LAX $4.1 billion makeover will include updates to food, concession stands

The number of people in toques and clean white chef coats at the Flight Path Learning Center and Museum at Los Angeles International Airport on the morning of Dec. 5 made it feel like a set for an episode of Bravo’s “Top Chef.”  

Press, airport staff and city employees sipping espressos from LAMill Coffee kept glancing off to a side room where pastries from Short Cake, parfaits from the Larder at Tavern and slices of salmon dotted with Petrossian caviar were being staged. 

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, an acknowledged foodie, greeted chefs like Suzanne Goin, Susan Feniger and Michael Voltaggio by name as he made his way to the podium to unveil an enormous slate of planned amenities at LAX’s Tom Bradley International Terminal.

LAX is undergoing a $4.1 billion makeover, its first since the 1984 Olympics. The Tom Bradley International Terminal will absorb $1.5 billion of that and is the largest public works project in the history of the city. The changes range from the big to the subtle, including a new, airy design for the Bradley buildings, better baggage handling machines, and more and wider gates for new generation aircraft. 

But the change most likely to be noticed by travelers is the food.

“I’ve always been a little bit embarrassed by LAX,” the mayor admitted in his introductory discussion of money, jobs, expanding economic hubs and the role the airport plays in being the city’s face to the world. 

“The Tom Bradley terminal is the first and last place many international travelers see of our great city,” the mayor said.

Plans call for more than 60 dining and retail shops. Some of what the terminal’s new concession manager, Westfield, is bringing to the upscale project is what Peter Lowy, co-chief executive of the Westfield Group, described as “iconic shopping.”  

International travelers will be able to browse and buy in Bulgari or Coach, get “Sorry I’ve been gone so much” gifts at Sanrio or relax at a mini version of Bliss Spa in the terminal. In searching for the best way to present Los Angeles to visitors, however, Lowy said everyone involved focused on “the flavor of the city captured through food.”

Until recently, the terminal might have been known as the best place to eat among not-very-good options at LAX. In its ticketing area there is a Pink’s Hot Dogs stand, and its food court includes Daily Grill and Daily Grill Express, along with the usual fast-food suspects. 

While Pink’s will remain open in its location, arriving and departing travelers on the other side of security will be able to dine at Umami Burger, get pizza from 800 Degrees or bite into one of Voltaggio’s famous sandwiches from ink.sack. Others may try Short Cake’s pastries while enjoying a cup of joe from LAMill or Coffee Bean (the latter is completely kosher).

Charcuterie, cheese and more will be on offer at Goin and Caroline Styne’s Larder at Tavern. Marmalade Café will be serving what is now known across the country as California cuisine. Luckyfish will be serving sushi fresh from Japan, while Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken’s Border Grill will bring Mexican to the mix. Cantina Laredo, the steakhouse III Forks and Franco-Japanese Chaya will offer fine dining. 

For those in a hurry, there will be Pinkberry and more. Should you need a drink to soothe your travel-jangled nerves, Vino Volo, Drink.LA and a new version of Starbucks will be among those offering beer, wine and cocktails. Travelers will be able to find sweets at Vanilla Bake Shop and See’s Candies, too. 

For locals like Jamie Thompson, a Realtor and foodie, the possibilities are exciting. 

“One of the first things I think about when I travel abroad is food,” Thompson said, adding that she anticipates a similar shift in focus to fresher, healthier, locally sourced options in the domestic terminals as well.

Fresh is important to business traveler Gene Kleid, too. People who live far from the airport — as she does in Simi Valley — often end up eating meals at airports before and between flights. Knowing when she travels for business that there are many on-the-road meals ahead of her, she said she is grateful for the trend toward variety in both international and domestic terminals. 

At the close of the morning event, when servers finally began to circulate among the guests, distributing croissants, french toast and mimosas, the mayor and other officials gathered with all the chefs for a ribbon-cutting ceremony and photo op. The banner unfurled in front of them bore each of the new tenants’ logos and declared boldly that all this delicious food and more would be available to travelers by the spring of 2013. 

In the audience, the chefs’ business partners and employees gasped; they have a mountain of unsolved menu challenges ahead of them. And before they can even start to think about that, there’s an even bigger question — how to make their meals when kitchens on the far side of security checkpoints can’t use knives.