Pack your bags: D.C.’s latest dining destination requires a ticket

Some of Washington's best chefs and restaurants are flocking to the airport.

WASHINGTON — Put “breakfast” in front of any popular grab-and-go food and people go nuts. Breakfast pizza, breakfast burrito, breakfast sandwich — the list goes on.

Soon, local fast-casual favorite Cava Grill will join the morning-meal craze with its layered Mediterranean breakfast bowls. But if you want a taste, you’ll need a ticket — a plane ticket, that is.

Cava Grill is one of several new and locally owned restaurants destined for a D.C. airport.

With plans to open Aug. 31 at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, Cava Grill will join Ben’s Chili Bowl, &pizza, Lebanese Taverna and Taylor Gourmet. Mike Isabella’s Kapnos Taverna and Richard Sandoval’s El Centro D.F. will arrive soon after.

It’s all part of a multiyear plan to renovate about 85 percent of the food and beverage offerings at both National and Dulles International Airport.

The overhaul is in response to demand from passengers. Steve Baker, vice president of business administration at the The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, says the growing number of travelers who pass through the region’s airports want to see more and healthier food options.

“We had a tremendous untapped, or unfilled, demand for food and beverage at both airports,” Baker says about the concessions at National and Dulles before the redevelopment.

But that’s changing.

When several food and retail leases ended, the Airports Authority went back to the drawing board. Each concourse became a blank canvas, and a new plan prioritizing passenger experience was sketched out. The objective, Baker says, is to achieve a better experience by “enhancing the sense of place.”

“So that when people come to the airport, they get a sense of ‘Yes it’s the nation’s capital, yes it’s the capital of the free world, but it’s also a community,’” Baker says. “And we wanted people to feel that community.”

And what better way to get a taste of the local community than through its growing cadre of creative chefs.

From the boulevard to the terminal: What it’s like to open a restaurant in an airport  

Mike Isabella exploded onto Washington’s restaurant scene after appearing in the sixth season of Bravo’s hit TV show “Top Chef” and being crowned runner-up on “Top Chef All-Stars.”

Since then, the former Zaytinya executive chef has opened a number of successful restaurants, including Graffiato, Kapnos, Kapnos Taverna, G and Pepita. This September, he’ll add another to his growing collection when he brings Kapnos Taverna to National Airport.

Isabella, who travels frequently, says he’s always on the hunt for quality food in airports, and he knows he’s not the only one.

“People know about food nowadays; people want to eat good food and people want to eat healthy,” Isabella says.

So when he was approached to bring Kapnos Taverna to National Airport, he didn’t hesitate for a second. “One-hundred percent; I’d love to bring my Greek food there,” was his response.

However, Isabella quickly realized that constructing a concept in an airport is not the same as building a restaurant on D.C.’s 14th Street or Arlington’s Wilson Boulevard.

For starters, the space is much smaller — thousands of square feet smaller. And by default, so is the kitchen and thus the menu.

At Kapnos Taverna’s airport outpost, Isabella says he’s keeping “the dishes that made us who we are … the spreads, the pies, the lamb and the chicken.” But in the process, he’s nixing a few popular items, such as the shellfish tower and the raw bar.

Expanded hours of operation are often a wake-up call, quite literally, for chefs new to the airport game. At National, Kapnos Taverna will be open for breakfast to accommodate the airport’s early travelers, as well as lunch and dinner. Isabella says he plans to serve some of Kapnos Taverna’s brunch items during the morning hours.

Many airport-based food concepts, however, don’t have the luxury of drawing from their brunch menus to fulfill the breakfast requirement.

Local pizza joint &pizza, which has a second airport location planned for Dulles, created a breakfast pizza when it opened at National in 2014. Even Chipotle deviates from its standard line of items and serves a breakfast burrito at its Dulles counter. And when Cava Grill decided to open its concept in National’s Terminal B, it had to create a breakfast-friendly menu too.

“We wanted to have something that wasn’t just a lunch option,” says Brett Schulman, chief executive officer of Cava Grill. He viewed the hurdle as an opportunity for chef/partner Dimitri Moshovitis to get creative in the kitchen.

