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At last, a decent airport restaurant

It’s one of the ironies of modern flight transport. When you are slightly pressed for time and arrive right on the margin of what you planned to be just enough to get luggage checked, security screened and down to the departure gates, there’s bound to be problems. Either you will be greeted by the longest queues known to mankind in the check-in hall, with queue discipline starting to break down and the microcosm of human society starting to break down into post-apocalyptic cannibalism as you watch, or some technical hitch will have you stuck in an increasingly irate line of people mentally calculating their sprint times to the gate once they’ve cleared the obstruction.

The converse of course, is that when you hedge your bets and arrive early enough to ensure that any event (short of volcanic eruption) will not delay your boarding, that’s when everything runs fine and leaves you with hours to kill at the airport.

Burning through an hour or two at the main London terminals, Gatwick or Heathrow, is an exercise in tedium that would test the resolve on a Buddhist monk. Depending on which terminal you are departing from, you are faced with a dilemma: where to eat? Do you eat before the security checkpoint, or chance the possibility that better establishments are lurking beyond the confines of the departure lounge? Sadly, depending on your choice of airport and terminal, you may be disappointed and bitterly regret not spending an hour or so with the distractions of the main terminal. As a frequent business traveller, I was reduced to keeping a checklist of the best places to eat, following bitter experience at Gatwick.

Expecting some sort of raise in the game for the captive audience of travellers waiting for their flight announcements, I strolled into one of the chain pubs that seemed to be one of the only available options to get food. In it, I was served an under-cooked meal on a filthy table by indifferent staff, who spent at least half an hour bickering with each other before one of the kitchen staff stormed out. I felt ashamed to be English, as several international travellers adrift in the chaos exchanged incredulous looks and sadly shook their heads. It’s no wonder really, that BAA lost control of the airport’s running: back in the seventies it looked modern and cool but now in the “teenies” it’s looking shabby and dreadfully dated.

Heathrow has a number of passable outlets on either side of the security gates, but has some great Italian restaurants past passport control, where you can get a comfortable seat and a good meal served quickly, even if you are pressed for time.

The best airport I’ve come across however is Schipol in Amsterdam. As far as airports go it’s quite an impressive affair, modern and with good transport links that blend into the structure of the airport (as opposed to the London approach of bolting them on as monstrous and dilapidated accessories). That said, having to spend more than a couple of hours wandering the extensive corridors will test your reserve and shoe leather, even if you are a fan of modern architecture. One thing it sadly shares with its UK and other European counterparts is a distinct lack of adequate seating for the amount of people using it.

The best factor by far though, is the Dakota Bar. This is tucked away, right on the roof of the airport up on level four. There are signposts, but they can be easy to miss which if you are a cynical and selfish traveller such as myself, is a good thing: the vast majority of other travellers will ignore it completely and herd themselves off toward a Maccy D’s instead.

The Dakota Bar is situated next to the entrance to the business conference suite which is another plus: although you won’t be allowed in to the conference centre unless you have a legitimate reason, you can avail yourself of the toilet facilities which are in the conference centre’s foyer. These are far less busy than the ones in the main terminal due to the fewer amounts of travellers on that level, and decked out to “executive” standards so much nicer to use!

The Dakota Bar itself is decked out with vintage memorabilia and the propeller of a Dakota aircraft, hence the name. It’s clearly a modern stab at a period look but isn’t clumsily executed and there’s a even a few interesting items to look at in presentation cases if you fancy a wander. The windows look out onto the runway, and the observation balcony is next door, so if you are an avid plane-spotter then this is definitely the place to be. Even if you aren’t, it’s still quite a nice view if you have the weather for a fine Dutch sunset

The menu is superb and at least half the price of so-called “fine dining” in London airports. As an enthusiastic carnivore, one of the treats of a dull business trip to one of the industrial sectors of Amsterdam was discovering how well even a local budget hotel served up a steak – and the Dakota Bar dishes out one of the best I’ve ever had. Rather than presenting the diner with a bleeding slab of cow, your steak comes neatly sliced on top of piece of toasted bread rubbed in garlic. This sits in turn atop a bed of tasty steamed vegetables, along with the ubiquitous fries. Every mouthful of tender flavours is a joy, and the only thing that stopped me going for pudding was the flight announcement.

They serve a good range of beers and wine, if I had one complaint it would be they didn’t have an extensive range of the national strong beers that you can find in other Amsterdam hotels and bars, but as I had a flight to catch that may have been a blessing in disguise. There’s a number of flight information boards in the bar itself, as well as just outside by the conference centre, so there’s little risk of missing an announcement or update on your flight. Even though I was clearly taking my time over meals and drinks, I wasn’t pressurised by staff or made to hurry along, and what could have been a numbingly boring couple of hours passed very pleasantly, and I was able to board the flight without being stressed, exhausted or sozzled.

I’ve not flown from London City or Stanstead, but it’s sad that Gatwick and Heathrow have quite a way to go to match this level of service and customer experience . . . even sadder that being able to provide a nice place to eat and drink should apparently be so difficult: it’s not after all, rocket science (or aeronautics). Still, if you find yourself in Schipol with some time on your hands, take a tip and head upstairs. It’s one of the better bar/restaurants by any standards of English judgement, and you won’t be in contention with thousands of other weary air passengers. It’s not exactly like being ushered into your own private VIP area of a club, but if you’ve been herded around Europe on economy travel and accommodation for business, you’ll be grateful of little luxuries where you can find them.

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