“I wish my layover was longer,” said no one ever….except maybe those who’ve explored the food and drink options at PHL Airport.
A recent guided tour through the restaurants, cafes and counters that dot the region’s air travel hub was full of surprises. The good kind, like finding out there’s a giant selection of local beer and Brussels sprouts you can’t stop eating at Jose Garces-connected Local Tavern, or discovering enjoyably crisp-crusted pizza at the Aldo Lamberti quick-serve. The airport’s six terminals offer likable sushi and pasta and burgers and wine, plus crab cakes nearly good enough to make you wish for a flight delay.
Your departure gate and how early you arrive will determine what’s practical, but here’s where to find the best of what you’re craving when inside Philly’s aerodome.
Local Tavern (Terminal F)
Thanks to its location in terminal where most commuter flights land, this is an airport pub with a fair share of regulars. If you have an extra hour, it’s worth the shuttle bus trip across the tarmac no matter what. Each cushioned stool is equipped with its own iPad, where you not only place and pay for your order (enabling expeditious meals), but can also freely browse the internet. The menu was designed by Jose Garces, and the food is good, but the best reason to go are the 60 taps stocked with a rotating selection of really great beer.
Jack Duggan’s (Terminal A)
Yuengling is the best selling brew at this traditional Irish pub, but there are 47 other drafts to choose from, including plenty from independent breweries both local and overseas. The bar was so popular that a year and a half ago, the airport converted part of the holding area across the way — instead of regular gate-front seating, it’s now an overflow lounge with table service. If you’re hungry, pair your pint with a mashed potato-topped shepherd’s pie.
Jet Rock Bar & Grille (Terminal B)
In 1996, this was the first full-service restaurant and bar in the whole airport. Over the past two decades, the beer selection has grown immensely, and there are now 42 taps. Because of high volume, taps rotate faster than many off-airport bars, and you’re pretty much assured a great find — for example, the mid-August list included IPAs from Captain Lawrence and Smuttynose, stouts from Lancaster and Great Lakes and sours from Russian River and Cape May.
Vino Volo (Terminals A, B and B/C and D/E Connectors)
This wine bar brand founded by a Wharton grad is now in 22 airports across the country, but PHL was one of the first to get it. The concept of affordable wine flights — each glass served on a paper coaster with winery info and tasting notes — was so successful here that there are now four different locations across multiple terminals. Ask for a dish of salty, caramel-coated marcona almonds to go with your wine.
Cibo Bistro (Terminals A and B)
An elegant black-and-mahogany color scheme provides a setting conducive to a nice glass of wine, and this restaurant and bar with a Mediterranean bent provides a list that makes it easy to choose one. More than 25 reds and whites and a couple of sparklers are all available in two generous pour sizes (5 or 7.5-oz) or by the bottle, and prices aren’t all that outrageous, either. Pair your pick with tuna tartar, shrimp scampi or a proper cheese plate.
Sky Asian Bistro (Terminal C)
Michael Schulson of Sampan consulted on the menu for this sushi and dim sum house, and the fish served here is as fresh as it gets, carved to order by Japanese sushi chefs. Specialty rolls aren’t even that marked up — $12 brings maki full of spicy tuna crunch, and the hamachi-salmon “dragon roll” goes for $16. The menu also offers less usual options, like sashimi of tako (octopus), ikura (salmon roe) or madai (snapper).
Legal Sea Foods (B/C Connector)
Thrice-weekly deliveries make sure this outpost of the high-end Boston chain is kept stocked with fresh seafood, even though it’s one of the busiest spots around, raking in more than $5 million annually. Lobster rolls are made with steamed meat pulled right there on site (as opposed to pre-packaged) and the crab cakes are ideal, full of sweet lumps of crab, spices and not much else. Nice touch: wooden booths were designed to be higher than usual, providing space for luggage to be tucked underneath.
Smashburger (Terminal F)
Burgers from this Denver-based chain are like what you get when you try to replicate the flavor combo provided by a Big Mac, but use ingredients that are actually good. The patty is smashed, so it’s not the juiciest, but it’s covered with flavorful char, and it goes perfectly with the ripe tomato, crunchy pickles, bright green lettuce and special sauce. Forewarning: these burgers get messy, so remember to grab napkins.
