a locally branded restaurant named Atlanta Chop House will be a better fit in that prime location…as it is probably the best location in the airport. Surprised that a chain like Houlihan’s lost both of its locations in the airport. Something definitely seems fishy…especially with the local replacement.

Frank lois

January 18th, 2012
5:52 am

What type of services are you providing in your restaurant to make happy to your customers?Please tell us some more details of your restaurant like the services, offers, discounts that you provide to your customers.It is being very nice to have your comments:
bar Val d’Isère | meribel bar | val d’isere bar

dave jones

January 18th, 2012
7:35 am

I will miss the convenience of having Paschals in the atrium. Also hope Intermezzo stays at concourse B. Great breakfast.

Stan

January 18th, 2012
8:29 am

Yet more corruption in Atlanta. See what happens when you have mostly black leadership? They can’t do anything right. Amazing how many venues target the black folk.

Tom

January 18th, 2012
8:36 am

I thought there was going to be a Shane’s Rib Shack? Where will it be located?

passion4food

January 18th, 2012
11:42 am

Seems to me that the choices of restaurants that actually make you think of Atlanta are totally off. And with all the publicity the only thing travelers will think of when they come to Atlanta is that the “good ole” boy network is still alive and well here in the South. Campaign $$$ from the largest sponsoring vendors as well as many free meals that the mayor and his constituents received from the restaurants chosen contributed to the choices that were made. As for me… I will continue to bring healthy snacks. We all know airport food is mediocre at best.

Mary

January 18th, 2012
4:38 pm

This whole process stinks of corruption. Understand that Reed is unhappy about the request for open books, but I think the commission needs to be investigated as well as Reed and his ‘presense’ with these companies. I cannot believe all the ‘disadvantaged’ companies. When you look into them, they are not disadvantaged at all! This takes me back to Maynard Jackson days when his cronies ran the airport.

As far as I’m concerned, Reed should be investigated for fraud and collusion. And the pages that ‘disappeared’ from the bids once they were made available should be shown to the public. Shame on you Mayor Reed. And shame on your lack of transparency!

Gene Lee

January 18th, 2012
5:44 pm

@The Big Maru – You are like a treasure trove or info.

@Ivan – Nayarit Taqueria in Grant Park?

Lauren Beall

January 19th, 2012
12:18 pm

Can’t wait for Varasano’s! My fav in atl!!

Sir Stealth

January 19th, 2012
5:22 pm

Hell yeah to Popeye’s in the main atrium! You know that chicken is good Kessler!