You’ve seen me at the airport. OK, maybe not me exactly, but the bleary-eyed traveler who’s been up for too many hours and is scooting down the concourse with a rolling suitcase and diaper bag, a kid strapped to her front, a car-seat bag strapped to her back and a rumbling in the belly as she looks furtively around for a non-terrible food option with a line short enough that she won’t miss her plane. I’m just one of 50 million passengers who will pass through Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (the nation’s eighth busiest airport) this year.

You can almost always find me near the A Gates in the grab-and-go line at Floret by Cafe Flora preflight, stocking up on croissants or quiche. For the lactose-sensitive caffeine fiends out there, it’s also the only place in the airport to get an oat milk latte.

But what if you’ve never even heard of Floret — or are still wondering what happened to Wendy’s (I’ve also eaten many a square burger on the light-rail platform after a late-night arrival)? Maybe the first time you’ll set foot in Sea-Tac this year is during the upcoming holiday season — and that’s not rare. According to Kate Hudson, aviation communications manager for the Port of Seattle, “the majority of Sea-Tac travelers visit the airport once or twice a year.”

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And because the airport is seemingly always under construction to help accommodate these millions of passengers, you might wonder where, exactly, can you get that preflight margarita or snack?

I recently met up with Hudson for a tour of what’s new at the airport.

First, one commonality connects of the offerings in each concourse. When slots for new restaurants (sit-down or counter-serve)open, each applicant is asked how they contribute to “a Pacific Northwest sense of place.”

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“Does it feel like Seattle? Because whether you’re coming or going, we want people to know they are in the Puget Sound region,” says Hudson.

She says that when renovations began in the central terminal and the north satellite terminal, there was an increase in passenger demand for better food choices. More local food and healthier options, while still room for a national chain to please the masses.

“It is a balance between local concepts and national chains. When we opened Pei Wei, people from the East Coast and South were thrilled, we saw a big surge on social media,” she says.

Hungry while wandering through Seattle-Tacoma International Airport? Take your pick from a bunch of new food options — some of which are genuinely good, and not just “airport food-good.” (Graphic by Mark Nowlin)
Hungry while wandering through Seattle-Tacoma International Airport? Take your pick from a bunch of new food options — some of which are genuinely good, and not just “airport food-good.” (Graphic by Mark Nowlin)

Seattle’s airport is laid out in an “L” shape, with Central Terminal being the hub right at the apex of the L’s arms. There are food options all over the place with still more to come. Hudson says they are currently accepting bids for seven new restaurants, while some that have been already announced will continue to roll out throughout 2020.

Here are several of my current favorites.

Central Terminal best bets

After security, you’ll most likely land in or near Central Terminal. Phase One of renovations is complete and Central Terminal reopened to the public at the end of March with a host of new eateries. The second phase will likely be completed in summer of 2020, and with it you’ll get Salty’s restaurant and a second level called BrewTop Social that will feature craft beer and stadium-style seating. This will give you primo views of a new stage for musicians that will be constructed in the center of the terminal.

Among the food choices are Koi Shi Sushi Bento and Lucky Louie Fish Shack. The main draw at Lucky Louie is the Alaska pollock fish and chips, but if you’re a shrimp fan, go for the Old School Shrimp Melt ($14.99). The open-faced sandwich features a hefty schmear of shrimp and cream cheese under a blanket of Tillamook cheese. There’s also a side of coleslaw. I held on to it for a while and can say that even if you ordered this shrimp melt in Central Terminal and hoofed it to the N Gates or even to deep B, you would still be pleased with the end result. The potato roll holds up to the weight of the shrimp and it stayed warm. I’d still probably eat it before entering the plane, though.

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Another draw at Louie are the tiny sweet waffle fish, filled with cheesecake and served with your choice of dipping sauces ($5.99). They’re premade in batches, and they’re pretty good, but I would see if you can get one hot off the waffle press. I think a hot cheesecake-filled waffle fish dipped in chocolate fudge could make any layover better.

If the perpetual line at Evergreens looks daunting (I’m told you can download an app and order ahead to skip that line), go to Koi Shi Sushi Bento and make your own poke bowl. Choose from white or brown rice, noodles or lettuce and top with either salmon or tuna. Finishing touches include crispy onion, mango, seaweed salad, avocado and edamame. You can also choose from premade bowls or sushi rolls. Making my own took minutes, and the result featured perfect sticky rice and a good ratio of fresh tuna to everything else. Koi Shi also serves beer and wine, making it — along with newly opened Neighborhood and nearby Starbucks Evening — the only places to get alcohol in the Central Terminal.

C Gate best bets

Farther afield in the C Gates you’ll venture past Beecher’s Handmade Cheese and Caffe Vita on the way to Waji’s and the terminal’s newest tenant, Le Grand Comptoir. As we breeze past, Hudson tells me that Beecher’s and Caffe Vita are on the same point of sale system, so if there’s a line at one you can hop to the other and order off either menu, no problem.

We land at Le Grand Comptoir, a concept that pairs a Washington-heavy wine selection with cheese and charcuterie plates, tartines and salads. It’s also the only 21+ location around the C Gates. Wine flights range between $20 and $65 here. We went for the farmhouse tartine ($12.99) and the local chevre plate ($12.99). The farmhouse is avocado toast gussied up with arugula, parmesan and tomato; inexplicably served with a choice of chips or grapes. The chevre plate is really chevre bruschetta with the addition of a cinnamon-tinged honey and arugula. Both are perfectly serviceable. Next time I think I’ll opt for the cheese board though, featuring three cheeses served with crostini, hazelnuts and compote for under $14.

N Gate best bets

The last stop on our journey was the North Satellite, or N Gates. This is another spot still under construction, with seven more restaurants set to open by mid-2021. Right now go there for Skillet, Caffe D’Arte or, better yet, Bambuza Vietnam Kitchen & Bar. I ordered the grill bowl with vermicelli noddles and hoisin pork ($16.85), adding on a crispy spring roll for $1.65. The massive bowl arrived overflowing with noodles, romaine lettuce, cucumbers and carrots, and the first words out of my mouth after the first bite was “this doesn’t taste like airport food.”

It’s understandable why many people assume airport food is going to be overpriced and terrible, but Bambuza breaks that rule. It’s true that it can feel expensive; at Sea-Tac, prices at restaurants are street value plus 5 percent. Hudson says this is to help with the high costs of operating a restaurant in an airport setting.

But there is value here. Same goes for Koi Shi Sushi and Lucky Louie.

I know my travel plans this upcoming holiday season will have me at the airport with ample time to get situated, and now I’m convinced to break out of my croissant routine and explore.

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Beecher’s Cheese/Caffe Vita: C Gates; beechershandmadecheese.com/sea-tac-airport; 5 a.m.-9 p.m. daily

Floret by Cafe Flora: A Gates; cafeflora.com; full restaurant 5 a.m.-11 p.m., grab-and-go 4:30 a.m.-10 p.m. daily

Bambuza Vietnam Kitchen & Bar: N Gates; bambuza.com; 5 a.m.-10 p.m. daily

Koi Shi Sushi Bento: Central Terminal; 8 a.m.-midnight daily

Lucky Louie Fish Shack: Central Terminal; luckylouiefishshack.com; 5 a.m.-10:30 p.m. daily

Le Grand Comptoir: C Gates; 6 a.m. -11 p.m. daily