clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Airport Breakfasts Are Pretty Much Terrible. Here’s How Chefs Handle It.

New, 2 comments

Practical (and not-so-practical) advice from David Chang, Marcus Samuelsson, and more

If there’s a Shake Shack in your terminal, get your breakfast there.
Nick Solares
Hillary Dixler Canavan is Eater's restaurant editor and the author of the publication's debut book, Eater: 100 Essential Restaurant Recipes From the Authority on Where to Eat and Why It Matters (Abrams, September 2023). Her work focuses on dining trends and the people changing the industry — and scouting the next hot restaurant you need to try on Eater's annual Best New Restaurant list.

As if going through TSA security procedures before 9 a.m. wasn’t undignified enough, airports do not have breakfast figured out. At all. I can get down with a McDonald’s Egg McMuffin and my go-to secret Starbucks order, but more often then not, I find myself stashing a Larabar in my carry-on and drinking whatever coffee the airport gods see fit to put in my path. It’s often garbage. The terminal at SFO I most frequently fly from doesn’t have easy access to a major fast-food chain, let alone anything that resembles what I would consider to be a bagel. Here’s the truth: Airport breakfasts are the worst of all the airport meals.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. “I think this is an America problem,” says Momofuku chef-founder David Chang. He cites Japan’s Narita and Haneda airports as having stellar breakfast options. According to Chang, so does Charles DeGaulle (“it seems like the French eat breakfast shit all day”) and the Copenhagen airport (“it has one of my favorite pastry places, Lagkagehuset”). “I think the worst ones are when you go the pizza shops in airports and they’re serving breakfasts out of the steam table,” Chang insists. “Nothing is worse than that.”

Below, food pros reveal their morning flying routines, letting the rest of us in on the tips, tricks, hacks, and fuck-it-I-need-to-eat-something solutions to the airport breakfast problem:

Hugh Acheson, on navigating the airline lounge
Chef-restaurateur (Five & Ten, The National), Top Chef judge, cookbook author

My system is pretty simple. Coffee on the way to the airport, usually made into a to-go cup at home, because airport coffee programs are suspect at best.

If I am flying out of my airport, the great Hartsfield-Jackson International in Atlanta, I get through security, and get to the Delta lounge. From there I grab a thoroughly tasteless bagel, usually sesame (everything if I am feeling like I need salt for the week), and toast it on dark. Twice. Once this is accomplished, 30 minutes have gone by because though they maintain jets, Delta’s toasters are really fucking slow. Then I apply butter, cream cheese, and strawberry jam to the bagel, grab the paper and two napkins and eat. I then go to the bar and get apple juice on ice, which makes me look like an 8 a.m. drunk — it just looks like bourbon.

Then I listen to NPR and try to figure out which step of total decline into purgatory our nation is in. Then I go to the gate and get on the plane, and depending on how crazy the person is next to me, I keep headphones on or off.

Ayesha Curry, on the best Starbucks breakfast
Ayesha’s Home Kitchen host, founder of Homemade meal-kit delivery service

I try to lead a healthy lifestyle. So even when traveling, I try to make healthy choices for fueling my body first thing in the morning. Coffee or tea is a must! And I usually try and fill up a [plastic] bag with some dried cherries, dark chocolate chips, almonds, raisins, and sunflower seeds. About 1/4 cup each. It’s perfect to have stashed in my bag in case I’m running through the airport, or if I just don’t have time to stop. A lot of people don’t realize that you can bring food into the airport.

Another option at the airport is my occasional Starbucks chocolate chunk muffin. My guilty pleasure!

Mark Rosati, on finding local character
Shake Shack culinary director

If I have a super-early morning flight I don’t drink coffee at home or at the airport I’m departing from so I can try to sleep a little more on the plane. I find every second counts, especially when traveling on business! When I arrive, I’m usually ravenous and will dive right into breakfast if the airport has a great spot with local character and flavors that reflect the city I’ve just arrived in, like Publican Tavern in O’Hare. They pour killer coffee and I love their scrambled eggs with house-made publican bacon. If I’m flying out of JFK (or soon to be LAX this summer!) I’m of course getting a Shake Shack breakfast sandwich.

