Photo: Scott Audette/Visit Florida
Dining airside: Food on the fly
Airside restaurants get local.
Long layovers can turn road warriors into frequent grumblers, stuck in an airport with only chain food offerings while real city food lies an expensive and inconvenient taxi ride away.
Relief has arrived at some Florida airports, however, where local offerings have penetrated the bubble of national-brand dining.
Miami travelers have long had access to the black beans, ropa vieja and Cuban sandwiches of La Carreta and the Versailles. More recently, they’ve been able to sample South Beach cool from Icebox Cafe, the hip creator of lemon ricotta pancakes, pad Thai quinoa and retro desserts.
In Palm Beach, you can grab a slice of Nick’s Tomatoe Pie from Jupiter, while Orlando travelers can get barbecue from local hero Johnny Rivers and Cuban from ZaZa.
Tampa International has for some time featured aromas and tastes of Tampa — a sophisticated wine bar run by Mise en Place, a detailed miniature of the historic 1904 Columbia restaurant and the latest taps of craft beer pioneer Cigar City.
TIA is now stepping up to take airport-local to a whole new level. After an elaborate audition and bidding war, the airport unveiled a vast menu with the flags and local specialties of more than 15 hometown favorites.
Amid a huge expansion, TIA upset the entire traditional format of airport concessions, in which one huge company typically operates a dozen or more food stations under different brands.
Instead, the airport wanted multiple concessionaires and lots of local food. So it carved up the more than 40 food locations in the terminal and air sides into smaller constellations and put each up for bid.
The airport chose six concessionaires, both national and local, with each getting several spaces.
All those pretzels, beers, coffee and sandwiches add up to big business — $78 million this year, says TIA’s Janet Zink, which amounts to $13.5 million for the airport. When expansion is complete in fiscal 2018, travelers will spend an estimated $103 million.
Some well-regarded locals, including Tampa’s Datz and Pane Rustica and St. Petersburg’s Mazzaro’s Italian Market, didn’t gain a spot.
Among the winners: Cigar City will still be pouring Maduro brown ale, Jai Alai IPA and more in two locations, joined by thatched-roof Irish pub Four Green Fields. Mise en Place will have a new Cafe, and the Columbia will be there too, along with Richard Gonzmart’s two newest ventures, the native- Florida food specialist Ulele and his revival of the beloved Goody Goody hamburger drive-in.
You’ll also be able to eat at South Tampa’s most sociable pizza spot, Bella’s Italian Cafe, and its successful burger bar spin off, Square 1. Coffee choices will go beyond Star bucks to include Italy’s Illy and Tampa grown Buddy Brew.
Business-savvy diners will also get a scan of the latest innovations from a market many see as a national test kitchen:
Guy Harvey’s Rum Fish Grill, the wildlife artist and conservationist’s first seafood restaurant.
Ducky’s, Tampa Bay Rays’ star Evan Longoria’s duckpinthemed sports bar with Tampa dishes — and duck chili.
Burger 21, an upscale burger chain with strawberry shortcake shakes cooked up by Melting Pot vets.
Yogurtology, a young Tampa chain with 15 locations in the region that will offer by-the-ounce yogurt and mix-ins bar.
Fitlife Foods, grab-ngo meals of miso salmon and pulled pork.
Bavaro’s, a downtown Tampa pizza and pasta restaurant with a line of from scratch sauces.
PDQ, a chicken tender specialist from former Outback executives.
Louis Pappas Fresh Greek, selling Tarpon Springs’ iconic gyros, salads and moussaka made modern.
There’s a local flavor to some retail, too, including St. Petersburg’s Home Shopping Network, Travel Smith and Spanx (founded by Clearwater’s Sara Blakely) as well as Florida’s Ron Jon Surf Shop.
Fear not, Pecanbon addicts — Cinnabon still has a place at the airport, along with P.F. Chang and Chick-fil- A. But as you depart Florida, wouldn’t you really rather have a Florida Cracker wheat ale or Guy Harvey grouper