With holiday travel season fast approaching, there's a good statistical probability that you'll find yourself in Atlanta...no matter where you're really going. That's because Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport is the busiest in the world, whether you're counting the number of passengers or the number of flights. And even if you're just passing through on a layover, you'll want somewhere to eat.
Hartsfield-Jackson has over 120 food options spread across seven concourses and a main atrium, and there's plenty to eat that flies miles above the usual food court slop. Consider this guide your stomach's itinerary for your next visit to Atlanta's most-traveled landmark.
Main Atrium (Pre-Security)
Best Bet: Atlanta ChopHouse & Brewery
Literally your last option before hitting the security lines, the ChopHouse works to make a stop worth your while. With two stories of seating (upstairs is always less crowded) and a full bar on both floors, the vibe is ritzy steakhouse (with carry-on bags). You can max out on meat with steaks all the way up to a 19-ounce Delmonico, but our pick is the restaurant's most popular item, the Salmon BLT.
A hefty salmon fillet is thoroughly seasoned and grilled just until the fish begins to flake. Then it joins mixed greens, juicy tomato, a meaty slab of bacon, and an addictive mustard mayo on wheat berry toast. It's hearty but not heavy, so you'll have room for the exceptional skin-on fries before your TSA pat-down.
Other Notable Options
La Madeleine: A Parisian-themed chain bakery with a surprising wealth of options. Flaky croissants are a given, but you don't see a chocolate-almond often. Worthy savory options include quiche Lorraine, a French dip, and chicken friand: chicken and earthy mushrooms tossed with a mushroom-laced bechamel and wrapped in crisp puff pastry.
We Juice It: This small counter offers a variety of juices and smoothies, but the real gem is the recently-added freezer full of Morelli's ice cream. The beloved (and delicious) local brand does high butterfat ultra-premium ice cream in flavors ranging from the simple—cookie dough, salted caramel—to far-out—strawberry rosewater, coconut jalapeno, and, for the real terroir of Atlanta, red raspberry Coke. With over 200 homemade flavors in their archives, you won't have access to them all, but go for the blueberry corncake if you can find it.
Best Bet: Corner Bakery Cafe (Gate T3)
Concourse T is a source of confusion. First, it actually comes before Concourse A, which always suckers at least a few people into prematurely exiting the "plane train." And while it offers the closest gates to the main entrance, it's horribly segmented, cramped with construction, and has the fewest food options.
At the Corner Bakery Cafe, you can plug in your devices and settle down with the club panini: a generous layer of hickory smoked turkey, smokier applewood bacon, lots of gooey white cheddar, plum tomatoes, and a swipe of mayo on surprisingly-good-for-a-chain grilled sourdough. Tack on a to-go cup of chewy and dense fudge brownie bites and wave off that in-flight offer of peanuts/pretzels/cookies with smug satisfaction.
Other Notable Options
Goldbergs Bagel Company & Deli (Gate T13): This Atlanta-based chain is best for breakfast and its bagel sandwiches. Those bagels may not win over every hardened New York bagel snob, but they're more-than-solid bases for tuna, lox, roast beef, pastrami, even a Reuben for the Northerners and pulled pork for the Southerners.
Bojangles' Famous Chicken 'n Biscuits (Gate T6): Yes, Atlanta is home to Chick-fil-A, and that chain has several locations in the airport, but dark horse Bojangles is a favorite among fast-food connoisseurs, and with good reason. The fried chicken arguably has a lot more crisp and crunch, and the buttery biscuits are downright crave-worthy.
Best Bet: Varasano's Pizzeria & Piano Bar
Few people anywhere know more about pizza than Jeff Varasano, but even he needed a learning curve when he opened an outpost of his namesake Neapolitan pizzeria inside the airport. "It took a couple of months to get the dough process down," he admits. "We're right off the tarmac [at the center of the concourse], and the temperature swings can be crazy." But he eventually nailed his famous airy and blistered crust, and now anyone passing through ATL can get their hands on one of the city's best pies.
Jeff's airport staff uses the same type of electric oven as in his flagship Buckhead restaurant, and they offer a nearly-identical pie menu. But even if you're intimately familiar with Varasano's mainstays like the Nana's (the simple-but-spectacular house special of cheese and herbed sauce) or Margherita di Bufala, try spreading your wings a bit with something new: we fall for the Fontina Mushroom Pizza. Jeff claims (with what looked like a wink) that it's topped with nothing more than rich Fontina cheese, paper-thin creminis, and some herbs... but I'd swear there was a sprinkle of sea salt and a drizzle of something lemony that helped elevate this earthy pie to my new hands-down favorite.
