Monday, August 28, 2006

SoCal Airport Eats

The other day I was talking to Puneet, the Indian proprieter of the new aviation blog aggregator, Blogging Pilots. He did his training in Southern California, near where I instructed and freight dogged, so we've flown to many of the same airports. It was fun to reminisce, particularly about some of the great airport caf├ęs and restaurants in Southern California. Some of my favorite memories of SoCal flying are the many $100 Hamburger runs I made with students.

I called Brackett Field home for several years. Norm's Hangar was a favorite hangout for flight instructors and students at Brackett. While the food was greasy, the cleanliness suspect, and the wait staff sometimes surly, Norm's had a covered patio that was perfect for airplane watching while conducting ground school over burgers and fries.

On foggy June Gloom mornings, Brackett might go below landing minimums while Ontario and Chino had better weather. When this was the case, my instrument students and I would go shoot practice approaches at Chino for a while and then stop for breakfast at Flo's Airport Cafe. This particular joint is no less than a SoCal Institution, having been around since shortly after World War II ended. It was the original prototype for the Airport Greasy Spoon. If the artery-cloggingly wonderful breakfast doesn't attract you, the history and timeless ambiance of the place should. I spent many wonderful mornings here hangar flying with students while waiting for Brackett's weather to come back up.

When the occasion called for a little more formality than Flo's, Typhoon Restaurant at Santa Monica was an excellent choice. Located in the airport administration building on the south side of the field, Typhoon features pan-Asian cuisine and is a popular upscale-casual eatery with the locals. I sometimes felt a little embarrassed to be seen here in grubby CFI gear, but the food was so good I could never turn down a student's invitation no matter what stains my khakis had acquired that day. They also have a rooftop sushi bar called The Hump. If sushi isn't exotic enough for you, Typhoon actually serves fried ants and several other insect dishes.

My favorite route for instrument cross countries was to take V27 up the coast to San Luis Obispo. The coastal scenery was always breathtaking and it was enjoyable to get out of the LA Basin for a while. No trip to SBP was complete without visiting Spirit of San Luis near the base of the ATC tower. This is another airport restaurant that's upscale enough to be a popular night out for the locals, but they treat scruffy CFIs pretty well. I always meant to sample more of their menu but could never get past the clam chowder. It's really that good.

Aircraft checkouts at my flight school included a mandatory trip to Big Bear Airport, elevation 6750 feet. Inevitably the checkouts would be scheduled for hot late afternoons, when the Warriors would be lucky to see 200 fpm on climbout from Big Bear. After staggering around the pattern once or twice, I'd often suggest that we stop and wait for the air to cool a bit. In the meantime, there just happened to be good Chinese food on the field! Mandarin Garden offers huge portions of good food for cheap...looking back, I think the post-dinner climb rates were even more abysmal!

For my first few months of freight doggery, I had a Lance route that took me down to Mongomery Field in San Diego several times a day. On the last roundtrip, I'd usually have about an hour between when I landed and when my first couriers showed up, so I'd often grab a bite to eat at Casa Machado, the Mexican restaurant on the second floor of the terminal. It's San Diego, so you know the Mexican cuisine is authentic. Pity I never got to sample their Margaritas, everybody said they were excellent.

Of course, the last word when it comes to $100 Hamburger runs in Southern California is the infamous Elephant Bar at Santa Barbara. Sure, it's a chain restaurant. Yes, Signature charges you $10 to park. No, there isn't any view of the runway. Who cares - it's a fun, hip place with good food, Santa Barbara is beautiful, and the flight doesn't take too long while still getting you out of LA. The night after I proposed to Dawn, we rented an Archer and flew to Santa Barbara to celebrate at Elephant Bar. A strong November cold front was sweeping through at the time. We took off into a low overcast at Brackett, flew bumpy IMC the entire way, shot the ILS 7 approach at SBA to minimums in moderate turbulence and a howling crosswind, and parked at Signature in a driving rain. The staff took one look at us as we drippily slogged into the FBO and announced that as the first arrival in 5 hours, they were waiving our parking fee. The fact that Dawn actually enjoyed this flight reassured me that proposing was the smartest thing I'd done in a while.

So...what's your favorite $100 Hamburger story?

Update: Ron Rapp posted his own favorite SoCal airport eateries, touching on several excellent ones I didn't include in my post. And IFRPilot wrote about his own favorite haunts back east.


Hamish said...

I second the Spirit of San Luis and Elephant Bar recommendations (both of which I've done the $100 hamburger run to...), but my $100 hamburger recommendation is more of a $100 picnic recommendation: Shelter Cove (0Q5), in Northern California. The trip VFR up the coast from the Bay Area to the Lost Coast is worth it for the scenery alone, but being able to have a nice packed lunch next to both the runway and the coastline itself is a big plus. Yes, you can get food at the local store(s) there, but I prefer to bring my own -- and as long as you keep a good eye open for the lurking coastal fog, you can walk along the beaches and around the area after lunch. The restored lighthouse there is also worth wandering over to. Everything's within an easy walk of the runway, which is itself pretty much in the centre of "town".

A decent aletrnative (that's also closer to the Bay Area) is Mendocino / Little River (O48), but you need to rent a car to get from the airport to one of the many excellent (and sometimes really expensive) restaurants in town.

socaldude said...

you forgot catalina and the buffalo burgers thats my students favs place to go from john wayne...

Sam said...

I did Catalina several times when I first taught at the flight school, but then the owner banned our aircraft from going there. Pity, it's sure a fun flight, and those are some good Buffalo Burgers.

Anonymous said...

You can still do the chinese food you know? There is a "Peter Chan (or Chun's")upstairs in the terminal at KRDD. On the leg from ACV to RDD you can call ahead on your cell and order, they will have it waiting for ya when you land in RDD, @ 20 minutes to prepare most dishes, packed in those little white "takeout" boxes with all the tools, ready to go! Tell the Captain, you'll share your fried rice (get the House Special)with him and you'll have made a friend for life! ~wink~

Anonymous said...

uh...guess I should have given you the telephone number, my bad. Call this 530-222-1364

Sam said...

Anon, I actually carry around a Peter Chan's menu in my flight case...I've ordered from there several times on my way through RDD. Good stuff!

Mitchell Armstrong said...

Hey Sam, im currently training to be a pilot in Kelowna (ive seen the mega whacker there many times in the winter) rite now just going through the multi engine rating. Anyways once discovering your blog it became quite addicting ever since and ive been reading all of your posts. I thought i should add the best place for me to get a $100 burger. The popular pilot hangout of Chilliwack BC, not only are the burgers great but this place apparently has some of the best pie in the world, and the saying for lower mainland pilots flying out of small airports around YVR and through BC are I Fly For Pie!! I was wondering if you have heard of this great little airport. Well all the best luck to you Sam and your new job!