When Tampa International Airport debuted in 1971, each terminal had a newsstand and a snack bar, called something kicky like Snack Bar. This was an era when people still dressed up to travel, when flight attendants were glamorous creatures in fashion-forward caps, when flights themselves served meals (okay, sometimes it was Salisbury steak) with real silverware.
It’s easy to be nostalgic as you put your shoes back on and retrieve your belt from the bin, but there’s also this: Restaurant offerings at airports have absolutely exploded around the country. And TIA went all in. In 2015, the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority Board awarded 12 concessions contracts, a mix of 65 new shops, restaurants, kiosks and bars throughout the airport, many outposts of notable local brands. A dynamic and incisive effort to put Tampa Bay’s best foot forward with visitors, it also reflects a national trend, airports moving from a master concessioneer model (one company overseeing the whole shebang) to a multiple concessioneer model.
There are still a couple of things yet to come — Cigar City Brewing will open, the Columbia will renovate and expand, the Shoppes at Bayshore will be unveiled in the main terminal — but we thought it was time to eat our way around the airport.
Most newcomers are through security, which reflects how people are using airports differently. We Uber or get dropped off, no one lingering for us pre- or postflight. Post-Sept. 11 airport changes have led to the rise of things like cellphone lots. Think about it. When was the last time you saw a teary welcome or goodbye in the terminal? Then add more people flying, packed planes and delays contributing to layover lags, and extra delicious things to eat and drink postsecurity seems like a no-brainer.
We found plenty. We started the morning at Four Green Fields (Airside E), its signature thatch roof a welcoming bit of Irish know-how. (Wheat is expensive, but the rest of the stalk is nigh free.) The menu is tucked into what looks like the Irish passport, and the big innovation here is they’ve had to add breakfast, something the flagship on Tampa’s Platt Street, and the new outpost at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, have not done. We worked our way through simple but homey Irish soda bread with a crock of butter ($6), sunny-side eggs with corned beef hash made from mashed potato and brisket prepared on site ($12, plush, with an excellent cayenne kick on the finish), then a classic Reuben ($12.50), something for which Four Green Fields is justifiably famous (perfect blend of gooey Swiss, tangy kraut, salty/meaty corned beef). There was a pint of Guinness as prop, but because we were starting our dine-around at 9:30 a.m., we merely looked at it wistfully.
After a quick stroll through the new AirEssentials shop, which showcases La Segunda baked goods, Toffee to Go, Pinellas Chocolates and Kahwa coffees, we zipped over to Airside C — the busiest, which serves Southwest and Frontier — to check out two of the most recent debuts: PDQ launched on March 20 and Burger 21 opened next door just three days later. Both are set up like fast-food counters in a food court, with digital overhead menus with their signature extensive condiment options. And both have fashioned new breakfast items to support the airport’s all-day needs. At PDQ this means handhelds like a couple of biscuits (one with chicken, one with bacon, egg and cheese, each $4.39) and a couple of toasted English muffin sandwiches (one of the most popular an avocado, egg and cheese, $4.39). They are also doing bowls ($6.05) anchored by tater tots, egg and cheese shreds and the concept’s signature breaded chicken tenders. At Burger 21, the showstopper was a picture-perfect breakfast burger with an over-easy egg on a glossy brioche ($9.59 — but fix that sign, it says "agrugula"), accompanied by a Sunshine State milkshake (strawberry with orange), available only at the airport.
Both of these Tampa-born concepts are slick, capably competing with national brands (well, PDQ is up to 60 stores now, so maybe it qualifies), yet both offer flavors and dishes that pay homage to Tampa Bay. This could be said of our next visit, RumFish, in the same terminal, a second outpost of the Guy Harvey concept at the TradeWinds in St. Pete Beach. With its captivating cylindrical aquarium, it telegraphs seafood, with an ocean-blue wall behind the bar. (I love how the airport’s long-standing sculpture called the Barnstormer stands sentinel here like a vigilant waiter.) This is a higher price point than our visits thus far, more of a full sit-down experience, with appetizers like firecracker shrimp ($12; it’s boom boom, topped with cilantro and sesame seeds, bedded down on lettuce) and achiote-marinated mahi tacos served with a lovely Thai peanut slaw ($15; a dish they’ve started serving at the Trop this year), and sandwiches like a classic grouper, served bronzed (that’s blackened, but with more restraint; $16.50) and with cinnamon-kissed sweet potato fries.
