Lodi Airport Cafe chef and owner Jennifer Kupka, whose father owns the airport, says the salmon bowl is her best seller. (Photo by Gabriel Teague)

Savor the Layover

These local airport restaurants are worth the trip

Back Article Jun 27, 2024 By Becky Grunewald

This story is part of our June 2024 issue. To subscribe, click here.

Even though the “Mad Men” era of glamorous travel is long gone, the airport remains the quintessential liminal space, and one that presents at least the illusion of possibility and mystery. Where else might you drink a margarita at 10 a.m. and tipsily purchase a Kylie Jenner lip kit from a vending machine? And why are there always luggage stores in airports, when you are already there with your luggage? Questions abound in the airport, and one of them is: Where to eat?

If you’re in the Capital Region, there are plenty of interesting options — and not only at Sacramento International Airport, which is set to have a major refresh of its dining program by 2025. Whether you’re flying a jumbo jet or a crop duster, you’ll find something to nosh on when you land in and around Sacramento. 

A family affair

If you’re flying a single-engine plane south from Sacramento — or driving down Highway 99 — you might notice the retro burger-topped sign outside Lodi Airport, a private facility technically located in Acampo. The airport hosts flight instruction and about 100 flights in and out a day, but most patrons of the airport’s cafe are wine-producing grape growers, not “fly-ins,” according to owner and chef Jennifer Kupka.

The cafe is a family affair; Kupka’s father has owned the airport since the 1970s, and her mother ran and co-ran the cafe from ‘88 until Kupka took over completely in 2022. 

Kupka grew up in the restaurant. “I remember going in there when I was 5 and annoying the waitresses wanting to help them, and then in high school I started cooking on the weekends,” she says. “I went away for school and came back, and I think I started working there again in probably 2009, after college.”

She studied nutrition, and her passion for that subject shows. “The only place I use seed oils is in the deep fryer, strictly for French fries. I only use extra virgin olive oil for all of our dressings. Everything’s made from scratch,” she says. “You’ll pretty much always find me in the kitchen when we’re open. I try to be there all the time because I’m also very particular about presentation.”

That fastidiousness is especially apparent during her monthly prix-fixe themed dinners, which she started in April 2023. These occasions bring out the dolled-up glitterati of Lodi; Kupka’s husband Scott Kingston said that the $130 tickets sometimes sell out in five minutes. During last month’s Cinco de Mayo-themed dinner, she was intense but calm in the open kitchen as she assembled plates for more than 50 diners. As Kupka cooked, Kingston roamed the crowd chatting and taking photos, and mom Joann rolled up her sleeves to lend a hand in the kitchen and boil some shrimp.

Mid-century memories

The interior of Aviators hasn’t changed much since the 1970s. (Photo by Becky Grunewald)

A trip to Aviators Restaurant in Sacramento Executive Airport is a step back in time. That starts with the mid-century modern exterior of the airport, which was built in 1955, more than a decade before Sacramento International Airport in 1967 — hence why the executive airport has the International Air Transport Association code SAC, while the international airport was left with SMF (for Sacramento Metropolitan Field). The restaurant itself is more ‘70s fern bar (without the ferns): wooden shingles and paneling, stained glass, circular banquettes padded with brown leatherette.

As was widely reported in December, the Sacramento County Department of Airports wanted to solicit proposals for other tenants, and the current operator of Aviators, Cheung-Sang Chik, although free to submit a proposal, was in danger of losing his lease. This could have meant a new operator and a change in the classic diner-style breakfast and lunch menu with its off-menu fried rice, which Chik laughingly says he keeps on the secret menu so that he won’t be obligated to make it if he’s too busy — or heaven forbid, an interior update. 

Aviators serves diner classics like sandwiches and breakfast plates as well as an off-the-menu fried rice. (Photo by Becky Grunewald)

Luckily, big Aviators fan Liv Moe, executive director of Verge Center for the Arts, started a Change.org petition that gained over 4,000 signatures and garnered a wave of local media attention. In late February, Fox 40 news reported that the county had stopped requesting bids for the space after receiving the community response.

Aviators as-is seems to be saved. Chik reported that business is mostly back to normal, with a slight uptick on the weekends. He said that he is currently working to finalize the lease and that he was touched by the response. “I really appreciate the support from the customers. It really surprised me that so many people came out. I’m happy with all my customers,” he says.

Big plans for SMF

Food at SAC may be staying the same for the foreseeable future, but change is on the way at SMF. In February, the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors approved ambitious plans for multiple local restaurants to establish outposts in the airport in 2025. Announced partners include Bawk! by Urban Roots, Nixtaco and Magpie Cafe. This is part of a $1.3 billion expansion plan branded as SMForward.

Reached for comment, the Sacramento County Department of Airport’s Senior Public Information Officer Scott Johnson said in an email, “We are currently finalizing contracts and once those are completed the next phase of development will begin. Construction and occupation will begin this fall and restaurants will be opening to the public between January and March 2025.”

Nixtaco, the Michelin-recognized Mexican restaurant in Roseville, is set to have an outpost at Sacramento International Airport by 2025. (Rendering courtesy of Sacramento County Department of Airports)

It may still be a year out, but Nixtaco owner Patricio Wise has been looking forward to having an outpost at the airport for almost five years. He met representatives of his concessionaire partner, High Flying Foods, at the Pebble Beach Food and Wine event in 2019. High Flying Foods operates 40 restaurants in seven airports, including Gott’s Roadside at SFO, Southie at OAK and Santo at DEN, most licensed from well-known restaurants in the airports’ respective cities. 

“They approached us and thought it would be a very good concept for the portfolio they operate; they are focused on higher-end brands,” he says. “Then COVID hit, and everything kind of stopped. About a year ago they renewed the RFP (request for proposal) process, and we started conversations again. We are, of course, very excited.”

He plans to bring all his Michelin-recognized signature braises (such as honey-glazed pork belly and chicken mole) and to duplicate the experience of eating at his Roseville restaurant as closely as possible. “The menu we have is adaptable,” he says. “The flexibility that affords is great for an airport setting because if you are in a hurry, but you need to grab a bite, we can cater to that. If you have two hours to kill, we can also take care of you there.”

Nixtaco owner Patricio Wise is teaming up with concessionaire High Flying Foods to bring his signature tacos and other dishes to SMF. (Photo courtesy of Sacramento County Department of Airports)

The time may go more pleasantly due to their planned full drink menu, including, he notes, selections from their award-winning distillery. Their Emilia vodka won gold at the San Francisco World Spirits competition, with Dorotea barrel-finished gin winning bronze. Wise says, “The idea was to make the gin amicable to our menu, so it’s very floral. Very citrusy. Very bright.” And pairs well with a flight delay as well, one presumes.

Magpie Cafe chef and owner Ed Roehr is also jazzed about the airport partnership. He thinks that a year and a half he spent in his younger days working to open restaurants under the corporate chef for Morton’s The Steakhouse will give him an edge in tailoring his elegant cuisine for the airport crowd. “I have a bit of a sense of what the corporate food machine expects, and that’s going to be an advantage for us,” he says. 

Roehr further enthuses, “We are very excited to go into the airport. It’s a great mission for us to be a welcome mat or last stop for people visiting Sacramento.”  

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