Airport life in America changed radically after 9/11. How fondly I remember breezing to the departure gate 15 minutes before takeoff with a carry-on heavy with wine, hair products, a picnic and a pocket knife.
Now the whole process is fraught with anxiety, boredom and humiliation. Passengers must arrive hours before their flights, take off their shoes and outer clothing, submit to patdowns by strangers wearing rubber gloves and allow their belongings to be rifled through.
Once inside the secure zone, passengers remain in custody until they walk off their flight. Associated with freedom and adventure, air travel has became a grind, a necessary evil to be endured.
This captive audience does have time to eat and San Francisco International Airport has risen to the occasion. The reopening of elegant, light-filled Terminal 2, the new home of American Airlines and Virgin America, marks an apotheosis in airport food service.
Some of San Francisco’s best artisanal products share counter space at a concession called Napa Farms Market — a silly name because this food court bears no relationship to either Napa or farms.
What it does offer is high-quality food to eat on the spot and on the plane, as well as edible gifts unique to San Francisco.
The Equator coffee bar from Helen Russell and Brooke McDonnell, who founded this small, highly regarded company in San Rafael, specializes in organic and fair trade coffee.
My $3 cup of small-lot coffee from a microregion in Colombia was made to order with filtered water calibrated to be at 185 degrees when it was poured over freshly ground beans. The resulting brew expressed the aroma, flavor and character of this coffee without a hint of bitterness. Personally, I would buy a porcelain Equator logo mug just to avoid having to drink it in paper, but I’m a lunatic. A bag of Equator beans makes a nice present.
Kara’s Cupcakes jauntily fill the glass counter adjoining the coffee. I can’t get beyond her light, moist, tender banana and spice-scented carrot cupcakes, both topped with a major pouf of cream-cheese frosting. They taste of the pure ingredients that go into them. Vanilla and chocolate get their own chapeaux of old-fashioned sweet-butter frosting.
At $3.50 each, an assortment can be taken away in a pink box with an inset that neatly secures and separates each cupcake. So why not bring them to go with the coffee?
The joint Acme bread and Cowgirl Creamery counter is a marriage that raises the quality of life of every passenger. A French-style sandwich made on a crusty, teasingly chewy, Acme rustic baguette smeared with sweet butter and layered with thin slices of fragrant Fra’ Mani salami and cornichons ($6.25) is all about delectable bread first, and then filling.
The Bambini, a brilliantly integrated combo of Cowgirl Creamery’s buttery Mount Tam cheese and thin slices of ham on a soft Acme challah bun, comprises another perfect airplane sandwich — if you can wait that long to eat it. Plus, you can count on fresh bread and cheese when you disembark, a homecoming present for yourself.
In case you were wondering, every ingredient and every employee at T2 has to pass through security, just like you.
More T2 recommendations
For immediate airport consumption, the Tyler Florence Rotisserie stand puts out a juicy, brined, organic Fulton Valley chicken with roasted marble potatoes starting at $12.50, straightforward and tasty, especially if you can get one that hasn’t been held too long.
You can take your plate to the Vino Volo wine bar next door for a glass of lush, small production Mauritson zinfandel ($15) or a $10 tasting of three sustainable California wines or $14 flight of West Coast pinot noirs. Nice.
Finally, amid the shelves of locally made products — jams, breadsticks, flavored nuts, dog biscuits — look for a bag of CC MADE caramel corn with pistachios. Each organic kernel is encased in a crisp, buttery shell of caramel with just the right amount of salt.
From a company in San Anselmo, this caramel corn rivals the famous Garrett’s in Chicago, but CC’s corn is organic. I love the Bay Area.
IF YOU GO
Where: Terminal 2 (formerly Central Terminal), San Francisco International Airport
Patricia Unterman is the author of the second edition of “The San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide.” Contact her at email@example.com.