SEAT 2B | By Joe Brancatelli
Setting the Bar
A host of upscale new drinking establishments means business travelers no longer have to languish at dreary, dingy airport bars.
Tuesday, July 1, 2008; 1:04 PM
The good news in business travel? It's easier than ever to drown your sorrows at the airport with a nice glass of wine, an artisan beer, or a good cocktail.
After decades of running dreary, depressing bars of last resort, airports around the world are suddenly bursting with charming and well-stocked wine bars. Dozens of airports have convivial branches of local brewpubs that serve up some of the nation's best and most inventive brews. Airports have even become testing grounds for new dining and drinking concepts, many of them branded with prestigious names in the liquor world. And since travelers seem willing to pay for better booze and more elegant surroundings, airport bars that have gone upscale are able to charge higher prices for booze and pub grub than ever before.
There may not be a specific moment when airport drinking began to change from nowhere-else-to-go, time-killing diversion to an entertaining and edifying experience, but we have a pretty good idea where the trend started. A decade ago, a place called the Cibo Bistro and Wine Bar opened at Philadelphia International Airport. Suddenly, drinking at the airport didn't seem so depressing.
"Why not have a great glass of wine at the airport? There's no reason why you can't," says Rick Blatstein, the ebullient chief executive of OTG Management, the company behind Cibo. "Travelers know what they want. But food-service operators at airports were used to treating their customers like prisoners."
Cibo (the Italian word for "food") is the very model of a modern airport drinking establishment. There are 32 wines available by the glass; the atmosphere and menu cheerily mimic that of a genuine Italian enoteca. Prices range from $6 to $25 a glass; Blatstein says the average pour costs $10 to $12. Eighty percent of the customers order food too.
There are now two Cibo wine bars in Philadelphia and branches at New York's LaGuardia Airport and Washington's Reagan National Airport. (Blatstein also uses the Cibo moniker for an airport-specific chain of upscale take-away markets.) OTG, which has food and beverage operations at eight U.S. airports, is readying new dining and drinking concepts for the JetBlue Airways terminal that is due to open in September at New York's John F. Kennedy Airport.
Cibo's success helped lay the groundwork for Vino Volo, which opened its eighth location last week at Detroit's Metro Airport. Vino Volo (roughly translated as "wine flight" in Italian) has been wowing travelers since its first branch opened at Washington's Dulles Airport in 2005. It serves wine by the glass and small plates of food that pair nicely with the wine, and even sells bottles at retail.
Each Vino Volo airport outlet chooses its own wine list, and local vintages are offered where appropriate. But each shop also has standard categories, such as World Value Reds, California Kings, Shades of White, and a Sommelier Series. They have proprietary wine tastings, complete with cheat sheets describing what a passing traveler may be sampling.
"We work hard to make sure [our staff] is knowledgeable and cares about wine," says Carla Wytmar, Vino Volo's director of development. "So we don't have a master list that we push. We're trying to redefine how people discover and enjoy wine."
Meanwhile, the giant of airport food and beverage, the HMSHost division of Italy's Autogrill, has been focusing on beer and liquor.
HMSHost operates in more than 100 airports worldwide, and most of its U.S. airports feature a branch of a locally admired brewpub. Quaffed a Pier Pale Ale at the Manhattan Beach Brewing Company at Los Angeles International? That's an HMSHost operation. At Port Columbus International Airport in Ohio, HMSHost operates a branch of the Columbus Brewing Company's downtown brewpub. At Cleveland Hopkins Airport, HMSHost runs the Great Lakes Brewing Company, cloning that brewer's location on Market Street in Cleveland. Downed a Polygamy Porter at the Wasatch Brew Pub at Salt Lake City Airport? That's HMSHost, too, which transplanted a version of the pub run by the Park City, Utah, brewery. (HMSHost also runs drinking establishments branded with the Budweiser and Samuel Adams names.)
"We operate about 40 to 50 local and regional brewpubs in airports," explains Stan Novack, HMSHost's vice president of concept development. "It's a way to offer travelers a taste of the community. And we try to put local food on the menu along with the local beers."
If your taste runs to hard liquor, HMSHost has bars for you, too¿several, in fact. There are 15 airport branches of the Jose Cuervo Tequileria; it pairs Mexican food with several flavors of Cuervo. HMSHost also runs five Cuban/Puerto Rican-style restaurants under the Casa Bacardi name. Naturally, rums of all stripe are the booze of choice. HMSHost's four Dewar's Clubhouses feature Scotch whiskey in a golf-themed setting. HMS also does Bar One (Ketel One vodka is the hook) and operates the Woodford Reserve Bar & Grill at the airport in Louisville, Kentucky. It showcases Woodford Reserve Bourbon from Versailles, Kentucky, an hour's drive from the airport.
"I like to think we've changed travelers' behavior," says Novack. "They get to the airport a little earlier because there's something good to eat and drink there. Besides, it's not like you have an expectation of a good [drinking or dining] experience on a plane."
The Fine Print . . .
HMSHost's newest liquor-related concept, the Sapphire Lounge, opened late in May at the British Airways terminal at Kennedy Airport in New York. The bar takes its design cues from the blue bottle and cool tones of Bombay Sapphire gin. "It's a very striking design, very elegant," says Robin Hayes, B.A.'s executive vice president, Americas. "I had a glass of Diet Coke in there."
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