MSP Airport: The best eats

The only drawback to Surdyk's Flights' delicious fruit and cheese platters: You'll need a boarding pass

The only drawback to Surdyk's Flights' delicious fruit and cheese platters: You'll need a boarding pass

While others in the airport security line carefully loosen their shoelaces or slip their laptops from their cases, I am more likely than not frantically shotgunning a container of yogurt, fearing that TSA will consider it a "gel" and try to take it away from me. Years of disappointment with lackluster, overpriced airport and airline food have turned me into a BYO flyer. I've been burned by both gate-side and in-flight eats, with pre-made sandwiches that taste of their plastic wrappers, or whose tomato slices have turned the bread soggy. In both cases, a squishy Sun Country cheeseburger would have been better—especially because they're free.

Whenever possible, I head to the airport with a smorgasbord of whatever must-gos were in the fridge. While others make do with the complementary peanuts, I pull down my tray table and smugly set out an array of everything from vegetable sushi to red velvet cake. When I travel with just a backpack, plane snacks sometimes account for 20 percent of my luggage.

A few months back, on a fight out west, I whipped out the leftovers of a charcuterie plate from the Craftsman. As I happily snacked on house-made crackers, rabbit rillette, and pickled garnishes, a woman across the aisle pointed at me and whispered to her seatmate, "Is she eating sauerkraut?" It sounded like she was jealous.

But I've been on brown-bagging autopilot so long that I've overlooked the upgrades at Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, which have brought several local operators into the mix, alongside the ubiquitous Burger Kings and Wok & Rolls. After a day spent dining at the airport's Minnesota-grown, full-service restaurants, I found that you can eat quite well on the premises—as long as you know where to go and what to order.

Some 90,000 travelers visit Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport every day, and nearly half are just passing through on their way to another destination. The airport is all that many of these people see of Minnesota, which makes each layover a brief but significant marketing opportunity.

Recognizing that, Metropolitan Airports Commission officials were one of the first airports in the country designed with a central "mall" structure linking its terminals. (Some joke that it's a shopping center with planes attached.) Prior to its 1998 renovation, the airport's concessions were mostly in the snack bar vein, offering simple items such as hot dogs and popcorn. But just as stadiums and theaters—facilities that also house large, captive audiences—have upgraded their food offerings in recent years, airports too are adding unique offerings that express cultural identity. "Everything used to be generic," says John Greer, the MAC's assistant director of concessions and business development. "We're looking for vendors with a regional—or Minnesota—sense of place."

The MAC used to rely primarily on the worldwide food service company HMS Host to supply its concessions, but it has moved to a more diverse, multi-vendor model to encourage competition. (The practice of giving one concessionaire a very long contract used to be quite common, which is why food at many airports has seemed stagnant. San Diego International Airport, for example, used HMS Host exclusively for nearly 40 years.)

Greer explains that most of the 100-some airport tenants are operating with seven- to nine-year leases, and nearly all of them came due in the most recent vendor changeover, in 2005. A commission review team offered a request for proposals, made selections, and rolled out the new concessionaires over the next several years.

The most recent turnover brought several local restaurateurs to partner with HMS Host in operating branch locations at the airport: Axel's Bonfire, French Meadow Bakery & Cafe, Ike's Food & Cocktails, and O'Gara's Bar & Grill. Airport vendors rarely give up their leases, but after a NASCAR shop had its parent company go belly-up, the airport worked with the leaseholder to subcontract the space to the new Surdyk's Flights, a cheese and wine bar that opened this summer.

Here's a look at many of the airport's homegrown offerings.

Axel's bonfire
The Mall, across from Checkpoint 3;

Axel's Bonfire is a locally operated chain of contemporary supper clubs, launched in Mendota in the mid-1990s, with locations all over the Twin Cities suburbs. In the airport location, the restaurant's namesake oven burns brightly against a pretty tile-and-mirror mosaic wall. Artsy glass light fixtures and a few decorative animal horns and skulls give the place a vaguely Southwestern feel, which is reinforced by the enchiladas and fajitas on the menu, next to wood-fired pizzas, pastas, and sirloin steaks.

Walleye is one of the restaurant's specialties, and it's served pretty much any way you'd like it: walleye fingers, walleye sandwich, walleye tacos, pan-fried walleye topped with toasted almonds, and the sleeper hit, a blackened walleye salad. Spring mix is topped with a generous Cajun-spiced fillet, laced together with a sweet-sharp vinaigrette of maple syrup and white balsamic vinegar. It's like visiting Minnesota by way of Louisiana and Italy.

The only turn-off about dining at Axel's is its entryway display of menu items. The giant wedge of chocolate cake might entice a few diners, but its lure was negated by a cold, congealed burger and plate of sliced beef that looked sloppy and unappetizing.

ike's food and cocktails
The Mall, across from Checkpoint 1;
Ike's on Summit, F Concourse, near Gate 7

The original Ike's brought a nostalgic vibe to downtown Minneapolis, and the two airport Ike's are similarly crammed full of Marilyn Monroe snapshots and other retro-bilia. Though the pub serves everything from blue plate specials to pink squirrels, it's best known for its burgers: hand-pattied Angus beef, carefully seasoned, and tucked onto a sweet, challah-like bun that's been griddled on the edges. (For the price, they'd better be good—add a few toppings and your burger could hit more than $15.)