Eric Ripert, on airport sushi
Chef-restaurateur (Le Bernardin), author

When I book a flight, I always make sure I have enough time to have a good meal at the airport, which is much easier nowadays because the quality of restaurants is much better. I like to avoid stress and bad choices when I’m at the airport, and I don’t like to eat on the plane, so eating before my flight is a must. I’m surprised by the high quality of sushi at Deep Blue Sushi in JFK. I tend not to book flights too early so I’m usually not there early enough for breakfast.

Further afield, I like to eat a Caviar House & Prunier in Heathrow; I always get the smoked salmon and have a glass of champagne. There’s a great food court in Singapore, and if you’re lucky enough to fly Ethiad, their lounge in Abu Dhabi has fantastic food.

Marcus Samuelsson, on finding fresh food options
Chef-restaurateur (Red Rooster), cookbook author

​I like to keep it healthy for breakfast so I’ll usually seek out a cafe where I can get fresh fruit and a healthy muffin. My go-to drink is coffee or cappuccino to help me through the early flight, and a bottle of water. I’m always at the airport because I travel a lot. Lately I’ve seen a lot of Heathrow, Miami, and LAX.

Stumptown Coffee at Portland International Airport

Andy Ricker, on airport coffee
Chef-restaurateur (Pok Pok), cookbook author

I fly regularly from PDX-JFK-PDX, usually very early in the morning both ways and while I never eat breakfast on travel days, I always need coffee... good coffee, like coffee snob coffee. (C’mon, give me a break! I just can’t do Starbucks.) Airports are usually coffee-snob wastelands, but luckily both JFK and PDX happen to have Stumptown’s coffee available; in Portland there is actually an official Stumptown Coffee, but at JFK it ain’t as easy. Here’s the thing: Shake Shack has Stumptown Coffee, both cold brew (one for the flight) and hot drip (one to fuck start the day), you just have to brave the lines.

Suzanne Goin, on the benefits of owning an airport restaurant
Chef-restaurateur (AOC, Lucques)

I have to have a good strong coffee and something in my stomach for an early morning flight. I usually go for yogurt with blueberries, strawberries, and granola. And if I’m feeling decadent or vacation-like I go for a pastry — probably a pain au chocolat or a brown sugar scone. If I will be flying during lunch or dinner time, I pick up a sandwich of crusty bread with bright veggies — such as our Laurel Canyon or Nicoise or a salad with lots of vegetables and grains. I also take along some nuts or healthy snacks to have in flight. Lucky for me, the Tom Bradley International Terminal [at LAX] has our Larder at Tavern, and I can order my favorite foods before I travel overseas.

Michael Solomonov, on hydration hacking
Chef-restaurateur (Zahav, Federal Donuts), cookbook author

Eating a bowl of fruit before you travel — especially bananas which absorb water — is the greatest way to avoid being dehydrated while traveling. I also always bring a couple bags of nuts with me to avoid snacking on those overly salty in-flight nuts. And if I have the time, the food at French brasserie Saison at the United terminal at Newark Liberty International Airport (how I get to Israel) is countering the concept of bad “airport food” by making you feel like you’ve already arrived at your culinary-happy destination.

David Chang, on the holy grail of airport breakfasts
Chef-restaurateur (Momofuku), cookbook author, Mind of a Chef star

There’s several moves, it just depends on what time and what airport and how much time I have. If it’s 5 a.m., nothing. If it’s late morning, then you can figure it out pretty easily. At the Delta terminal [in JFK], the Shake Shack breakfast sandwich changed the game. One time I missed a flight because I was waiting for that in the morning. Normally, I get a sausage, egg, and cheese. Next to Shake Shack is Panda Express. They start at 10, so you can do something like that. Wolfgang Puck has a pretty good breakfast pizza thing, when you’re flying from the West Coast.

And one thing I’ve done a couple times is Soylent, believe it or not. It tastes like the soy drink my mom used to make; it doesn’t taste that bad to me. But that’s an emergency. But usually I never even drink it, I put in my bag and then throw it out.

Without a doubt, the best breakfast I ever had was flying out of Haneda in the morning, and getting Rokurinsha ramen. It’s hard to find — it’s not labelled Rokurinsha in the airport. You think it’s a generic ramen shop, but it is unequivocally the best breakfast you can have.