Biting into a Portobello Panini, with warm flavors of tomato pesto, goat cheese, roasted peppers and marinated portobellos, takes you far away from departure times, heavy carry-on luggage and overbooked airline flights.
And you’ll need a specialty coffee, and maybe a slice of decadent Chocolate Delight Cake to round out the fantasy. Only then do you have to get back to reality at Miami International Airport.
Icebox Cafe is one of three Florida restaurants recently named to TheDailyMeal.com’s list of 35 best airport restaurants in the world.
It joins Cafe Versailles, also at Miami International, and Columbia Restaurant Cafe, at Tampa International Airport.
The list, culled from 100 nominated restaurants, took into account cuisine, decor and service.
“While it is hard to see the good side of getting stuck in an airport,” according to TheDailyMeal.com report, “there is some good news: Airports across the world are offering better and more food services, with top restaurants opening up alongside the old pizza joints and ‘boxed-snack’ kiosks.”
By exemplary service, they’re talking about the extra touch of Assistant Manager Michelaine Mondelus, who gives a female traveler a ceramic plate for transferring her boxed salad. She makes sure the line moves swiftly for those picking up pastries and salads to go.
As for cuisine, every eatery offers salads. Icebox Cafe, near Gate D6, takes the concept to another level, with such offerings as Malaysian Shrimp Salad, Vegan Soba Noodle Salad and Mediterranean Couscous Salad. The sandwiches and entrees make your mouth water when you read the descriptions off the gigantic chalkboard. We’re talking Curried Chicken Breast with cilantro rice and roasted vegetables or the Adobo Pulled Pork with garlic mashed potatoes, chimichurri and roasted carrots and onions. The wait is about five to 10 minutes for hot meals, which can be eaten in peppy orange chairs at the counter, tables or highboys.
Even the pilots like to stop by.
“They do stuff that’s different,” said Doug McCaffrey, who flies for American Airlines. “It’s generally better-quality stuff.”
That’s exactly what Robert Siegmann had in mind when he created the original Icebox Cafe on South Beach. His concept has been so successful it has expanded to the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.
“Because of my fascination with travel, I thought, ‘Why do I have to sacrifice eating good food when I travel?” owner Siegmann said. “Icebox Cafe is completely not found in an airport environment.”
Every time Alberto Vonvino travels from Indiana to Miami, he stops at Cafe Versailles, not far from Icebox Cafe.
“I always get the empanada,” Vonvino says.
The Cuban restaurant that is a staple on Calle Ocho in Miami expanded with eateries at Gates D4, D21, D44 and E30 and outside security in Concourse F.
The airport cafes are reminiscent of the windows where you can get a cafe con leche, pastelito and good conversation at Cuban cafes throughout the city.
Adding Cafe Versailles to MIA 15 years ago seemed like the proper way to welcome visitors to the city, said Nicole Valls, vice president of operations and public relations for Cafe Versailles.
“Cafe Versailles is a local brand the people in Miami know and love,” Valls said. “The cafe windows of the original Cafe Versailles get visited by celebrities. The window concept kind of translated to the airport concept.”
Besides its Cuban sandwiches, ham croquettes, ham-and-cheese empanadas and guava pastelitos, the Cuban coffees are a big draw.
“Our coffee is relatively cheap compared to places like Starbucks,” Valls said.
You can get a 6-ounce Cafe Cubano, Cortadito, cafe con leche or colada for $1.69. A cappuccino sells for $2.89 to $3.49. A good old American coffee is $1.79 to $2.09.
“I think it’s probably the best place to get a taste of Miami,” Valls said.
Halfway across the state, another Latin restaurant is a beacon to visitors.
Guests arriving or departing on Delta or Air Canada flights at Tampa International Airport will pass by a fairly spacious (92-person capacity) full-service Columbia Restaurant Cafe, where they can sit down for table service or grab a glass of sangria at the bar.
The original Columbia Restaurant opened in Ybor City in 1905, offering a taste of Spanish-Cuban fare, eventually expanding to seven satellite locations
Their much-sought-after items -- the Cuban sandwich, Spanish bean soup and the 1905 Salad -- are also offered at the Columbia Restaurant Cafe that opened in 2012. Expanding and marketing the Columbia brand are important to Columbia CEO Richard Gonzmart.
“In the restaurant business, you can’t stay in your cocoon,” said Gonzmart.
Al and Rita Wickham are thankful for that. The Rapid River, Mich., couple didn’t get to stop at the Columbia during a visit to St. Petersburg so they were thrilled to find one in the Tampa airport where they could get black beans, rice, pork and a slice of Key lime pie.
“We didn’t get to go to Ybor City. I’m glad we stopped here. We made a good choice. I’d stop here again,” said Rita Wickham.
It is the only Columbia restaurant to offer breakfast, such as Huevos Al Gusto and Tortilla Española.
Being at the airport doesn’t mean The Columbia skimps on recipes or ingredients.
“We make everything fresh, just as we do at all of our other restaurants, even though we’re in an airport capacity,” said Casey Gonzmart, general manager at Columbia Cafe at TIA. “We roast our own pork, we bake our ham.”
All that quality is courtesy of six cooks, seven waiters, two bartenders and three hostesses each shift.
Whether you’re on a long layover or have only a few minutes before your flight is to board, you’ll want to try the white chocolate break pudding. The Cuban bread soaked in an egg mixture, mixed with white chocolate and served drowning in a decadent sauce made with Don Casimiro Classic Silver Rum will make you forget if you’re taking off or just landed.