The last time I was at Palm Beach International Airport, I stopped by the same place I always go when I'm heading out of PBI. It's a completely forgettable sort of chain restaurant in Concourse B called Nick's Tomatoe Pie — yes, spelled with an "e," and complete with signage featuring a bright red tomato. Restaurant might be putting too fine a point on it. It's a pizza place, but it's also a bar and really so much more. Nick's Tomatoe Pie, as it turns out, is not forgettable at all.
This is not because of the pizza, which is airport-acceptable and costs airport prices. It's not because of the wine, which they serve in 6 oz. or 9 oz. pours (you're about to be hurtling through time and space in a metal tube, go for the 9!). It's certainly not because of the scenery — as you sit at the bar you face a brick wall with TVs tuned in to sports and a couple rows of booze bottles and beer taps. There's also a mirror in which you can watch yourself drink, if that's your thing, and a clock — this is important, don't forget, you have a plane to catch! If you were filming a movie about an airport bar, this place would be the central casting version of it.
What makes this airport bar unforgettable is, perhaps, the same reason your favorite en-route-to-somewhere-else haunt is so beloved. (Okay, admittedly, location is everything, and Nick's Tomatoe Pie is pretty much the only place to sit down and get a drink and something to eat in the concourse.) But that's exactly it. The beauty of any airport bar is not what's in it, at least not in terms of its food or microbrews or glitzy clientele. It's that it offers a chance to capitalize on this increasingly rare moment in modern life: You have time to kill, and nothing better to do while you wait — why not sit down for a spell, talk to some fellow travelers (surely they have interesting stories to share), and, if not, simply have a drink and a bite while you check your email?
And so, while the world around us changes rapidly, not always for the better, the airport bar is frozen in time, a place you can count on. The crust at Nick's is cracker-like and their pies taste a bit like the frozen pizza of your childhood; the bartender is a raspy-voiced older woman who calls you "hon," and whom you've grown to look forward to seeing twice yearly. Sometimes even the customers are the same. I remember striking up a conversation with the woman next to me one Christmas Day. She seemed oddly familiar. It turned out, she'd been there the previous Christmas Day, and the year before that — we shared the same penchant for traveling home on Dec. 25 after spending our holidays with family in the Palm Beach area, and we always stopped at Nick's on the way back. Last time I was there I started talking to a thin, tan, blonde woman who'd been in Florida for a golfing excursion, as she does once a year. And once a year, she also visits Nick's Tomatoe Pie. She's a Corcoran real estate broker and part of the multimillion-dollar club, which I only know because she gave me her business card before departing to catch her flight. I'm sure the next time I see her will not be when I'm selling my apartment. It will be when I'm back at Nick's Tomatoe Pie.
I asked some people about their favorite airport bars for this piece. Unsurprisingly, everyone has their own spot, their own rituals — and those airport bars reveal much about ourselves and our personalities and predilections. One friend who is a film critic told me, "I go to the Buffalo Wild Wings at JFK Terminal 4 every year before I fly to Cannes." Another, a food and travel writer, asked: "Do the bars at the end of the runway at the airport in St. Martin count?" When I said yes, they probably count the most, he added, "Drinking beer or a rum punch, eating a yellowfin tuna burger with local pepper sauce, and watching planes land almost directly overhead — and scattering folks on the beach with their windy wake — is one of the great joys in life." I haven't even been there but I'm inclined to agree. Others mentioned "the bars at Louis Armstrong in NOLA that serve hurricanes in to-go cups," "a lobster roll stand and bar in the Portland, Maine, airport that is part of my routine every time I fly from home in Maine back to NYC," and "Bubbles champagne bar in Chicago O'Hare. It's not the best champagne bar, but it is amazing to me that a champagne bar (complete with a grand piano) exists in an airport at all. Also, if the plane crashes, you'll want to know that you drank champagne before it did."
Which is a fair point. As nervousness about the flight comes on, which it certainly does for me, it's not just alcohol that calms, it's the familiar faces, the comfort of routine. And, yes, the alcohol. At "Cole's in Terminal 4 @ LAX, the cocktail game is mad strong," says a friend. "Two negronis and all my flight anxiety is gonzo."
Out of curiosity, I turned to the Yelp reviews for Nick's Tomatoe Pie. There are 58 of them; the establishment gets a reasonable (for an airport bar?) three stars out of five. "Nick's can be very hot [sic] or miss, today's visit was mid day and they were well staffed …" writes Seth M. of Montclair, New Jersey. "I stress this because last visit (two weeks ago) it took so long to even get our beers that we had to chug them as the flight was boarding, and we had been there for 45 minutes already." But that doesn't really matter, Seth continues: "BTW, Nick's has been my standard go-to at PBI before flights or during delays for over 16 years now ..." (Right there with you, Seth!). Another person says, "Probably one of the better choices after you get through security. I've been coming here for years."
That kind of consistency matters! Should Nick's Tomatoe Pie ever close or be replaced by something more highfalutin, I will be very sad, indeed.
One year, I had plans to see a friend and former coworker who also visits West Palm for the holidays. He and I both live in New York City, but given our schedules in the city, hadn't been able to catch up in ages. We couldn't seem to coordinate a meet-up while we were with our families, either, so in the end, we ended up getting food and drinks at Nick's Tomatoe Pie while we awaited our different flights back to the city. "Have you been here before?" he asked me, or maybe I asked him, and we admitted yes, for both of us, quite frequently, in fact. After all, the pizza is decent, the raspy-voiced waitress reminds us that some things never change, and, anyway, it's really the only spot in Concourse B to sit down and get a drink as you contemplate your journey from one place to the next.