Air Fare
Jeremy Eaton

Air Fare

Curse Continental Airlines for not telling the truth. The day my kids and I were supposed to fly home after spending Thanksgiving with my folks in New Jersey, the first snowstorm of the season delivered eight inches. But despite the still-falling snow and radio reports that delays were running from about six to a staggering eighteen hours, the Continental ticket counter at Liberty International Airport (formerly known as Newark) insisted flights were leaving on time. So after driving ten miles per hour through the wintry turnpike mess, we arrived for our 3:45 p.m. flight the requisite two hours early -- only to be told that we had neither plane nor crew.

The scenario looked grim: one mom, two young kids who can't be left alone for a second, and no vacant barstools in sight. In fact our plane had been diverted to Pittsburgh, and finally showed up around 7:00 p.m. A crew was located -- probably dragged out of some bar or other at around 8:00 p.m. -- and we boarded at 8:30. It then took two hours to be de-iced and wait in line to take off. By the time we got into Miami International Airport at 1:30 a.m., I'd been entertaining a pair of notoriously cranky children (wonder who they take after) for almost twelve hours. My husband was quite honestly surprised to see me with both of them; he felt sure I'd leave one or the other on the runway out of sheer frustration.

Still it could have been worse. I could have been trapped for that amount of time at MIA.

At least in New Jersey I had meal options that satisfied my little Nathan's fanatics and kept me entertained with Jersey-oriented fare. In other words, Newark -- excuse me, Liberty -- has dining opportunities that tell travelers where they are: the lovingly termed armpit of the nation. There's a roadside diner offering genuine Reubens and kosher dills here, a Cantonese eatery selling egg rolls there. It even, I just discovered, is about to open a microbrewery called the Brooklyn Jazz Bar, which will feature beer from the nearby Brooklyn Brewery. And that's just the beginning, because about $37 million has been designated for improving concession opportunities there.

Comparatively, a cup of coffee from La Carreta, found only at MIA's Concourse D, doesn't measure up. Nor does the contract to the minority partners of Host Marriott Services Corp. But as much as I am disturbed by the probability of the "disadvantaged business enterprise" being in name (and wallet) only, I'm more bothered by what it would have accomplished had it been honest: applied for franchises.

Sorry, but I've eaten at the only DBE to open, the Chili's Too -- mmm hmm, I was that desperate -- and I don't recommend the experience. Besides, opening yet another Bennigan's or Sbarro's doesn't exactly fulfill the vision stated so succinctly by the Herald's Joe Mozingo: "With new shops, the county could generate millions more in revenue, offer a top-notch first glimpse of Miami to the millions who come through the airport, and maybe even lure back some passengers long ago turned away by the notoriously bland fare."

Just what would be "a top-notch first glimpse" of this dynamic, if oh-so-politically challenged, city? For starters let's examine the obvious, ethnic population. To cite some of our biggest groups, we are Cuban, Haitian, Jamaican, Argentine, Italian, Brazilian. But the Miami-Dade County politicos already know this, and a lot more. If our carefully elected leaders really wanted everybody who comes into our airport to be cognizant of that, we would be seeing a Tap-Tap next to a Café Versailles, an Irie Isle alongside a Las Vacas Gordas, an Oggi Café neighboring a Porcao.

Or take another tack. The restaurant industry has worked for decades to gain gastronomic respect for the region. It'd make sense to invite some of these forebears into the airport. After all, Wolfgang Puck's in virtually every flying venue already, and Todd English isn't far behind him. Somebody like Allen Susser or Mark Militello or Norman Van Aken could bring the MIA culinary consciousness jet-setting into the New World.

Not surprisingly, however, of the 25 or so chefs and restaurateurs I casually polled, none of them has ever been asked, though some would indeed take a look at a proposal. Robbin Haas, for instance, notes, "I would consider doing something there if it wasn't so politically ensnarled." Vanessa Heegaard, the owner of the Latin American-based Charlie's Roastbeef, claims, "We would be the first to open a restaurant in the airport, but I have heard that it is extremely difficult. There are a lot of politics making it difficult to go in. I have also heard the rents are outrageous." Good point, though restaurateurs are still willing to pay by the square inch for space on South Beach.

Others are grateful the idea has never been pitched, at least to them. While Atlantic's executive chef Michael Schwartz wouldn't be personally interested, he says, "I do think it would be good for the right operator." And though not immune to the thought of launching a second project in a medium-size hotel somewhere, Klime Kovaceski says, "I've had countless offers from brand-new shopping centers throughout the state to open another Crystal Café.... Thank God nobody has wasted my time about an airport affair. When a dining room is less than cozy, I say, 'It feels like an airport.' In my opinion, restaurants are a vital part of their respective communities, and should have a personal link to those who live within them."

Also true. But I can't help but wish that somebody would open something that makes me want to come back to MIA as badly as I often want to leave it. And hey, we do have role models: the football and baseball stadiums all across the country, which realized decades ago that sushi represents Los Angeles as much as the Dodgers do. It's even possible to accomplish a diversity goal with minority owners -- position, say, a People's Barbecue right next to a Sara's Vegetarian on the American Airlines concourse. And let pulled pork sandwiches and falafel in pita bread speak for our imperfect harmony themselves.


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