By Emily Saladino
May 27, 2014

Gone are the days of rushing through security and jumping straight onto your flight—you can thank the TSA for that. “Travelers are spending more time in airports than ever,” says Frank Sickelsmith, vice president of restaurant development for HMS Host, one of two major firms that turn airports into epicurean hangouts. The upside? “Now they can have a full sit-down meal instead of grabbing and going.” And that’s where innovators like Sickelsmith come in.

In 2013, Americans spent $5.15 per passenger on in-terminal concessions—up from $4.43 four years ago—making concourse cuisine a $533 million industry. Mix that kind of revenue with a dash of hometown pride, and it’s clear why big-name chefs and entrepreneurs are eager to tackle the hurdles of gate-side dining. (You try getting your local fishmonger past TSA.) “It’s an incredible opportunity to be a mouthpiece for your city,” says Bryan Caswell, the Houston chef who opened 3rd Bar Oyster & Eating House at the city’s George Bush International last summer. In the past year alone, Jose Garces debuted Local, a swank tavern in Philadelphia’s Terminal F; Minnesota resident Andrew Zimmern opened Minnibar, a sandwich shop in Minneapolis-St. Paul’s Concourse G; and Louisiana legend Dooky Chase launched a namesake Creole joint at New Orleans’s Louis Armstrong.

Equally invested in raising the bar are the airports themselves. Among the goals of LAX’s new, $1.9 billion Tom Bradley International Terminal: put L.A.’s top culinary talent in the spotlight. “Even if you’re only here on a layover, you’ll get a genuine taste of the city,” says Top Chef winner Michael Voltaggio, who opened a branch of his West Hollywood spot Ink.sack alongside cult favorite Umami Burger, Suzanne Goin’s Larder at Tavern, and the Mexican cantina Border Grill.

In New York City, the push to go gourmet has practically become a competition. LaGuardia has new venues by hot-ticket chefs Jim Lahey (Crust) and Andrew Carmellini (Victory Grill); JFK’s just-opened, $1.4 billion Delta wing (operated by OTG management) has outposts of Shake Shack and Marcus Samuelsson’s Uptown Brasserie. This all adds up to a new understanding of what an airport could—and should—be. Says OTG’s CEO, Rick Blatstein, “We’re making it part of the journey.”

Five Terminals Worth Going Early For

Geneva (GVA): In the Departures Public Zone, order the foie gras with roasted scallops at Altitude, which overlooks the Jura Mountains; the menu is courtesy of distinguished Relais & Châteaux chefs Gilles Dupont and Thomas Byrne. Want to burn off that last bite of mille-feuille? Head to Les Jardins de Genève, where local DJ’s spin on the outdoor terrace.

Singapore (SIN): Check out Terminal 3’s 24Hr Food Gallery for the Hainanese chicken rice, nasi padang (steamed rice with meat and veggies), and snacks from cult chain Killiney Kopitiam. Past security, there’s Terminal 1’s Ambassador Transit Hotel, where you can sip cocktails at a rooftop bar with panoramic runway views.

Munich (MUC): Catch a local band at Airbräu, the open-air beer garden and on-site brewery on MAC Forum’s Level 3. It’s where locals go for the best-priced craft brews in town (come summer, a JumboTron airs soccer matches for sprawling crowds). Looking for epicurean souvenirs? Gourmet shop Leysieffer has you covered.

Tokyo (NRT): Sushiden sources its nigiri and sashimi from the legendary Tsukiji Fish Market, while nearby noodle bar Sojibou makes its soba by hand in an open kitchen. And that’s just the start. Indulge your sweet tooth at candy emporium Okashi Greenport; then stop at Fukujuen, a branch of Japan’s oldest tea shop.

Dubai (DXB): At Dubai’s Terminal 3A, fine wine purveyor Le Clos has opened its new flagship, complete with hard-to-find varietals that span from 1895 to the present and a bottle-your-own-whiskey station. There’s also Jack’s Bar & Grill, the world’s first Jack Daniels–themed bar, offering top-end Select distillations by the glass.