You can be excused if your stomach lurches a little at the mention of "airport dining." With few exceptions, Canadian air travellers don't "dine" so much as scavenge for whatever is least likely to require airsickness bags a couple of hours later.
But Toronto's Pearson International is about to change that with a major development that is sure to put the rest of Canada's airport industry on notice. Beginning this summer, more than a dozen new bars and restaurants designed by a who's who of Toronto chefs, including Claudio Aprile (Origin, Colborne Lane), Mark McEwan (Bymark, One, North 44), Hemant Bhagwani (Amaya) and Rocco Agostino (Pizzeria Libretto, Enoteca Sociale), will roll out across the airport's terminals – all intended to compete not merely with other airport options, but also the best of what is available downtown. The transformation is scheduled to be completed by the summer of 2013.
"We are the first and last impression of this city and this region for almost 34 million guests every year," said Pamela Griffith-Jones, chief marketing and commercial development officer with the Greater Toronto Airports Authority, the not-for-profit corporation that operates Pearson. "The acid test for us is if we've done it right, they won't feel like they're eating in an airport."
The announcement, to be made Wednesday morning, is part of an international movement that is transforming airport dining across much of Europe, Asia and the United States. Vancouver has several decent options. In the next decade, 90 per cent of North America's airport food-service contracts will open up, according to one industry executive, and quality-focused food companies are hoping to dramatically shake up the game.
That process is well under way. John F. Kennedy International Airport, in New York, features a trattoria developed by Mark Ladner, one of the city's best Italian chefs, as well as a steakhouse supplied by top butcher Pat LaFrieda. At LaGuardia, you can get trout amandine with haricots verts or roast chicken and ratatouille, prepared to order in a restaurant developed by Lee Hanson and Riad Nasr, two of Manhattan's hottest chefs. LaGuardia also has restaurants, either currently operating or in the works, by Andrew Carmellini, Michael White and Jamison Blankenship as well as plans for a beer garden by Garrett Oliver, one of the world's leading authorities on beer. Airports in Tucson, Washington, D.C., Minneapolis-St. Paul, Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston and Orlando have also begun to upgrade their offerings.
The common link among many of them is OTG Management, a New York-based company that operates more than 150 restaurants in nine American airports. The Greater Toronto Airports Authority has hired the firm to execute its new food program.
OTG takes a radically counterintuitive approach: The company refuses to treat its customers like a captive audience. "We are a restaurant group that happens to have restaurants in airports," Michael Coury, OTG Management's concept chef, said in an exclusive interview last week. "When you come to Toronto Pearson, some of your best restaurants downtown will now be in your airport. You're going to get a real restaurant experience."
Under the Pearson deal, the company will operate the restaurants while the local chefs develop the menus, help to hire and train staff and conduct regular spot checks to ensure quality. OTG will use local meat, fish and produce suppliers wherever possible. For instance, Mr. Coury said the company will buy much of its meat from Beretta Organic Farms, a producer just north of the city, as well as focus heavily on local beers and wines.
"It's not going to be a watered-down version of anything I'm doing," Claudio Aprile said. "I really want it to be some of my best work. That's my goal here."
In Terminal 1, the new offerings will include a casual Indian curry and street food place called Marathi, developed by Mr. Bhagwani, whose Amaya restaurant has expanded into a growing empire of quality-focused, quick-service takeout and food-court spots. Mr. McEwan is developing an Italian small-plates menu for a panini bar, while Devin Connell, a baker from the family behind Ace Bakery, will develop the menus for two Heirloom Bakery Cafes, one each in Terminals 1 and 3.
Both terminals will also get a new small-plates restaurant and wine bar, called Vinifera, with Canada-heavy wine lists (they're aiming for 85 selections at each bar) curated by John Szabo, a Toronto-based master sommelier. (That said, showcasing Canadian wines won't be as easy as it should be, Mr. Szabo acknowledged: Because of provincial trade barriers, the price of Canadian wines produced outside Ontario typically doubles when they cross into the province.)
In Terminal 3, Mr. Aprile's restaurant, called Trillium, will focus on international tastes inspired by the chef's travels, as well as a raw bar and breakfast offerings, including Thai banana pancakes. Mr. Agostino is developing a trattoria called Corso, with a menu featuring pizzas, pastas and antipasti. Guy Rubino, the chef behind Rain and Ame, will headline a modern Japanese restaurant called Acer. Mr. McEwan, in addition to the panini concept in Terminal 1, is developing a build-your-own burger bar for Terminal 3.
There will also be a pair of cocktail bars with beer and cocktail lists developed by Brock Shepherd, who runs the Burger Bar and Kensington Brewing Co., in Kensington Market. Mr. Shepherd said he intends to focus almost exclusively on Ontario craft beers, with 50 bottles on offer.
The new places will be set into existing gate areas, after the security section, without reducing the amount of available seating. Every table will be equipped with an iPad – the company intends to install more than 2,500 of them – that customers can use to read menus and order; travellers who aren't eating or drinking will be free to use the tables and the iPads, which will be equipped with open browsers, as well as e-mail and social media apps.
Ms. Griffith-Jones said many people in the airport business have realized that they can't assume would-be travellers will choose them; Pearson, she said, knows that it has to earn travellers' business.
The Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport, on the Toronto Islands, has become a major competitor with Pearson for flights to Montreal, Ottawa, New York and Chicago, as it's just minutes from downtown. Pearson also loses many budget-conscious fliers, who drive to Buffalo for cheaper fares.
And increasingly, international travellers have a choice of where they want to make connecting flights – a fact that is not lost on the major carriers. "We are seeking to draw travellers who have a choice to connect here, in Chicago or at JFK," Ms. Griffith-Jones said.
Pearson's other restaurant suppliers have already begun making improvements to their food offerings. "Competition is always a good thing," Ms. Griffith-Jones said. SSP, the British-based food and beverage company that runs some of the restaurants in the airport, recently replaced an underperforming restaurant with an outlet called Camden Food Company, focused on fresh, healthy, local foods.
The location almost immediately saw a 50-per-cent increase in the number of transactions, Ms. Griffith-Jones said.
The lesson learned?
"We were literally and figuratively starving our passengers," she said.