Big-city airports take hospitality industry voyeurism to a whole new level: The morning churn of vacationers slamming screwdrivers before running to their gate, the Windsor-knotted men talking into the air while sipping Oban neat, and of course, the sticker-shocked beer drinkers passing time for any number of reasons, most beyond their control.
Yep, it’s fertile ground for people-peeping.
Fascination with airport restaurants and bars is not new. Much has been published about the aesthetically pleasing design and layout of massive bars amid terminal gates, as well as high acclaim for the food at some of the smaller, non-chain eateries around the country.
For example, any Terminal A layover at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport warrants a visit to One Flew South, which touts itself as “The First Upscale Dining Experience at the World’s Busiest Airport.”
Initially unaware of this claim, or endorsements from the likes of Conde Nast Traveler, I’ve eaten there several times, always hoping for a bar stool near the kitchen. It could easily be a cozy spot on Wharf Street.
According to the bartender, the go-to entree is thyme-roasted pork belly with black-eyed peas and watercress salad, celery root puree and blackberry-onion marmalade. Justifiably delicious at $28, I’m sure I’m not the only state-hopper who tries to plan such a layover.
For most travelers, however, that type of airport dining experience is rare. Trying to balance food quality, customer service, compelling atmosphere and perceived value goes down the grease trap. Instead, the experience is fueled by time restraints, prefab menu items, and of course, sticker shock.
According to Dean Morris, a bartender at P.F. Chang’s in the Delta Airlines hub at Detroit Metropolitan Airport, it’s also a completely different working gig from “the outside.” A self-proclaimed industry lifer at 42, Morris spent the last 12 years working the Detroit airport bars.
“People are people, but things are really different here,” he said. “Most usually behave themselves, we’re always busy, and my ex can’t stalk me here because of security. What does suck is parking, taking a shuttle and going through security. (But) unless you forget something in your car, it’s worth the extra half hour.”
Sitting near the server drink station, and with more than an hour before I had to be at my gate, I asked him to tell me more. Like any great bartender, he was an amazing multi-tasker, shaking martinis and telling stories.
“I get asked if I see a lot of hookups,” Morris shared, “but not much happens beyond flirting. Folks are going places. There were these two regulars, both business types who did the Monday-through-Thursday weekly flying in and out of here. The ‘romance’ (he made air quotes with his fingers) had been building for weeks, and after the Thursday night they left together at closing, I never saw her again. It sucked because she was the better tipper and a really nice lady.”
Morris continued, saying he has a respectable percentage guessing where people are from by accents and the preparation requests of their cocktails. Hoping to avoid any discussion of coffee brandy, I was startled when a woman behind me became agitated, saying she’d been waiting more than 20 minutes for her to-go order.
“I have a plane to catch. This is ridiculous,” she screamed in my ear. The manager immediately walked over, asked her to calm down, and reminded her he said it would be a half hour. He offered to give her money back, but the woman would not be placated.
“I’m going to be on a plane for over four hours,” she screamed again. “Obviously, no one cares that all I’ll have to eat is pretzels or some crap.”
Looking at me and smiling, Morris said, “See what I mean? People are people no matter where you tend bar.”
Then, quick to tell me he also had people leave him tips in currency from all over the world, he added, “But still, it’s a different kind of workplace, that’s for sure.”
Next Week: The second leg.
Natalie Ladd is a Portland restaurant veteran, freelance writer and connoisseur of all things Bruce Springsteen. She loves Boston sports, chewy red wine and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. She can be reached at email@example.com.