At any airport, where you eat depends on a few factors. Are you on vacation (hello double margarita!) or a work trip? Are you trying to kill time on a delay, or racing to the gate OJ-style? At LAX, however, the options also depend quite heavily on which terminal you find yourself navigating. There was a time where nearly every terminal’s choices were mediocre at best (and inedible at worst), but the culinary landscape continues to improve at our mighty airport with plenty of terminals (especially the gleaming new Tom Bradley International) offering up reliable, even remarkable choices. Below you'll find the best of the bunch divided by terminal. Hopefully you like burgers...
Closest gate: 11A Actor Danny Trejo has been killing it with his trendy Trejo’s Tacos sprouting up around the city, and has either reached the pinnacle of success or jumped the shark with a brand-new LAX outpost (depending on your POV). It doesn’t have quite the extensive offerings as the other locations, but you'll still find stalwarts like steak asada, spicy shrimp, and chicken as well as not one but two vegan options -- cauliflower and jackfruit. There’s also a selection of bowls, burritos, quesadillas, as well as Mr. Trejo’s face plastered everywhere from the tiled walls to the stickers on food wrappers.
Closest gate: 11A Part of the same newly unveiled food court where Trejo’s sits, the iconic 60-year-old hamburger counter doles out classic cheeseburgers and patty melts, and allows you to beef ‘em up with upgrades like an extra 7-ounce patty, bacon, and a fried egg. Fries (regular and sweet potato) are extra, and you can top things off with an old-fashioned shake assuming you’re not going anywhere that you’ll be required to wear a swimsuit...
Closest gate: 28 When you’ve got some time and are in search of an actual human-like restaurant with stylish decor, a decent food menu, and an extensive wine list that isn’t going to leave you mad at the world that you somehow just spent $16 on a glass of Yellow Tail Chardonnay, this is your spot. You won’t see much reflecting the “sea” part of the name (which stems from the original Huntington Beach location) but you will find flatbreads, a chicken sandwich, and a kale salad. The wines by the bottle list is even more impressive, and we want to meet the person who’s ordering a $380 Opus One just moments before a flight to Detroit.
Built Custom Burgers
Closest gate: 24A This one’s a customizable counter-service eatery that was once unique, but alas, you’ve seen a gazillion times by now. Still, it’s a good option for when you’re on-the-go (which is always at the airport). Choose bun or bowl, a beef, turkey, chicken, or vegan patty, and your cheese and then go to town on (free and unlimited!) toppings with the usual suspects along with coleslaw, tortilla strips and cranberries if you want to get crazy. If you’re too busy to figure it all out and just need to get to a phone charging station stat, you can select one their already-decided-for-you versions like the chili cheeseburger or chicken club.
Closest gate: 23A If you can’t stomach one more $13 bacon-egg-and-cheese breakfast sandwich served at every single outlet in the airport, you can mix up your morning meal with options like shrimp and grits, lobster-egg-and-avocado tacos and a smoked salmon-veggie-and-herb-topped bagel. Later in the day try the lobster roll or New England clam chowder -- unless you’re flying to New England. In that case, just wait until you get there.
Closest gate: 37A When your flight schedule rudely interferes with the game, don’t just settle for spotty viewing on your smartphone screen. Instead, catch a few plays at this this year-old LAX offshoot of the Melrose sports bar done up with natural woods, patterned tile, and a leather sofa lounge area. There are some solid cocktail offerings, and the menu focuses on sandwiches (the four-cheese grilled cheese on parmesan bread is probably the winner) along with a few starters and salads.
Closest gate: 34 Another terminal, another burger joint. Danny Meyer’s beloved fast-casual mega-chain has come a long way since it was first born out of a New York City hot dog cart, and is now firmly entrenched in dozens of cities around the globe (including a half dozen in Dubai). Stick with its specialties: the basic ShackBurger doused in its fabled creamy Shack Sauce, the griddled flat-top dogs stacked with tomatoes and pickles, the underrated-as-hell crispy ChickenShack, and the over-the-top frozen custards.
Closest gate: 44 Despite the proliferation of plant-based diets (who knew, right?), airports still aren’t easy places to navigate when you’re avoiding animal products. Thus, this long-running chain is a blessing for anyone tired of requesting more feta-less Greek salads and the rest of us who can’t bear eating yet another goddamn burger. Look for tofu-veggie wraps, a seitan-and-tempeh club, veggie-miso soup, and a host of vegan grab-and-go options.
Closest gate: 44 If you’re really interested in experiencing one of the city’s most classic French Dip sandwiches, head to the historic Downtown LA location that dates back to 1908. If you feel like you need a French dip right now and happen to be at the airport, though, then yeah, this is your spot. There are also lots of good sides including spicy garlic fries and bacon potato salad, and a variety of cocktails (like the signature Old Fashioned complete with proper garnishes), all in the spirit of the original venue’s Red Car Bar.
