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I recently had the opportunity to attend a progressive dinner at the Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport (ATL) with the Association of Food Bloggers. I know, that sounds ridiculous and awesome, right? Airport food doesn’t have the best of reputations, but I was totally pumped about this dinner if for no other reason than for the whimsy of it. So one Tuesday evening, after spending a spell pondering how one dresses for a progressive dinner at the airport, I parked in the hourly lot and walked to the ChopHouse, situated in the main atrium of the airport.

 

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As it turns out, there’s a second floor to the ChopHouse, of which I was previously unaware, and that second floor includes a private room. It was in that room that I found the group of food bloggers and our culinary airport adventure began. We were first treated to seared ahi tuna, which came plated with a light side salad, and buffalo shrimp.  I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by the tuna. Having held low expectations for airport fish, I was pleased by the freshness. It wasn’t a masterpiece of seared tuna brilliance of the sort found only in high end sushi restaurants, but it was tasty and fresh and I appreciated a healthy option for airport diners. I inquired about how they sourced the fish and was told that the restaurant flies in the fish daily from the Caribbean.

I don’t eat shrimp, but I asked the bloggers around me about it and got rave reviews, including one blogger who used to live in Buffalo. She stated that the sauce was, in fact a true buffalo sauce. The ChopHouse staff was kind enough to arrange for me to have some buffalo chicken tenders in lieu of the shrimp, but, alas, we were whisked away before I could try it, so they wrapped it up for me to take away.

While we were noshing at the ChopHouse, we got to hear about the effort being made to revitalize airport dining, including the focus on using sustainable and local ingredients. Apparently, all the produce at the ATL ChopHouse come from Georgia farms, which I thought was pretty neat.

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The ChopHouse was a great first stop, but soon enough we were being whisked away and escorted through security to our next stop, which was Ecco, located in the new International Terminal (Terminal F). For non-Atlanteans, Ecco is a restaurant located in midtown in Atlanta, and the restaurant is a fairly new addition to the airport. As an aside, if you’ve never been to the International Terminal at ATL, it’s worth a trip out there if you have a decent layover. It’s new, clean, visually appealing and, in my experience, quieter than the rest of the airport.

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 So, Airport Ecco. Delicious. When we arrived at the restaurant, our table was laden with plates of cheese and meats. Since meat and cheese plates are one of my favorite things ever, this was highly endearing to me. Especially because the cheeses and meats were of a very nice quality and there was a nice variety as well. The plates also included house-made relishes: an agrodolce and an apricot relish. Both were very tasty.  If you have time to kill in the international terminal and are feeling snacky, meat and cheese plate. Do it.

We were also treated to one (or possible more) of the house cocktails: “Gigi Says,” which was described as a sort of ginger gimlet. Yep. It was delicious. Plus, ginger settles the stomach and alcohol makes you sleepy, so that’s perfect before a long flight, right?

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Next to appear on the table were the braised beef-stuffed piquillo peppers. Rich, tender beef nestled in piquillo peppers, charred and roasted to bring out the sweetness…what’s not to like? Plus, that sauce made for a great dipping sauce for bread. Just saying. As it turns out, the Airport Ecco sources its meat from Southeast Family Farms and Brasstown Beef. More local sourcing of ingredients. I like it.

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Okay, here’s the thing. If you’ve never had fried goat cheese, stop whatever you’re doing and go find some. Like right now. For the life of me, I can’t decide whether this is a savory or sweet dish. All I know is that when you bite into these little balls of heaven, you first taste the honey drizzled on the outside, followed with a nice little crunch as you bite through the crust, finished with the warm, rich, tangy goat cheese center. So good.

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The fried goat cheese was the last of the offerings from the Ecco menu, but Ecco has a sister restaurant called El Taco, which is located in the International Terminal (F) food court. We received a bowl of soup from El Taco, which I really liked. While I was getting pretty full at this point, I couldn’t help eating a generous portion of my soup. It was bursting with flavor, tasted fresh and was just really pleasant. It would not have occurred to me to order soup from a food court restaurant, but I’m totally on board with El Taco’s soup.

