⇒ Read the main story, "Restaurant options near RDU, from quick and cheap to leisurely and upscale"
Like a true Southerner, Raleigh-Durham International Airport is, without fail, ready with a hot meal when visitors stop in to sit a while. Scratch-made meals at the airport? Pull up a chair, sugar.
In July, 433,465 travelers passed through RDU. That's an average of about 18,000 people per day. And while that might not classify our airport as a bustling hub, there are plenty of weary, hungry travelers to feed.
"As visitors come to our region, we want them to have a bit of [North Carolina], with a desire to come back," says Ingrid Hairston, business development officer at RDU. "We have some wonderful concepts that are quintessential to our region."
RDU is the proud mama of the new Terminal 2, which opened three years ago. The terminal coos and charms with its open, airy design—and a distinctly Southern way to cure a rumbling tummy. The standard chain restaurants are there, including twists on the classic pizza at California Pizza Kitchen, your burger and fries fix at A&W All American Food, fresh grab-and-go fare at Camden Food Co. or a cold beer at Gordon Biersch. (For more on beer choices, see ".") Yet the standouts are the local favorites with Carolina charm.
It's hard not to notice 42nd Street Oyster Bar, a downtown Raleigh favorite. Oysters at an airport? I dive into a starter plate of six oysters baked with spicy butter, parmesan breadcrumbs and a bit of bacon and parsley for $10.49 (the downtown location sells this dish for $9.95). The verdict? Pleasantly surprising. The oysters taste fresh, with simple flavors that seem crafted and not just doused with salt. Other menu items include hearty salad plates, crab cakes, burgers and special plates that highlight home-style favorites, such as catfish and shrimp.
The real deal, however, is a small raw oyster bar off to the side near the entrance that serves about 300 oysters a day. Manager Carmelo Rotondo says that the restaurant is "very meticulous on how we handle oysters every day," ensuring the freshest possible so as not to cause any "uncomfortable moments" during travel.
Sophia Hyder, a Triangle resident who travels extensively for work, says the dining options in Terminal 2 have left her satisfied on many occasions, especially 42nd Street Oyster Bar.
"I ordered the fried oysters Cajun style, and loved the amount of kick it had with it," Hyder says. "The staff was friendly, and I didn't feel rushed to place an order or to leave after I paid my check."
Down the hallway to the left, a small Brookwood Farms BBQ restaurant sits adjacent to California Pizza Kitchen. The famed Siler City barbecue brand has been selling buckets of its ´cue at N.C. grocery stores since 1978. With a flavor that mixes Eastern and Western styles, the pulled pork avoids any threat of barbecue blasphemy and is slow-cooked over an open charcoal pit. It serves as a great introduction for first-timers, while giving just enough of that home-cooked taste to N.C. natives.
Cindy Paliouras of Chapel Hill is a fan.
"I picked up a sandwich to go from Brookwood BBQ before a flight recently," she says. "It was very authentic N.C. barbecue, and I will confess, much tastier than I had expected."Another Triangle favorite, Carolina Ale House greets travelers at the end of the terminal with all the favorites—burgers, steaks, wings, soups, salads and sandwiches. "We were tickled to get that concept here," says Hairston. "It's an extremely strong brand, and it's just Carolina." The breakfast is touted as something not to miss.
HMS Host Corporation and local J.Q. Enterprises are the two concession management companies that brought the restaurant concepts at Terminal 2 to fruition.
"Scratch items are kind of a treat for people," says Tim Meyer, general manager for HMS Host. "It's a departure from what we used to get in airports."
Meyer leads a tour of the commissary, a warehouse space on RDU's campus shared with J.Q. Enterprises, where all the production and prep occurs. Due to space and logistics at the airport itself, a one-and-a-half-day food supply is delivered to each restaurant every day; nothing is prepped at the airport. For example, according to Meyer, 42nd Street's kitchen is about one-eighth the size of the downtown kitchen.
Norma Worthy greets us with a quick handshake and a proud smile as we enter the large garage doors. She manages the operation, arriving at work at 3 a.m. most days. The room is stark, with rows of meticulously categorized food items and utensils.
There aren't any strong, lingering smells of garlic, onions or anything reminiscent of a standard restaurant kitchen. One cook mixes hush puppy batter for the 25 pounds of hush puppies that are made every two days. It's after 7 a.m., and most of the food has already been cooked and delivered to the airport. Then someone opens an oven and pulls out a tray of sizzling, thick slivers ... clam strips? "That's fatback," Worthy says. Everyone on the tour smiles.
One and a half pounds of fatback, complete with the grease, goes into the clam chowder for each delivery to 42nd Street Oyster Bar. Sixteen 6-pound bags of chowder are delivered three times per week. Two hundred and sixty crab cakes, made from real crab meat at $200 a case, are prepared and delivered every two days, and more than 5,000 wings are prepared weekly.
The overall motive behind every RDU restaurant concept is for travelers to pull up a chair and relish in regional comfort food, and a variety at that.
Hairston, who was raised on Southern food, says, "The foodie in me is happy."