Closest gate: 50B The airport dining landscape is perennially heavy on carby stuff like sandwiches, burgers, and pizza, with a few of the same green salads (lame Caesar with soggy croutons anyone?) sprinkled in, so the fresh-feeling Lemonade is a welcome change with its mix-and-match marketplace prepared salads and veggie-heavy dishes. The roasted broccoli with ricotta and the chile-roasted butternut squash with corn nuts are two faves on offer, in addition to proteins like citrus-poached salmon and pineapple. Bonus: This place swaps new items in seasonally and recently rolled out a variety of poke bowls, too (this is LA, after all).
Closest gate: 55A Ford’s Filling Station holds a special place in the hearts of those of us who were catting around Culver City way back before it was cool. Ben Ford’s big-deal gastropub truly did help catapult the area onto LA’s culinary radar a dozen or so years ago, and while that location (along with a short-lived DTLA one that came after it) is long gone, you can get a taste of Ford’s original menu at the newer LAX location with signature stuff like the pub burger, bacon-wrapped dates, and Cubano flatbread.
Closest gate: 64A The empire of approachable Italian eateries by Italian-born Top Chef fan favorite Fabio Viviani spans from Chicago to San Diego, and his attractive LAX location (with its poppy orange leather seating, glass wine wall and tiled pizza oven) would be a nice place to hang even if you weren’t eating. The menu is semi-Italian with various panini, pizzas, and Viviani’s signature meatballs and marinara, but there’s also plenty of bar food-ish stuff including hummus, truffle potato skins, and a veggie burger.
Closest gate: 64A You can skip the greasy breakfast in favor of a good-for-you smoothie at this outpost of the national health-food store chain that’s been around since the '70s. Have them mix in berries, hemp milk, almond butter, maca, and acai in addition to the signature Earthfusion protein, and “add-ons” customized around what you’re in need of pre-flight (i.e., “calm” for jittery fliers, “detox” for those who had a wild final night in LA). Acai bowls are also an option here, and it’s a great spot to pick up grab-and-go goodies like trail mix, granola, fresh fruit, juices, and other snacks that will make you feel good about yourself at 35,000 feet.
Closest gate: 73 This more relaxed version of the swanky steakhouse BOA is the place to hit when you want more elevated airport fare (especially if you have an expense account at your disposal). Think NY strip, petit filet with red wine butter, and the same signature stacked Chop Chop salad that’s served at the Santa Monica and West Hollywood restaurants. You can also expect gussied-up gourmet burgers, wraps, and a few pastas, as well as a thoroughly respectable wine list.
Closest gate: 72B For something food-court-fast, sidle up to this spot that does serviceable American fare of turkey clubs, grilled chicken salads, and bacon-and-egg sandwiches on sourdough as well as vegan options including a soyrizo breakfast burrito, Impossible burger, and grain bowl.
Closest gate: 83 The good news is you’re just a terminal away from the pinnacle of LAX dining at Tom Bradley International terminal. The bad news is you’re in Terminal 8, and your options are lame and limited to mainly fast food like Carl’s Jr. and Panda Express. If you want a proper drink, you can get it here in addition to a range of food items like corn chowder, an ahi tuna salad, and veggie chili.
Closest gate: 148 This 15,000-square-foot dining and retail behemoth is one of the best things to come out of the billion-dollar-plus renovation that turned this terminal into one that actually looks like it belongs in an airport servicing the country’s second biggest city. Here you’ll find a lot of fast-casual versions of LA restaurants you know and love (or in some cases loved). Grab brick-oven pizza at 800 Degrees; tacos, tamales, and tortilla soup at the city’s last standing Border Grill; baked goods and lattes at Larder at Tavern; and an above-average sandwich selection at Michael Voltaggio’s Ink Sack.
Closest gate: 148 You’re already plunking down several months’ salary on a trip out of the country, so you might as get the baller ball rolling at the airport with champagne and crazy amounts of caviar at this den of decadence. Sure, you can grab a to-go “Caviar Picnic in the Sky” that starts at $200 and runs upwards of $1,000, but if you want to start off a bit tamer with a more reasonable bite onsite, go for the “Petit Petrossian” caviar plate (for a bargain $48), caviar flatbread, or caviar deviled eggs.
Closest gate: 150 The cupcake trend may be on life support, but airports have their own culinary rules, and that glass case of mini confections with perfectly piped frosting can look mighty good when you’re wandering aimlessly during a delay-induced stupor. What the heck, you’re on vacation...
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Lizbeth Scordo is a food and lifestyle writer and yes, she will take the 9-ounce pour for three dollars more. Thanks for asking. Follow her on Instagram @modlizbeth and Twitter @lalizbeth.