A Toast to Southern California's Fly-In Dining Scene

From greasy spoons to mountaintop cafes, there's no shortage of airport eats in SoCal.

In-n-Out LAX

In-N-Out Burger near Los Angeles International Airport

Even LAX has a fly-in dining option. Indulge your inner airliner geek while grabbing a quick bite at the In-N-Out Burger on Sepulveda Boulevard.Getty Images

There are airplanes out there, and I know it because they’re all stepping on each other over the radio. The CTAF is a cacophony of squeaks, squawks and indecipherable gibberish clearly announcing that everyone and their brother is flying today. And why not? It’s a gorgeous Saturday in coastal California. It would be nice to actually see the traffic though — I am squinting in vain to pick up something shiny and moving amid the patchwork of golden fields, vineyards and caramel hills that surround Watsonville Airport (KWVI). My wife, Dawn, ever the eagle eye, spots what she confidently proclaims to be the RV-6 that just announced turning crosswi — SQUEESHHRRWOOOP! I hopefully turn in trail. Our Piper Pacer has 9 gallons of avgas in the left tank, and my grumbling tummy is running on E. If I recall correctly from my last visit 14 years ago, Watsonville has a decent airport cafe. In the local vernacular, I’m pretty stoked to be back.

For the two months since our Mexican adventure down the length of the Baja Peninsula, I’ve based the Pacer in Torrance, just south of LAX. This is familiar ground from my flight-instructing and freight-dogging days; you could say Southern California is where I grew up as a pilot, making this a homecoming of sorts. It’s been pretty fun flying around and visiting all the old haunts. There’s no question that SoCal’s airspace isn’t quite as frantically crowded as it was before 9/11, but GA activity has still made a pretty healthy comeback from the quiet years of the Great Recession. I’m particularly happy to see that most of my favorite airport eateries survived the downturn. I suspect they’re still around because, even in the halcyon days, pilots were always a minority of the local clientele. It turns out that lots of people like to watch little airplanes come and go while they nosh and sip, a nice reminder that not everyone hates us and wants to shut us down.

Brackett Field Airport (KPOC) in La Verne was my home airport in those early days of my career. Nestled among the rolling hills of a former citrus grove and tucked between Ontario’s Class C and the towering San Gabriel Mountains, Brackett was a busy little airport with a lot of flight training back then. Norm’s Hangar Cafe was a shady respite from the heat and bustle, a perfect place for instructors and students to grab an inexpensive, tasty meal between lessons. Naturally, I had to make the pilgrimage to Brackett with the Pacer, and the airport is a lot quieter than it once was; the only sign of my former employer is a few hulks with familiar N-numbers rusting away behind the old hangar. But Norm’s Hangar is still there and as popular as ever; I enjoyed a club sandwich on its patio while watching student pilots from Mt. San Antonio College hone their craft three bounces at a time.

It turns out that lots of people like to watch little airplanes come and go while they nosh and sip, a nice reminder that not everyone hates us and wants to shut us down.

A 10-minute hop to the southeast, Chino Airport (KCNO) boasts some of the most vibrant warbird, vintage and experimental aviation communities on the West Coast. Tucked behind Planes of Fame Air Museum’s expansive collection is the prototypical mother of all airport greasy spoons: Flo’s Airport Cafe. Flo’s has been a SoCal institution since the early ’60s; the shambolic decor hasn’t changed much, and neither has the unabashedly low-falutin’ food. If you’re in the mood for belt-busting specialties like chicken-fried steak or biscuits and gravy, you’re unlikely to find Flo’s rival in this part of the country.

The Inland Empire has several other airport cafes largely cut from the same mold as Flo’s; once you head west, the quality and variety of your choices improves considerably. Santa Monica Airport (KSMO) has Typhoon, for example, a sleek, modern Pan-Asian noodlery where an expansive glass wall looks out over the transient ramp and runway. My most memorable visit involved a scandalously ugly Piper Arrow, oil-streaked and missing half its paint, which caused various well-dressed locals to practically faint with shock when I proudly parked it front and center. Van Nuys (KVNY) has 94th Aero Squadron; Camarillo (KCMA) has the newly remodeled Waypoint Cafe. Even LAX, not a traditional fly-in destination, has the In-N-Out Burger on Sepulveda Boulevard. Occupying a primo airplane-watching spot just off the approach end of Runway 24R, there are few better places to indulge your inner airliner geek while enjoying a double-double and fries, animal-style.

The High Sierra Bar and Grill next to the Signature FBO at Santa Barbara (KSBA) used to be a popular Elephant Bar franchise, and it was where Dawn and I celebrated our engagement the night after I proposed — never mind the massive November cold front that had moved down the coast. We bounced through solid IMC for an hour and then battled our way down the ILS in moderate turbulence, breaking out 100 feet above minimums in driving rain. Over dinner, I asked Dawn if she’d felt dizzy or sick in the clouds. “Every once in a while,” she said, “but then I’d look at the attitude indicator and everything made sense again.” I knew right then I was marrying the right girl.

My all-time favorite, though, has to be the mountaintop airport cafe on Catalina Island called DC-3 Gifts and Grill. The journey is half the fun, of course; though it only lies “26 miles across the sea,” Catalina feels much farther away. That’s possibly a product of flying over shark-infested blue water on a single engine.

When my students needed dual cross-country flights, most of the time we went up the Pacific Coast for world-class scenery, variable weather and an excellent selection of places to eat. Where we flew mostly depended on what we were hungry for. In the mood for Mexican? There’s a good place in Santa Maria. How about contemporary American cuisine in a refined setting? Spirit of San Luis in San Luis Obispo (KSBP) is excellent. Burgers and shakes in a converted railroad car? Rock and Roll Diner is just a short stroll from Oceano’s windswept little airstrip (L52). Seafood? Monterey, naturally, after a truly spectacular flight up the Big Sur coastline.

My all-time favorite, though, has to be the mountaintop airport cafe on Catalina Island called DC-3 Gifts and Grill. The journey is half the fun, of course; though it only lies "26 miles across the sea," Catalina feels much farther away. That's possibly a product of flying over shark-infested blue water on a single engine, but it's also because the place inhabits an entirely different world from LA's hectic, smoggy crush. At the DC-3 you can tuck into a juicy buffalo burger while watching your meal's shaggy brethren lolling on the grassy hillsides. Just keep an eye out for the marine layer that's liable to sneak in at a moment's notice, trapping unaware VFR flyers in its foggy grip. This nearly happened to me recently when the Pacer and I met Flying Executive Editor Pia Bergqvist and her Mooney for lunch on Catalina.

Now, however, the time for SoCal reminiscing is done, and Dawn and I are moving our Pacer up the coast to Portland. The Big Sur coastline was as spectacular as ever, and I’m looking forward to a Bay tour and then flying up the Siskiyou and Cascade ranges. But for a quick lunch-and-gas break, busy little Watsonville is hard to beat. Ella’s, the cafe at the airport, is considerably better than I remembered, and it is chock-a-block with lunching locals admiring all the pretty airplanes parked out front. Our little yellow Pacer looks happy and natural out there, tucked between a beautifully restored green-and-cream Waco biplane and a big-tired, long-propped Cessna 185. I guess I’ve come a ways since the days when I took oil-stained flight-school rentals to dinner. Yeah, some things have changed in the California aviation scene over the last 15 years, but a lot here is just as good as it ever was. It’s been a really nice homecoming.