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As you can imagine, by this point we were all getting pretty full, but we gamely waddled out to the International Terminal Food Court for our last stop on the tour. I thought it was a nice touch that there were fresh flowers on the food court tables. I definitely hadn’t been expecting that.

We were served three dishes from The Pecan Bistro: shrimp and grits (I couldn’t eat it, but I heard that the grits were nice and creamy), chicken and waffles and pecan pie.

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I have to say, the chicken and waffles were pretty food. I particularly liked that the dish was served with honey mustard instead of syrup. Something about the way the honey mustard came together with the chicken and powdered sugar was oddly appealing. What can I say? I liked it, in a “I can’t believe I’m eating this when I’m already so full” kind of way.

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I had high hopes for the pecan pie, but was a little disappointed. The pie was just okay. It was kind of dry, but I can live with that. The thing that really bothered me was that the topping was clearly “whipped topping,” rather than vanilla ice cream or real whipped cream. Honestly, I think that ice cream would have added so much to the pie, because the pie itself was dry, that and I’m just baffled by the use of whipped topping. Especially when the other restaurants have been putting so much effort into using whole, local products. So if you’re from somewhere other than the South and have a layover in ATL, don’t judge all pecan pies by this one.

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In case anyone wasn’t full, we topped off the evening with chocolate milkshakes and orange creamsicle shakes from The Varsity, which also has a location in the International Terminal Food Court. So here’s the thing about the Varsity. It’s a huge Atlanta landmark and tradition, and I find that it’s very binary. People either love it or hate it. So, as you can imagine, the news that I’ve never been to the Varsity is typically met with either shock and horror or resounding approval. It’s just one of those things. Having sipped on a chocolate milkshake in the airport, I think I can still say I’ve never been to the Varsity. I have, however, worn one of the silly Varsity hats. You can have a silly hat too, if you patronize the Varsity location in Terminal F. I’ll let you decide for yourself whether you can then lay claim to having eaten at the Varsity.

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So at this point we said our good-byes and were escorted out of the secure area of the airport. And then on my way home, even though I was so full from dinner(s), I pulled out my buffalo chicken fingers. Yeah, remember those? From way back in the beginning of the evening? Yep, I sampled them on the way home. And yes, the sauce was both spicy and delicious.

So, all in all, I was pleasantly surprised by the food at the Atlanta Airport. You can get a solid meal at the Chophouse, so if you’re meeting up with someone from Atlanta (who can’t get through security) during a long layover and want to get a decent meal, I highly recommend the ChopHouse. Or if you’re waiting for someone whose flight’s been delayed and you’re feeling peckish.

If you’re leaving from the international terminal, I’d say it’s worth building in some extra time to eat at Ecco before you go. Or, if you’re looking for a nice meal during a long layever? Ecco. The food was delicious and of the same quality that I would expect of the location in town. Plus, you don’t have to be leaving from the international terminal to access it. Just hop on the train and go out to terminal F. Ecco was definitely the best food I ate during the evening and was good by any standard, not just good for airport food.

As for the food court restaurants, the soup from El Taco was delicious and its affiliation with Ecco gives me high hopes for the rest of their fare. The offerings from the Pecan Bistro were a little hit or miss, but I’m quite picky about Southern cuisine. It can be great, so I’m a little intolerant of anything less that really good. I can’t really speak to the Varsity. I’m not sure I can give a real opinion about the food since I’ve only had a milkshake, but hey, you get a nifty paper hat!

All in all, I was impressed by the thought and effort put into creating better dining options in the Atlanta Airport, especially when it came to the emphasis put on using local, quality ingredients. I hope that this trend continues and that I can forever forget that time I was left with no choice but to eat a Quiznos sandwich when my plane was delayed. I’m not quite sure I’m over that trauma yet.

So, have you eaten at the Atlanta Airport? What did you think? What are your favorite places to hit up before a flight or during a layover?

The progressive dinner at the Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport was complementary and arranged through the Association of Food Bloggers. All photographs and opinions contained in this review are my own.

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