A respectable airport restaurant is like a port in a storm. If you’ve made it through security with your dignity intact, and your flight wasn’t canceled, you’ve got time to kill and a reason to treat yourself. If you’re away from home, you’ve got one last chance to experience the culture of a different city, even if it’s the mall food-court version.

Desperate travelers will settle for less — a bag of trail mix from Hudson News, a ridiculous Starbucks concoction or a salad snatched from a refrigerated shelf. But even in the corporate wasteland of the airport, there’s quality to be found. Many of today’s shiny new terminals include classic hometown restaurants and notable chefs from the cities they’re in.

Concourse concessions come with concessions, of course. Just like at pro sports stadiums, giant management companies license restaurant names, which means you might get a watered-down version of a signature recipe. When you’re wearing airport goggles, big chains start to look better because consistency equals dependability — but we’re imploring you to go beyond the Chili’s Too.

For your preflight checklist, we consulted local experts — including food and travel writers — to get their recommendations at the 13 busiest airports in the country. We solicited input from readers, considering almost 600 responses. At each airport, from Atlanta to Denver to Los Angeles, we included one leisurely sit-down option, one quick-serve counter and wild-card picks full of craft beers, desserts and more local classics.

We hope you packed your appetite.

Houston George Bush Intercontinental (IAH)

Highway-bound Houstonians might not bat an eye, but the drive to Bush is a hike north of the city’s outer loop. IAH is a hub for United and welcomed back Southwest flights in 2021 after a 16-year absence. It’s massive and full of flashy vendors, but many Texans would tell you to hit the regional fast-food favorite: Whataburger.

Sit-down – Pappadeaux

The “Pappa” is for Pappas, the Greek American family of restaurateurs behind some of the state’s favorite brands; Pappadeaux (Cajun and Creole) and Pappasito’s Cantina (Tex-Mex) are two of the top picks in IAH or DFW. Pair your po’ boy with boozy French Quarter-style drinks such as the Swampthing: frozen margarita and hurricane swirled with raspberry and melon liqueurs.

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