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Caplansky's at Toronto's Pearson Airport.Michael Mahovlich/Handout

When faced with a limp, overpriced sandwich or a plate of rubbery scrambled eggs, it’s easy for travellers to conclude that airports are a high-priced culinary wasteland. In recent years, Canada’s airports have made efforts to bring in high-profile chefs and better quality dining.

What goes into your in-flight meal? A tour of a massive food-making operation

Prices are never going to be rock-bottom at the airport but finding the good stuff is not impossible, according to industry insiders and well-travelled chefs who offer their best tips and terminal favourites.

YVR: Pacific Farms Market, Domestic – Gate C29

This “farm to flight” marketplace concept at Vancouver International Airport opened last year and it’s filled with well-loved regional brands. “They have things like Rosemary Rocksalt bagels and they make fresh sandwiches right on site in front of you,” says Susan Stiene, an airport consultant who previously worked at the concession program at Vancouver airport. “They also bring in local craft beer.” Items are also available from local bakery Purebread, 49th Parallel Coffee Roasters and F.I.S.H. (Fresh Ideas Start Here). Prices are on the high end, but at least you’re getting something unique.

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Pacific Farms Market at Vancouver International Airport opened last year and it’s filled with well-loved regional brands.Clayton Wong/Handout

YVR: Salmon ‘n’ Bannock On The Fly, International – Gate D71

In December, Inez Cook, a member of the Nuxalk Nation, opened the second location of her Indigenous eatery Salmon ‘n’ Bannock at Vancouver International. Cook, who is the author of the children’s book The Sixties Scoop, worked as a flight attendant for 33 years before opening her first restaurant in downtown Vancouver. “They have fresh Indigenous cuisine, salmon burgers and bannock, and I hear the bison sandwiches are to die for,” Steine says.

YYZ: Boccone Trattoria Veloce by Massimo Capra, Terminal 1 (Domestic), near gate D41.

The Toronto Pearson restaurant by chef Massimo Capra features Italian classics and kid-pleasing comfort food. “Usually my flights are early, so I always have breakfasts there,” says Elia Herrera, the chef and entrepreneur behind the Mexican food stall Colibrí in Toronto’s Chefs Hall and the new Milpa restaurant in Calgary. “I trust his food so much. He is so talented.” While her normal fare is eggs or frittata with bacon and fruit, she recently tried the chicken panini with pesto. “The food has flavour and I appreciate that.”

YYZ: Caplansky’s Delicatessen, Terminal 3 (Canada/International), near gate B39

In recent years, airports have partnered with independent restaurateurs to give the terminals some local colour, but occasionally, it has an odd side effect. In Toronto, Zane Caplansky opened an outlet of his well-known Jewish restaurant Caplansky’s Delicatessen at the airport, only to have his flagship downtown business go bust. Today, only the airport location exists.

“I never got a chance to go there before he closed down, so I went to the airport,” says Herrera. “The deli meats are so good, and so is the mustard he makes.”

Run by giant food services company HMSHost, it doesn’t have the chutzpah of the original – during a recent breakfast visit, latkes were unapologetically replaced by home fries – but it is the only place left where you can taste Caplansky’s deli meat.

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Run by giant food services company HMSHost, Caplansky's doesn’t have the chutzpah of the original.Michael Tenaglia/Handout

YUL: Houston Avenue Bar & Grill, U.S. departures – Gate 77

Montreal-based restaurateur and wine importer Martin Juneau chooses this restaurant for breakfast when he is at Montreal-Trudeau International. “I usually travel with my three daughters and Houston is welcoming to families, so that’s something we really appreciate. The staff is friendly and it’s always quick. It’s between $15 to $20 for a full breakfast with coffee, so everything’s good for me.”

YUL: Archibald Microbrasserie, Domestic, Gate 51

Chef and consultant Ian Perreault, who lives on Montreal’s South Shore, frequents this airport spinoff of a microbrewery in Lac-Beauport, Que. “They have good beer that’s made in Quebec. It’s a casual spot where you can get calamari or a burger. The space is also nice. It’s nothing complicated, but each time, the service is very good.”

YYG: Budley’s, after security

At the small Charlottetown airport, Charlotte Langley, a Toronto-based chef and food entrepreneur originally from Prince Edward Island, says Budley’s has the best cup of Atlantic chowder. The lobster chowder, which comes with a homemade biscuit, “gives you the final taste of the magic of PEI before you depart.”

Take advantage of airport lounges

Ricky Zhang, a travel blogger and writer, rarely pays for meals at the airport. “I feel pretty begrudged when I have to pay for food at the airport so I find having access to an airport lounge is a great way around that,” he says.

Frequent flyers and holders of elite credit cards can gain access to some airport lounges, including ones run by airlines. Travellers can also purchase entry for Plaza Premium Lounges and others at most large Canadian airports.

“In theory, it’s a place to relax and unwind, but sometimes it does get quite crowded,” says Zhang. “They do have access to unlimited food and a bar,” although, he adds, “the quality tends to be not that great.”

Calgary’s WestJet Elevation Lounge, however, is one of the best for food, says Zhang, and you can also get custom cocktails at the bar. For those who can get in, Toronto Pearson’s Air Canada Café has barista-made drinks and grab-and-go food you can take on the plane.

Those who won’t be heading into an airport lounge can take heart: familiar brands such as Tim Hortons and Starbucks can be an oasis for budget-conscious travellers, as they tend to offer better pricing than generic airport restaurants. At Toronto Pearson, for example, Tim Hortons products were slightly marked up from the prices at downtown Tim’s outlets: coffee was selling for $2.10 (versus $1.83 downtown), and a turkey bacon club was $7.80 (vs $6.79 downtown). Starbucks, Booster Juice and Paramount Fine Foods at Pearson also have reasonable if slightly elevated prices. Meanwhile, Heirloom Bakery Cafe, an airport-only restaurant, sells an ordinary-looking plastic-wrapped turkey sandwich for an eye-popping $14.29.

Watch out on your return flight though – while Canadian airports may try to prevent the worst price abuses, at some airports abroad, the sky’s the limit. Players Cafe the airport in Liberia, Costa Rica, for example, sells bottled water for $8.80 and a burger for $27.50.

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