Many people define the $100 hamburger as a tongue-in-cheek excuse pilots use for spending the day flying. It is hard, after all, to make a reasonable case for logging a couple of expensive hours in an airplane to fetch fast food.
But the act is not that simple. Pilots get far more than meals from these sorties. Flying to airport restaurants, when done properly, is really a mission. We fly laps around the pattern and perform S-turns, steep turns and stalls in the practice area to stay current, hone skills, and improve our overall precision. But to remain truly sharp, pilots need to travel. And a restaurant at an airport that is 50 to 100 nm away is an opportunity to test ourselves on a regular basis.
Food itself is an incentive, and we are far beyond just burgers and fries these days. Airports compete for visitors and those with eateries on site want to make their menus memorable, with hope of becoming regular destinations. As a result, there is a wide range of cuisines available within a few steps of the transient parking area.
In my case, the promise of a hearty breakfast at Donna’s Runway Cafe at Blairstown Airport (1N7) in New Jersey convinced our sons, 8 and 11 years old at the time, to take their first flight in the Cessna 172 despite trepidation. That watershed outing was also a chance to finally give the passenger safety briefing I had practiced for my FAA check ride. I added a short speech about how traveling in the airplane would be like riding in our car, with a few differences.
We have enjoyed lots of flights together since then, usually involving food, but the boys’ worries faded long ago. And I always wind up spending much more than $100. So while I don’t know who coined the expression, I’m sure it was an exaggeration from a time long ago, when people considered $100 a huge sum. The alliteration allows it to persist.
Below are six examples that hint at the variety of menus and settings one can expect while surveying airstrip fare.
Flight Deck Restaurant & Lounge
McNary Field (KSLE), Salem, Oregon
Serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, the Flight Deck’s menus range from eggs Benedict and breakfast burritos to shepherd’s pie and bacon wrapped aviator tenderloin. Located right on the restaurant is a good place for aircraft spotting. McNary Field was named for Oregon Senator Charles L. McNary, who served in the Senate from 1917 to 1944. It opened in 1937 and offered airline service beginning with United Airlines in 1941. Airlines left the airport in 1993. Smaller passenger operations have come and gone since then.
Cedar Mills Airport (3T0), Gordonville, Texas
On the shore of Lake Texoma, this eatery is named for the white pelicans who migrate through the area in the spring and fall. Known for seafood including Gulf shrimp, catfish, cod, and crab cakes, the menu also includes a range of steak, pork chops and chicken dishes. The restaurant is part of a resort that includes a 3,000-foot grass strip, cabins, and cottages for fly-and-stay vacationers. The lake is known for sailing and fishing, and guides to show you the best spots.
Gaston’s Airport (3M0), Lakeview, Arkansas
Louisiana shrimp burrito, smoked trout poppers, filet mignon, ribeye, panko-breaded jumbo shrimp, mahi-mahi, and sauteed char–this menu sounds like we have moved beyond burgers. But no, burgers are here, along with Reubens, pulled pork and BLTs. The Gaston family bought 20 acres on the White River with six cottages and six boats in 1958. Today the resort covers 400 acres with 79 cottages and more than 70 boats. The airstrip has grown from 1,800 feet to 3,200.
Carroll County Airport Restaurant
Carroll County-Tolson Airport (KTSO), Carrollton, Ohio
“Join us for a home cooked meal, a cup of soup or a sandwich. But don’t forget to save room for the pie,” reads a Facebook message that seems to capture the vibe of this place. Daily menus with items like strawberry-stuffed French toast, crepes, marinated pork chops, and chicken marsala are hand-written on whiteboards. Exposed ceiling beams are papered with photographs of airplanes. Other local attractions include historic sites like the McCook House and Algonquin Mill Complex.
Sky Manor Airport (N40), Pittstown, New Jersey
I’ve found that when a restaurant really cares about salads, the rest of the food tends to be memorable as well. Sky Cafe has some of my favorites including nicoise, chicken curry salad, roasted beet and blueberry with baby spinach and almonds, and kale with charred avocado, apples and Brussels sprouts. On approach, you fly over the rolling western New Jersey farms that surround the field. On the ground you are likely to find interesting vintage aircraft, especially during Sky Manor’s yearly fly-ins.
Nantucket Memorial Airport (KACK), Nantucket, Massachusetts
If you fondly recall the 1990s sitcom “Wings,” set at a fictional Nantucket airport, this spot might have particular appeal. If not, you should visit anyway because not only does the restaurant serve all three meals but it also offers “breakfast at night” including pancakes, french toast, and omelets. Plan your visit carefully because the towered airport—the state’s second busiest after Boston’s Logan—is challenging, especially during summer when it becomes a hive of jet activity.