Other Notable Options
SweetWater Draft House & Grill (Gate A26): SweetWater is a local brewery making big waves with hopheads; their Georgia Brown, IPA, and flagship 420 Extra Pale Ale are loaded with crisp, bitter flavors. A good step up from your typical airport bar.
Piece of Cake: This local bakery's outpost at the center of the concourse does the ubiquitous cupcake varieties for about four bucks...or you can upgrade to an actual wedge of multi-layer cake for two more Washingtons, a far more sensible option. A slab of their rich red velvet—with a moist crumb and classic cream cheese frosting in abundance—will do wonders for your travel-induced stress.
Best Bet: Paschal's
This cafeteria-style meat-and-two dishes out plastic trays that may not look like much to the uninitiated, but if you're seeking a true taste of Atlanta during your layover, it's hard to do better than their famous fried chicken (over 500 pounds sold daily!) with a shatteringly crisp shell encasing tender, juicy meat. But don't forget about the catfish and grits, veggies, classic peach cobbler, and some of the sweetest tea you'll ever sip.
Other Notable Options
Café Intermezzo: Right at the top of the escalators that dump you onto the center of Concourse B is this busy little French-style café, popular around town for its perfect-with-coffee desserts. It's hard to pick just one since the selection rotates often, so take a gander at the pastry case and go with your gut. Don't skip the crepes, either.
Savannah's Candy Kitchen: Airport food is notoriously overpriced, so any nibble you can score for nothing is worth highlighting. There are truffles here, and fudge and nut clusters, but the real pro move is to snag a few free praline samples while walking by.
Best Bet: Sweet Georgia's Juke Joint (Gate C42)
The brick-and-mortar Sweet Georgia's location on Peachtree is known for Southern staples and live music to wash it down. There's no stage here, but you can order your jukebox picks from a special music menu. As for the down-home grub, it's on point. Chef Michael Falduti worked for a time under Emeril Lagasse in Las Vegas; he says this spot is "crazy" compared to that Vegas casino stint, with daily foot traffic that can reach 12,000 people on a busy travel day.
The favorites feature a cheffy twist: buttermilk-dipped fried chicken with a sweet balsamic drizzle, shrimp and stone-ground grits, mac and cheese with a four-cheese béchamel, collard greens with hand-shredded smoked turkey as an accent, and moonshine cocktails served in Mason jars. Our pick? The Louisiana-style gumbo. Loaded with crawfish, scallops, shrimp, Andouille, a dark roux, and plenty of spicy kick, the only thing you might miss is the okra.
Other Notable Options
The Original El Taco (Gate C15): This Atlanta favorite dishes out eight taco varieties on flour tortillas, from spicy ground beef or pulled chicken to fried fish and even a vegan version. If you have the time to sit down for your Tex-Mex fix, go for the Chupacabra Nachos: loaded with blackened shrimp, mango-habanero salsa, cowboy beans, queso blanco, sour cream, jalapenos, pico de gallo, and guac. They're loaded enough to keep every chip full of good stuff.
Links Grill (Gate C35): Hot dogs are perfect on-the-run meals, and Links' juicy, snappy, beef link and brats are step above the 7-Eleven standard (though not cheap at $8 each). Look for regionally-topped creations like the New York (sauerkraut and spicy mustard), the BBQ (sauce and slaw), and the classic Chicago-style. You'll find a BLT sausage, a pepper-and-onion brat, and even a bacon-cheddar link. We like the jerk chicken sausage and a Frito Pie on the side.
Best Bet: Grindhouse Killer Burgers (Gate D31)
This local minichain generally makes the conversation when discussing the best burger in Atlanta. Getting this truly great burger at their airport location can be a bit of a challenge, though...at least if you want to take a seat and soak up the kitschy-retro pop-culture décor. It's discreetly tucked in near Gate D31 and has just eight two-top tables (plus seven stools at the always-hopping bar). At least the turnover is fast, with an in-to-out goal of eight to ten minutes per customer.
