There are certain topics everyone agrees are terrible: homelessness, rising healthcare costs, airline food. While the first two have definitely earned a place on the list, the airline food haters seem to be stuck on memories of air meals past. The truth is, food on planes these days is still pretty bad. Plenty of factors from dried-out tastebuds to limited meal prep facilities contribute to gripe-worthy selections (or lack thereof), but here are five shining beacons of hope — barbecue and artisanal ice cream included — that in-flight dining is on its way to losing that reputation.
1. Terminals as city samplers
Airports are turning terminals into permanent food festivals with outposts of local favorites that give travelers the chance to try iconic names without straying far from their gates. LAX leads the way with Michael Voltaggio's ink.sack, French dip specialists Cole's, Sushi Roku-inspired Luckyfish and fresh food mecca Lemonade. In Grand Rapids, awesome brewery Bell's just opened at Ford International Airport. Ever wanted to try Rick Bayless' food? You can at Tortas Frontera at O'Hare. It's a brave new world at the terminal, so don't bother eating before you get through security.
2. Regularly evolving menus (some involving ice cream)
There are no sweeter words to a flying road warrior than “new menu,” especially if you're stuck in economy where you're limited to pre-packaged junk. Airlines are making a concerted effort to offer appealing meals and, more importantly, rotating the options. One airline, however, takes it to the next level. Virgin America will serve a brand-new flavor from San Francisco's favorite artisanal ice cream maker Humphry Slocombe, chosen by flyers via Twitter. Although the majority of American carriers still can't compete with the cuisine on international airlines, this is a clear indication they're moving in the right direction.
3. Actual food professionals as consultants
Airlines have recruited major chefs like Neil Perry and Heston Blumenthal to make their meals more enticing for years. That trend continues with a new development for Delta: restaurateur Danny Meyers' Union Square Hospitality Group now offers barbecue favorites from New York's venerable Blue Smoke restaurants. 'Cue in the air is a brilliant move, as the oven reheating process on airplanes should theoretically work to make the meat even better, and unlike a soggy sandwich with too much "aioli," smells great.
4. Take-off take-out
Still not feeling the plane food? That's fine, let the terminal restaurants do the work for you. At London's Heathrow Airport, Gordon Ramsay's Plane Food offers three-course meals packed in special insulated containers. Same at LAX's international terminal, where Petrossian sells “Picnic in the Air” packs with caviar, blinis and crème fraîche. Even if you're flying in the back of the plane, you can still eat a first class meal.
One of the best recent developments in air food is the ability to choose your meal before you fly. While most of the pre-ordering is only available in premium cabins, Qantas has expanded their “Select on Q-Eat” program to premium economy seats as well. That means no more worrying that you'll be stuck with the fish curry when they run out of chicken, and that's a major upgrade for everyone.
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