Ike's has a few other notable perks: all-day breakfast options for those arriving from far-off time zones, turkey dinners for stranded travelers forced to miss their Thanksgiving meal, and complementary warm chocolate chip cookies for everyone.

Also, compared to the other bars where people stare at their cell phone screens or jabber on Bluetooth headsets, Ike's fosters a bit more camaraderie. When I was there, my waitress agreed to let a customer treat her to dinner next time he came to town.

french meadow bakery & Cafe
The Mall, across from Checkpoint 1;
French Meadow grab-and-go, F Concourse, near Gate 3

When the French Meadow Bakery opened back in 1985, it was one of the Twin Cities' original purveyors of organic fare. And even though the Lyndale Avenue café now serves lunch and dinner, at its heart it may always be a breakfast spot. French Meadow's two airport outposts turn out hot morning meals (made-to-order omelets and hemp toast!) and offer fresh, self-serve baked goods all day. Contrary to most of their stale, grab-and-go brethren, the lemon poppy seed muffins are springy and light, with a delicate crumb; the white chocolate macadamia nut cookies will stay chewy and moist until you've finally made it to Miami or Dubai.

The cafeteria side of the Meadow's mall location offers salads and soups—the broth-based chicken wild rice is a lighter alternative to the creamy original—along with the sunniest seats and best view of the tarmac. The dining area adds wine, beer, and light entrées—arepas, grilled tempeh, pastas, and more—including several vegetarian options. The French Meadow concept has been successful enough that it's recently expanded to John F. Kennedy airport in New York and Logan International in Boston.

o'gara's bar & grill
Concourse F, near Gate 12;

This St. Paul blue-collar pub has hunkered down on the corner of Selby and Snelling since the early 1940s. The airport version has less character than the original, though, with fewer regulars and just a few beer signs to signify its Irish connection.

Beer drinking—Smithwicks's, Guinness, Black and Tans—is O'Gara's main attraction, but if you need some sustenance to pair with your pint, the house-cured corned beef is your best bet. The paper-thin meat is a little light on the seasoning but improved by a douse of Thousand Island dressing. The sandwich is also thankfully light on the salt for those who don't want to spend the whole flight rehydrating—and making multiple trips to the restroom.

surdyk's flights
The Mall, near Checkpoint 2;

At Surdyk's Flights, waitresses don the pencil skirts, neck scarves, and jaunty pillbox caps that flight attendants wore back when travelers could pop a bottle of champagne in-flight, smoke a cigarette, or dance in the aisles. But the mod design and well-curated foodstuffs make the wine bar and retail shop feel decidedly contemporary. Along one wall, Flights has a narrow row of one-seat wooden booths with snappy striped upholstery. The walls are covered in white subway tile with televisions inset, though it's a shame not to sit on one of the barstools and watch food be prepared in the central kitchen. (There's also a large, patio-like seating area out in the mall.)

Surdyk's Flights is an offshoot of the three-generation family-run liquor shop on East Hennepin in Minneapolis, and it's managed by the fourth generation's Taylor Surdyk. In contrast to most other airport vendors, Surdyk's is supplying its own food and staffing, versus contracting with an on-site caterer.

The deli at Surdyk's NE trades in premium ingredients, and at Flights these first-rate foods double as decor: the kitchen counter is lined with bowls of olives, figs, strawberries, peppers, and cornichons next to a cherry-red meat slicer. Shelves are stacked with prettily packaged cans of San Marzano tomatoes, jars of McClures pickles, and bottles of blood orange vinegar.

A large wine display along one wall offers bottles that range from less than $10 to more than $200—at prices comparable to those at the Northeast shop. (Bottles may be carried onto the plane but can't be opened in-flight or anywhere on airport property.) Gifty foodstuffs include such local favorites as eco-minded Tiny Footprint coffee beans, and both Rogue and B.T. McElrath chocolates. The refrigerated grab-and-go items are a notch more upscale and interesting than typical airport offerings. Where else in the airport will you find Neuske liver pâté, chicken banh mi sandwiches, and Nicoise salads alongside bottles of sparkling sake and kombucha?

In addition to serving wine by the glass or in its titular flights, the bar has a lighthearted cocktail list, including the MSP Overshot and the Concealed Weapon, which, surprisingly, TSA hasn't made them take off the menu. For those who may never ride in an airplane's front cabin, the First Glass feels just as classy, with its bubbly blend of prosecco and elderflower liqueur that causes a hibiscus flower in the bottom of the glass to billow like sea anemone. (The flower tastes chewy and sweet, a little like a Fruit Roll-Up.)

Surdyk's Flights offers a simple menu of baked goods, sandwiches, and snack platters. The new, house-made bagels aren't quite there yet—they don't have enough of the chewiness or leathery crust that distinguishes bagels from bread—but the ploughman's platter is an impressive spread. I found only one dud (a pâté) among the array of sliced meats, cheeses, olives, nuts, fresh figs, crostini, and pretzel sticks.

The staff delivers the checks in leather embossed passport cases, so don't panic, as I did, if the traveler next to you departs and leaves it behind.