1 / Blue Smoke on the Road
I’m devouring a pile of musky pulled pork when Uzbekistan Airways Flight 102 touches down on U.S. soil, following a 17-hour journey from Tashkent. I watch the landing like a child at a monster truck rally, my face pressed against the floor-to-ceiling windows of Danny Meyer’s barbecue joint. This is what we call sense of place.
Too many airport restaurants try to make you forget you’re in an airport, which is too bad—they end up being cramped, windowless affairs with all the charm of a suburban shopping mall. Meyer instead embraces JFK, removing the walls so the boundary between restaurant and terminal is nearly invisible. It feels open, airy, and alive.
Hot bologna sandwiches ($12) do what they do best: mimic the taste and texture of flattened hot dogs. Sausages ($13) sting with the heat of clean black pepper, while pork ribs ($22), unnecessarily sauced, exude a slightly dry, slightly smoky finish. Avoid the $42 strip steak, a greasy mess with no sign of char, and the shaken, under-vermouthed Manhattan, which drinks less like a classic cocktail and more like a glass of moonshine. Blue Smoke isn’t a perfect replica of the Manhattan edition, but it’ll do.
Bottom Line: Get a sandwich and watch the planes—or the game on the flat-screen TVs.
2 / La Brea Bakery
Nancy Silverton’s retail bakery is “continually ranked as the premier artisan bread brand in the country.” At least on its own website. Too bad the JFK location ranks among the most average places to eat sandwiches in New York. The ham and Reuben paninis ($9.50) taste as if they contained the same oversalted, industrial-quality cold cuts you’d find at shoddy corner delis throughout the city. As the chef behind Mozza, one of Los Angeles’s best Italian spots, Silverton can do better. Bottom Line: Avoid. You should’ve picked up a pastrami sandwich at Katz’s.
3 / Uptown Brasserie
“In a hurry? Try our Fried Yardbird,” reads the sign outside Marcus Samuelsson’s airport restaurant. It’s advice you should promptly ignore. The $26 dish isn’t delivered expeditiously (allow up to 20 minutes for any entrée here), and it wouldn’t meet the minimum humane taste requirements for service at the ADX Supermax Prison in Florence, Colo. The flesh reeks of a bird left to rot in your fridge, and the crust has the density of hardened papier-mâché. In Samuelsson’s defense, his fried chicken isn’t very good at his flagship Red Rooster in Harlem, either. So give him points for consistency. Poultry problems notwithstanding, the chef’s JFK outpost gets the job done. Like Blue Smoke, Uptown embraces its airport digs, with stunning views of the Pan Am Worldport, the futuristic landmark that’s shamefully set for demolition.
Swedish meatballs ($21) pack a fragrant, spicy kick and are served with a proper dollop of mashed potatoes. French fries—hot, crisp, and herbed—are better and thicker than estimable analogues at Shake Shack. The burger is decent, too, with a thick slab of bacon imparting just enough flavor to compensate for bland beef and cheddar so mild it could pass as processed American. Skip the $32 steak, an indistinct cut with a gristly chew and gas-grill tang. For dessert, order a slab of Samuelsson’s dense cornbread ($4) with honey butter and tomato jam; it ranks among New York’s best iterations of this dish.
Bottom Line: Not bad for some quick cornbread and beer.
4 / Shake Shack
Danny Meyer’s burger joint continues to attract hour-long lines at its Madison Square Park flagship. But here at JFK, I waited just 10 minutes for the same high-quality junk food. Meyer knows how to duplicate without diluting the brand, which explains why he can handle locations in Istanbul, London, Kuwait City, and elsewhere. The burger is a proprietary blend, boasting a salty char and a clean beefiness. The chief condiment is a tart, drippy, Thousand Island-esque special sauce. The vehicle is a soft, sweet potato bun wrapped in wax paper. It’s a near-perfect fast-food burger that makes the McDonald’s (MCD) outpost at T4 irrelevant. Cost: $5.50. Wash it all down with a creamsicle shake—orange soda mixed with a rich, eggy frozen custard ($5.25). But bypass the cafeteria-like digs, and bring your Shack fare with you to the Delta Sky Club.
Bottom Line: The burger is way better than anything you’ll eat in business class.
5 / Delta (DAL) Sky Club
It’s 6 a.m. The sun is rising over Long Island. The breeze from Jamaica Bay is cooling my jasmine tea, because this section of the lounge happens to lack a roof. Delta’s Sky Deck is the only place I know of at an airport where one can drink a gin and tonic outside without being arrested. (Smoke, though, and you probably will be.) Access to the spacious, mostly indoor lounge is expensive: $90 for 30 days or $500 for the first year. Membership includes use of the showers, clean bathrooms, and a free breakfast as awful as free usually is. Waffles, mealy and sugary, are surely made by a low-cost Entenmann’s competitor. Fresh bagels, served hot and soft just about anywhere in New York, have the coarse texture of a foodstuff manufactured somewhere in the Midwest. Even Oliver Twist would turn his nose up at Delta’s slimy oatmeal.
No matter. You’re paying more than you would for a steak—a one-day pass costs $50—for the rarest of airport commodities: peace and quiet inside, fresh air outside. It’s a shame you can’t visit the Sky Deck without a ticket, because just being here, with a Shake Shack burger and a $40 glass of Dom Pérignon, is one of New York’s quintessential dining experiences.
Bottom Line: If your employer won’t splurge for business class, Sky Club’s day pass might be an easier expense-account sell.