Where to Eat at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport

By Robert McGarvey

More of you lately have been asking me the same question: where to eat at Sky Harbor Airport, Phoenix – which, for the record, is the nation’s 13th busiest airport – just behind Newark (11) and Orlando (12) and ahead of Miami (14) and Houston (15).

Makes sense that the questions are getting asked now, too. This is Phoenix’s busy season, the town is hopping with meetings, events, and Spring Training ball. There also have been recent, big culinary changes in Terminal 3.

Mainly, too, Sky Harbor is a pleasant facility. I can rant about JFK and am no fan of BWI but Sky Harbor usually seems well run, even calm.  I cannot even complain about the TSAs at Phx.

Can similar be said about the food?

Commendable is the airport policy to nurture local chefs.  Certainly there are the national chains – sometimes I believe there is a law requiring Starbucks at all airports – but in Phoenix your best choices may be places you’ve never heard of, by chefs you’ve also not heard about.

Thus the real need for local guidance.

Sky Harbor has three terminals and they are not equal. Terminal 4 is the busiest by far, handling perhaps 70% of Sky Harbor’s passengers.  

The best food choices, not surprisingly, are found in Terminal 4.  

By far the best.

AZCentral.com reporter Lauren Saria even managed to file a piece on the top 10 dining choices at Terminal 4.  There actually are good options.

A top choice is Barrio Cafe via chef Silvana Salcido Esparza who may be cooking the most thoughtful Mexican food in Phoenix.  

Also a good idea is Zinc Brasserie. Wrote Saria, “Zinc easily exceeds most expectations for an airport eatery. For a starter don’t skip the French onion soup gratinee, and for a more affordable entree the Zinc Burger can’t be beat. It comes with your choice of bacon and blue cheese or truffled gruyere and a side of crispy shoestring frites.”

It’s breakfast time?  Lucky you. Eat at Matt’s Big Breakfast, the airport outpost of a downtown Phoenix classic that has won its fame by serving very good breakfast staples such as scrambled eggs and bacon, what I always order.  The execution just is precise.

Save room for a stop at Sweet Republic – an outstanding local ice cream maker.  Really good ice cream.

And have a cup of coffee at Cartel. Wrote Saria: “When it comes to craft coffee, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more serious operation in greater Phoenix than Tempe-based Cartel Coffee Lab.”

If you have to eat at the airport in Phoenix, you will do well in Terminal 4.  You will do less well at the other terminals but you won’t starve.

Terminal 3 is a lesser used terminal. I can recall flying out of it only a few times.  That is reflected in the dining options.  But the good news is that, lately, there’s been a rush to open new venues. That’s giving diners much better choices.

Right now I would recommend Shake Shack and the Parlor Pizzeria (the airport location of a much praised Phoenix pizzeria that has sometimes been called the town’s best and that means better than Chris Bianco’s joints which is something. I don’t agree with that but Parlor is very good indeed).

I am also a longtime Shake Shack fan – so I won’t grumble when I can eat there.

Otherwise, Terminal 3 has a lot of blah choices – Starbucks, Habit Burger, Panera, and you get the drill.  Here’s the complete list.  

My advice: flip a coin. Heads you go for pizza, tails for a burger.  Forget the other options.

Stay tuned however because shortly a new Terminal 3 restaurant created by James Beard award winner Christopher Gross – called Christopher’s – is slated to open. That will demand our interest. I know I will give it a try.

Also slated to open soon is The Tavern, a new restaurant via Mark Tarbell, a local Phoenix celebrity chef. Mainly a burger, sandwich and salad place but Tarbell will try to lift it beyond the humdrum. I’ll stop here too when it opens.

Terminal 2 also is a lesser used terminal.  The best choice is NYPD Pizza, and fans of chef Silvana will want to stop at Barrio Avion.  Other choices include Wendy’s and a grab and go.

Terminal 2 is a backwater. Obviously. But at least you can get a decent burrito.

At what cost? Excellent question. Consumer alert: in December the Phoenix City Council repealed a policy that set airport restaurant prices at street plus 10%.  Restaurants may now set their own prices. So regular airport diners almost certainly will detect higher costs.

Is the food worth it? Remember my rule about inflight food: just don’t. Don’t eat the stuff, certainly not on any domestic flight.  So that often means eating at the airport.

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