The result is a build-your-own breakfast bowl that includes ingredients such as eggs, roasted potatoes, and sausage, in addition to Cava’s staple toppings of harissa, crumbled feta, greens, Sriracha Greek yogurt and more.

“We love the idea of taking what we do at lunch and dinner in a health-based format, and then applying it to breakfast — because it is the most important meal of the day,” Schulman says.

The breakfast program will also feature a Greek yogurt bar and freshly brewed Compass Coffee.

“I have three kids myself, we all travel and we’re dying for healthier options,” Schulman says. “We thought it’d be a great way to accommodate the on-the-go traveler with a healthier option.”

Airports provide new experiences for experienced chefs

One level below National’s bustling ticket counters and hectic security checkpoints, trucks carrying bags of onions, potatoes and flour pull into a dock to unload. Every day, these trucks bring the food and supplies needed by the restaurants operating in the terminals above.

Baker says anything headed post-security — from food, to plates, to kegs — is scanned, offloaded and put on pallets to be transported to its final destination. And it all happens before 3 p.m.

“Which means [the restaurants] need to make sure they have everything they need to get through the evening hours by 3 o’clock,” Baker says.

Limited storage space and time-controlled inventory are challenges to which Schulman and his team are adjusting.

“We have to be really careful about what we have on-hand and make sure that we’ve got a good schedule set up to be able to pull the food so we don’t run out of food,” he says.

There are additional growing pains for restaurant operators not used to running an airport location. Speed of execution is one: Concession lines ebb and flow, based on the arrival and departure of planes, and travelers expect quick service so they can make it to their gates on time.

When &pizza first opened at National, Baker says the restaurant’s employees were challenged by the fast-pace nature of the airport — but they quickly adjusted.

“They now can produce a pizza in four to six minutes, and that’s something they hadn’t done off the airport before,” he says.

The concept is even looking to redesign its pizza box specifically for its airport locations in order to make them easier for passengers to carry on planes.

Building during permitted hours of construction, obtaining security clearances for employees, and designing spaces that are functional and comfortable for travelers with carry-on bags are a few other considerations. It’s a lot to deal with, but Isabella says it’s well worth it.

“It puts your name in people’s heads,” he says about being at the airport. “It’s also a chance to show off some of our food out there to people who have never had it.”

The future of flying, with a focus on food

The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority is doing more than giving its concourses and terminals a culinary face-lift — it’s redesigning aging spaces to meet the demands of the modern traveler.

Passengers flying out of Terminal A at National Airport are now greeted by a futuristic-looking structure, decked out with white beams, thin TVs, long counters and iPads at every seat. The new concept, called Page, is a hybrid restaurant/lounge from D.C.’s own Carla Hall of “The Chew” and “Top Chef” fame.

The 110-seat eatery, which opened in July, serves Southern classics such as pimento cheese, cured ham and biscuits, Virginia she crab soup and Chesapeake oysters. Travelers can also check the status of their flights and surf the web at their leisure.

The halls in the same terminal will soon be replaced by a mixed food-and-retail model that allows customers to grab what they want as they walk toward the gates and pay for their selection at the end.

In National’s other terminals, coffee stands by the gates will be replaced with a four-part concept (a bar, a concession for grab-and-go food items, a news stand and a quick-service counter), plus additional room for seats and charging stations.

Baker says by the end of the multiyear renovation, National and Dulles will be well-equipped to meet the diverse needs of those flying into and out of D.C.’s airports — whether that need is a nice business lunch, an inexpensive and healthy meal for families, or a charging station for a depleted device.

And by incorporating sit-down and quick-serve concepts from local chefs and restaurants, it will also give travelers a taste of what life is like in the District.

“This is the metro region’s airports, and people come in and they see themselves. They see things that are local, they see people who they know operating businesses, they see people who they know built these businesses,” Baker says.

“It really is a story about a community creating an experience for ourselves, but also for the people who are coming to visit us.”

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