Why the food at the Philly airport has never been better

The falafel was crispy on the outside, folded into warm pita with char lines from a grill, and accompanied by a crunchy green salad. Baristas standing before a pristine wall of white subway tiles poured hot La Colombe coffee. Steamed shrimp dumplings were juicy and firm in translucent wrappers alongside a bowl of vegetable ramen with edamame, seaweed, and a soft egg. Sunlight poured in from windows on all sides, the departing gate was steps away, and outlets for phone charging were everywhere.

Seasoned travelers can summon memories of Philadelphia International Airport as it was decades ago: the dark, ill-lit corridors, grim terminals, yellowed fluorescent lights, and palettes of brown and gray. As renovations have started taking the terminals away from the atmosphere of the old PHL, executives say the infusion of new eateries is a crucial step toward shaking off the airport’s age-old reputation as one of the nation’s worst.

“What we’ve always heard is people get here early,” James Tyrrell, chief revenue officer of PHL, said as he stood in the newly renovated Terminal B. “So many of those people — everyone from families going to Disney World to business travelers to young people with disposable income — they end up with extra time here, and they want choices. They haven’t always had that.”

Baba Bar at Philadelphia International Airport.

In Terminal B, much of the gate seating has been replaced with high-top tables and chairs, and bars were moved right into the waiting areas at some gates. Instead of cramming into plastic chairs that put them shoulder-to-shoulder with other travelers, passengers can order drinks and food from cushioned stools, charge phones and laptops, pay with touchscreens without waiting for checks, and order to-go meals. Vegan and vegetarian options are plentiful, and drinks can be customized using a range of liquor.

“It’s a modern setup,” Tyrrell said. “People don’t want to sit next to each other in those traditional gate seats, but they will here. It creates a whole different environment. People interact with each other more, like you’d see in a bar.”

Noobar at Philadelphia International Airport.

The restaurants are part of an estimated $900 million in improvements planned for PHL, a project that includes new roofs, elevators, technology, and other infrastructure upgrades. In order to attract more discerning diners, airport executives and New York food and beverage provider OTG management brought on the city’s highest-profile chefs and restaurateurs.

La Colombe opened last spring in Terminal A, the first of what will eventually be four locations throughout PHL. That terminal also is the site of American Express’ new Centurion Lounge, where elite cardholders can enjoy specialty cocktails and an Israeli-influenced menu designed by Michael Solomonov.

Most of PHL’s newest destinations are in Terminal B, which last year underwent a $30 million redesign financed by OTG. The 60,000-square-foot facelift brought six new restaurants into the gate areas, with 1,000 iPads for placing orders.

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The Germantown Biergarten at Philadelphia International Airport.

Germantown Biergarten mimics the brewpubs that have taken root in the city and suburbs, with a menu offering a wide range of beer and snacks, like pretzels and brats. Nearby is Nomad pizza’s Stalin Bedon-approved Mezzogiorno, which sells thin-crust pizzas, charcuterie, and antipasti. The LOVE Grill, with a menu from former Percy Street BBQ chef Erin O’Shea, serves comfort food, like hot dogs and cheesesteaks.

The Mediterranean menu at Baba Bar was created by Nicholas Elmi, the Top Chef winner behind South Philadelphia’s Laurel and ITV. The falafel was well-seasoned and tasted much fresher than one might associate with airport food. At Boule Cafe, frittatas, soups, and pastry are bathed in rose-gold lighting. Noobar, created by chef Hiroyuki “Zama” Tanaka of Zama sushi in Center City, offers sushi, ramen, dumplings, and Japanese snacks that, like the Baba Bar food, came out looking just like the photos on the iPad menus.

The falafel sandwich from Baba Bar at Philadelphia International Airport.

Like less-sophisticated airport fare, these eats aren’t cheap; at Baba, the falafel sandwich is $11 before tax and tip, and by-the-glass wines range from $11 to $35. At Noobar, the vegetarian ramen and an order of shrimp dumplings came to about $25 with tip.

Terminal D is now home to two gourmet burger spots: Bar Symon, Food Network chef Michael Symon’s gastropub; and Mo’ Burger. In Terminal F, there’s the Jose Garces-affiliated Local tavern, which resembles Village Whiskey and which was one of the airport’s earliest forays into iPad ordering.

Bar Symon at Philadelphia International Airport.

More restaurants are coming to Terminal C in the years to come, Tyrrell said. Even the airport’s four Chickie’s & Pete’s locations are expected to undergo renovations soon.

On a recent afternoon, travelers passing through PHL said they were largely impressed with the new dining options. Some said they weren’t totally sold on the touchscreen ordering, but Melissa Thomas of Boston, who frequently travels to Philadelphia for work and who has spent time in the new Terminal B, said she welcomed the convenience.

“It’s all overpriced, but that’s just something you can’t get away from at the airport,” she said, leaving the airport on a recent trip. “But in terms of quality, it’s a lot better than it ever was.”