That's for a menu where nothing is pre-prepped (besides frozen potato sides, and that's due only to a lack of space). The single burgers are excellent; the doubles are exceptional, with that classic diner twin-stack taste. I'm a sucker for the signature Grindhouse style with melty American cheese, grilled onions, lettuce, pickles, and the kitchen's special sauce...all nestled inside a super-squishy Martin's potato roll that, for burger nerds, simply doesn't get any better.
Other Notable Options
Atlanta Braves All-Star Grill (Gate 10): Yes, it's basically just a sports bar with stadiumesque burgers and hot dogs and beer. But you may be swayed by the Bases Loaded Foot Long, a 12-inch frank topped with chili, coleslaw, relish, onions, cheese, and jalapenos, an over-the-top dish that makes long layovers a little more bearable. Downing some wings in front of the high-definition big screen TV with the game on is one of the better ways to while away the hours on this concourse.
Phillips Seafood: A relatively upscale sit-down spot, but there's actually something here for every price range, from a $7 salad all the way to a $22 lobster roll or $26 fried seafood platter.
Best Bet: One Flew South
This is the restaurant that raised the bar and started a revolution at Hartsfield-Jackson, the first to defy the notion that airport food has to suck. Its reputation is far reaching: it's considered by many to be one of the best restaurants in the entire city, and received a James Beard nomination for outstanding service—despite the fact that you need a boarding pass to dine here.
Pick anything off the menu with total confidence, from real-deal sushi (airport location = sweet access to fresh stuff flown in daily) to award-winning cocktails to our favorite, the salmon hot pot, where unagi-fried rice, tofu, and local vegetables form an island surrounded by a pool of rich miso broth, all with a tender piece of deftly-cooked fish perched on top.
The only downside to One Flew South's extreme popularity is that it overshadows everything else on the concourse. If you're not eating here, the other food options in residence play it pretty close to the typical food court vest: McDonald's, Panda Express, Qdoba, Arby's, TGI Friday's and the like. You can do better.
Best Bet: Ecco
In Hartsfield-Jackson's shiny new jewel that is Concourse F, Ecco stands out as the brightest spot. A satellite to their popular midtown date night location, Ecco seats 120 and features "open-air" balconies that overlook the stunning international concourse. Chef Michael Patria treats his seasonal European/Mediterranean menu as a little oasis for the sea of travelers, with a staff that can subtly gauge each table's time allotment and deliver an upscale meal well before boarding begins. I mean, grilled octopus with housemade chorizo shouldn't be rushed...but the staff can be pretty damn quick about it when you have a plane to catch. (And that dish totally rocks.)
The pappardelle pasta with succulent braised pork, peppadews, and garlic is deservedly among the restaurant's most popular items, a richly satisfying pre-flight entrée. Whatever you decide on for your main meal, though, do not skip the fried goat cheese appetizer. Creamy and gooey and warm with a delicately crisp shell, they're dotted with flecks of fresh black pepper and served with a drizzle of honey. Even if you order nothing else, they are worth the 1.5-mile walk from the main Atrium.
Other Notable Options
The Varsity: Atlanta's iconic drive-in has a walk-up outpost in Concourse F serving their famous chili dogs, onion rings, and fried pies. The "What'll You Have" carhop slang is the same, as is the inexpensive and unapologetically sloppy grub. A meal at The Varsity is one of Atlanta's favorite guilty pleasures, and now you don't even have to leave the airport to experience it.
French Meadow Bakery & Café: Need to grab and go? This satellite location of the much-loved Minneapolis/St. Paul restaurant is about your only option on F, where getting to another concourse requires a bit of a hike. That's okay, you'll find rustic sandwiches, ciabatta hoagies, wraps, and salads here, all made to travel and all worth stashing in your carry-on before a long international flight. Pick up a warm bakery treat while you're at it, and maybe something to read from the adjoining bookstore. If you have time, sip your coffee at one of the tables near the trees and forget that you're at the airport for a while. The place is a lovely little surprise.
The Pecan Bistro: If a layover in Concourse F is your only exposure to the city of Atlanta, you can still get a traditional taste of our part of the world here. Chicken and waffles, crab cakes, and blackened shrimp and grits are all good starters for your crash course in all things Southern, but be sure to finish like a native with a slice of worthy pecan or sweet potato pie or some good old banana pudding. Y'all come back now, y'hear?