Local Tavern (Terminal F)
Love the burger at Village Whiskey? The same Pat LaFrieda meat from that Rittenhouse favorite is used in the version at this Garces-connected pub.
Aldo Lamberti Trattoria (Terminal C)
Good airport pizza is no longer a myth, thanks to this counter-service spot from the same restaurant group that owns Philly’s Positano Coast. The tomato sauce is tangy, the cheese pulls off in non-greasy strings, and the crust is actually crunchy. Toppings vary from classic (spinach and tomato) to crazy (General Tso chicken). If you need something to carry on with you, the panini here are also a worthy get.
Maki of Japan (Terminals A and E)
Bourbon chicken is the most popular seller at these quick-service spots, and if you ask for a free taste, you’ll see why. Everything is pre-made, but the steam tables are clean and well-maintained, and the vegetables are crisp and bright. The tofu mix is a great option if you’re going meat-free.
Far East (Terminal F)
Sesame chicken is the pick at this steam-table counter in the commuter terminal, but if you’ve got the time to sit down, go for the soup instead. Fresh noodles, cabbage, sprouts, meats, eggs or dumplings are combined with hot broth to order, creating a soothing and nourishing meal.
Le Bus Cafe (Terminal F and B/C Connector)
Elegant La Marzocco machines anchor the espresso bars attached to each outpost of this local cafe brand. The pulls from their spouts all use beans from local roaster La Colombe, as do the cups of regular drip. Pick up a fresh-baked muffin or danish to go with your cup of joe.
Guava & Java (Terminals A, B and E)
La Colombe is also the bean of choice at these juice and coffee bars, where you can get all your sustenance in liquid form.
Peet’s Coffee and Tea (D/E Connector)
West Coasters will be happy to find this Berkeley-born chain posting up right behind the D/E security entrance.
Starbucks (B/C Connector)
Whether or not you’re a green mermaid acolyte, the expanded seating area around this cafe is one of the nicest in the airport.
Dunkin Donuts (Terminal A and B/C Connector)
Just to say: If you’re a fan of slightly-flavored brown water with an unexpected amount of caffeine, Dunkin is here for you.
Philly Pretzel Factory (Terminal F)
Most branches of this ubiquitous snack chain are delivered pretzels baked at a main warehouse, but not here — you can watch the golden brown twists roll right out of the on-site oven (and smell them, too).
Yummy Pretzels (Terminals E and F)
Even though new health regulations mandated that the pretzels sold at these kiosks are now individually wrapped in plastic, it turns out they’re not half bad. They don’t have the exterior crunch of one that’s baked fresh, but they do have the proper interior texture, flavor and chew.
Auntie Anne’s (Terminals B, C and D and B/C Connector)
These hot Amish-style pretzels are basically a vehicle for salt and hot butter — but what’s wrong with that?
Bonus PHL Facts
- Wi-Fi: There’s free Wi-Fi throughout the airport — just watch a quick video and you’re good for the day. With average traffic of 2.3 terabytes a day, PHL boasts the second-largest Wi-Fi capacity of any airport in the U.S., coming in right after DFW (home to AT&T).
- New F Corridor: Very soon — probably next spring — a new indoor corridor will open connecting Terminal F to the rest of the airport, so you’ll no longer have to worry about the shuttle bus getting stuck behind taxi-ing planes as you hurry toward your gate (or your burger).
- Minute Suites: In the A/B Connector is a pseudo-hotel, where you can rent rooms by the hour ($38) or even overnight ($130). The cozy private areas are equipped with a fold-out couch, a TV, a desk and outlets. These rooms also double as nursing stations for new moms, for whom the fees are waived.
- Airport History: There’s art throughout the airport, and right now one of the most interesting displays is a historical look back at PHL through the years. Check out pics from the ‘40s showing how you used to walk out to your plane on the runway, and other artifacts and tidbits right up through when the first slide-walk “people movers” were installed (that was in 1998).