If you want to try the Triple Delight roll at Gachi House of Sushi, the crab frittata at Obrycki's or the Latin specialties at Zona Cocina, you'll have to buy a plane ticket. These eateries, which only exist at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport, are in post-security areas, and you can only eat there if you have a boarding pass.
And if you don't believe you can get super-fresh, premium sushi at an airport, try asking your pilot. They'll tell you that Gachi, a full-service sushi bar on Concourse A between gates 8 and 9, is the real deal.
In fact, pilots often call in their orders from the cockpit after landing so they'll be ready to go, said Budi Suryakusuma, Gachi's chef and managing partner.
Savvy travelers have discovered Gachi, too. "I think [they've] got the best sushi in Baltimore," said Dr. Morton F. Goldberg. The former director of the Wilmer Eye Institute of Johns Hopkins Hospital said he and his wife always make extra time to visit Gachi when they travel through BWI.
"I tell all of my friends about Gachi," Dr. Goldberg said. "They're dubious at first. Now two dozen of them go there."
On average, some 62,000 people a day come through BWI. If they're not hungry when they arrive for their flight, they might be by the time their planes leave, said Ramon Lo, the editorial director of Airport Revenue News, a monthly publication that covers airport concessions.
"The time you spend in an airport is getting longer," Lo said. "Airports are looking to capture those travelers' dollars. Airports across the board want to supply a broader spectrum of options."
Even with options, Lo said, many travelers still look for the familiar names. Every day about 1,100 travelers end up at Chipotle, which is located in the mall-like area that connects BWI Airport's A and B concourses. There are other familiar names here and along the concourses — nationally known brands like Auntie Anne's and McDonald's, and regional players like Phillips Seafood, the Greene Turtle Sports Bar & Grille and the Silver Diner.
On a relatively quiet Thursday morning, Sergio de la Fe was finishing up a work proposal over a late breakfast of eggs and sausage in a quiet Silver Diner seating area the restaurant refers to as the "patio."
A Miami resident who described himself as an executive platinum traveler on American airlines, de la Fe was a happy customer. "I've avoided Baltimore's airport," he said. On this particular day, he couldn't avoid coming through BWI. It was his first look at the airport in more than a decade.
"When I walked in, I was completely and pleasantly surprised at the changes," he said. "It looks modern and clean, and there are tons of options."
The turnaround at BWI is credited to Airmall USA, the Pittsburgh-based developer of retail and food concessions at airports in Baltimore, Boston, Cleveland and Pittsburgh, where the company launched its mall prototype in 1992. Airmall took over the concessions at BWI in 2004 and recently had its original 12-year contract extended through 2022.
Along with expanded dining options, the other good news for BWI travelers is that Airmall requires its vendors to offer "street pricing," and audits them regularly to make sure prices are similar to what they charge at their non-airport establishments.
De la Fe said he was pleased to see Silver Diner, a restaurant he was familiar with, at BWI.
Headquartered in Rockville, Silver Diner has recently added more vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free and low-fat items to its menu of comfort-food favorites. The menu promotes 600-calories-or-fewer menu items like lemon rosemary chicken, Baja fish tacos and grilled salmon. The restaurant has also subscribed to the farm-to-table philosophy not typically associated with a family diner. The restaurant's menu proudly lists its partnerships with local farms and producers.
Breakfast remains a Silver Diner attraction, with specialties like country-fried steak and eggs, banana-stuffed French toast and California omelets still topping the restaurant's best-seller list.
Breakfast is being served, too, over on Concourse B at Obrycki's, where one of the best-selling dishes is the crab-balls-and-eggs breakfast, a platter of deviled crab balls, with scrambled eggs and bacon or sausage.
"We came in here thinking we were going to be a little junior Obrycki's," said Cernak, whose family operated a storied seafood house in Fells Point for 60 years. "Within the first six months, we revised our menu about five or six times" Cernak said.
Airport diners didn't always have time to wait for broiled crab cakes, so the Cernaks added tavern-style fare like chicken wings, Reuben sandwiches and chicken Chesapeake wraps. And they added breakfast, too — an early flier's lineup of frittatas, breakfast sandwiches and bagel platters.
There were other adjustments, Cernak said. At their Fells Point crab house, which they closed in 2010, diners came in during traditional meal times. At the airport, Obrycki's had to figure out how to staff for a restaurant that has a steady stream of hungry customers all day.
There are other challenges for restaurant operators at BWI. New hires have to undergo security screening to qualify for airport ID badges, and all deliveries have to come through a central clearing facility.
Getting fresh fish for Gachi is otherwise not a problem, said Suryakusuma, because the airport is only 10 minutes away from the Maryland Wholesale Seafood Market in Jessup. Keeping up with customer demand is his biggest challenge, he said. Suryakusuma employs 25 sushi chefs at Gachi, as many as eight per shift. Most of the production goes into preparing pre-packed, grab-and-go sushi that Gachi sells at its main BWI location as well as at a kiosk it operates across the terminal on Concourse B.
"We use the four-hour rule," said Suryakusuma, who learned about sushi operations working for Genji Inc., a Philadelphia-based company that provides sushi to Whole Foods stores. "After four hours, we check the sushi and replace unsold product with fresh product." Suryakusuma said that Gachi's environmentally friendly fiber-based packaging is inspired by the Whole Foods model.
Suryakusuma said his most loyal customers drop by for more inventive fare than the California rolls and cucumber rolls sold in takeaway cases. A new favorite is Triple Delight, an extravagant creation with diced, marinated yellowtail, salmon and tuna on top of rolls of soy-wrapped salmon. The most popular item, he said, is the Georgetown roll, made with spicy tuna, crunchy black pepper tuna, avocado, mango puree and orange fish roe.
Suryakusuma said he was most excited about the brushi, a breakfast sushi made from Norwegian smoked salmon, egg and cheese.
"We didn't want to miss out on the breakfast business," he said.