Then it was on to what they are calling Marche C, which opened about a year ago with seven concepts fitted into an elegant semicircle. This area is centered by an outpost of Ulele, with a much-abbreviated menu tweezed from the Tampa Heights original, only they have this: oysters chargrilled right in front of you (cheesed and buttered, then grilled) over an open flame. Can you think of another airport where your cheeks get rosy from watching your oysters bubble?
Behind that is Ulele’s sibling restaurant, Richard Gonzmart’s Goody Goody, with an attractive nostalgic forum for those famous POX burgers (special sauce, very tomatoey, good onion oomph; $6.09) and the OMG butterscotch pie (perfect bruleed meringue, filling that’s got that sweet/burnt synergy; $5.49). Kitty-corner from that is Bavaro’s Neapolitan-style pizza (Dan Bavaro had a humdinger of a time finding the right Italian gas oven because the airport doesn’t allow woodfire), with a scaled-back menu of his most famous pies (the Tre Carne with prosciutto cotto, rounds of savory Italian sausage and swaths of soppressata, $17.89; a textbook margherita, $13.49), panini and pastas. To me, these are two-person pizzas; afterward share a pasta and you’re golden.
We did some heavy noshing at nearby Louis Pappas, about as celebrated a local brand as there gets (heck, if you find a depth-charge of potato salad in your Greek salad anywhere in the country, you’ve got Mr. Pappas to thank), starting with that chopped Greek salad ($12.79), a monster topped with beets and radish, pepperoncini and a heavy flurry of feta, and then segueing into a pita platter with shaved gyro tucked neatly alongside wedges of pita, a tangy tzatziki sauce, salad and a perfect ice cream scoop of potato salad ($12.39).
We needed a little liquid refreshment at this point, right? We headed onward to the Gasparilla Bar, which opened June 2016 in Airside F. It looks like a pirate ship, and they toyed with the notion of costumed bartenders, but perhaps TSA got a little sniffy about peg legs and stuffed parrots. The big seller here is the Bloody Mary ($12.49), accessorized with celery, olives and peppers (without the beef jerky and tiny burger nonsense that increasingly tip bloodies into the meal category), but there’s a smart lineup of Captain Morgan-centric tropical cocktails that’s likely to give folks an unrealistically sunny view of Tampa.
We ended in the international terminal, gliding by Liquid Provisions, Square One burgers, Yogurtology, Buddy Brew, Bella Veloce (an outpost of South Tampa’s Bella’s) and Fitlife Foods grab-and-gos, all clustered in Marche F. Our destination: the Cafe by Mise en Place. This would be a notable new restaurant were it to debut anywhere in Tampa; at the airport we found ourselves muttering, "This is airport food?!"
It says something about the sophistication of international visitors, maybe something about the deeper pockets of folks who routinely travel internationally, but Maryann Ferenc and Marty Blitz’s spot has a lovely cocktail list (we sipped through a stylish Boulevardier, a charming French 75 with curlicue lemon rind and a cosmo-ish Tea Bramble made with local TeBella’s blackberry tea royale and Tito’s vodka) and a major wine list (there was a gamay from the Loire, luscious but with a whiff of barnyard, that I can’t stop thinking about).
Ferenc is a huge booster of Tampa Bay tourism and a longtime believer in the airport (the Mise team had a wine bar presecurity for years), and the Cafe shows the strength of her convictions. It’s a spare, attractive dining room that subtly nods to their flagship restaurant, with savvy dishes that can be prepared quickly but pack a whole lot of drama. The top dishes we tried included a fried green tomato appetizer, wedges fanned around a center salad with a just-smoldery buttermilk dressing, pickled onion and a delicate line of fruity-spicy piquillo pepper coulis ($10.31). Lovely, as was a take-no-prisoners rich pasta that packed wide pasta tubes in with roasted cauliflower, mushroom, bacon and peas with a lick-the-plate manchego cream sauce ($16.31). And a signature dessert from Mise en Place becomes a preflight must: crunchy toffee-pecan crust filled with a rich chocolate mousse and plated with puddles of creme anglaise and toffee sauce ($9.31).
There has been grousing about the speed of the airport’s new shuttle (too fast) and the location of the new rental car kiosks (too far). But after our day of dining, TIA has clearly succeeded with the mix and breadth of new restaurant offerings. TIA routinely makes lists of the country’s top airports; look for it on upcoming lists of top airport food.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.