Why is the food so abysmal at Charles de Gaulle Airport?

aeroports de Paris

Because they recently asked, since my last trip out of Charles de Gaulle airport, I decided that I would try to imagine the perfect airport in Paris.

I sometimes take a bit of ribbing because being a good American, I can’t go too far without having le snack handy. And with airlines requiring earlier check-ins and cutting down on food service, a number of airports have gotten with the program and realized that there’s thousands of people passing through daily, many waiting…and waiting…and waiting, with nothing to do but eat.

I’ve given up on the food on the trains since those plastic-wrapped triangular sandwiches look terrible. If I was famished, I’d sooner eat the armrests. They apparently gave up the pioneering sous vide cuisine that three-star chef Joël Robuchon created for the trains, and while rail technology was embraced and swiftly moved forward, the food unfortunately didn’t zoom exactly in the same direction.

During a recent closure of the airport due to weather conditions, people were stuck there overnight and there was only one thing that I kept worrying about— “I wonder what all those people will eat?”

pappa sushi

I don’t think Chef Robuchon was called into service, but the idea of people arriving and departing in the airport of one of the great food cities and seeing what’s on offer, well, I feel bad for them. Although some claim it is one of the top three worst airports in the world, the crews are working hard on cleaning it up and organizing the layout better. Although it’s très Americain, I was happy to see they have a Starbuck’s at Terminal 1 that has chairs and fresh food, although I wonder – Why are there no French cafés or non-chain restaurants in there?

Since they asked, how terrific would it be to have a real crêpe at the airport, filled with melted, nutty Comté cheese and a slice of jambon de pays? Or to dig into a platter of spit-roasted chicken accompanied with a petit carafe of of Côte-du-Rhone at an in-airport bistro while passing the hours waiting for your plane to take off? Heck, even a falafel would do. With all those people trapped at the airport, each seems like a no-brainer to me and completely do-able. And while I know that making money and being commercial can sometimes be viewed as a bad thing, on the other hand, let’s say the ideas I’ve been thinking about could be viewed as focusing visitors gaze on the best of France, and reminding locals what their country has to offer.

When I fly out of San Francisco International Airport, I have a choice between wood-fired oven pizza, teriyaki, traditional Italian pastries, sushi, dim sum, or a pretty decent burrito (which is what I always choose, with apologies to those seated next to me on the flight.) London Heathrow, long considered a contender for worst airport in the world, has a caviar bar (mon dieu!…a branch of a French restaurant!), wine bars, a fresh juice bar, and a Gordon Ramsey restaurant. Hong Kong airport has a French Cognac bar, but they don’t have it in France, the land where these exceptional Cognacs are made?

During a recent trip, I stopped over in Newark Airport, which sported a French wine bar, a raw oyster bar, a fresh juice bar, and a sushi bar. The airport in Austin, Texas had a branch of a local barbeque serving up brisket and ribs as well as Amy’s ice cream, two local favorites. O’Hare in Chicago had branches of Vosges chocolate and Garrett’s popcorn, both local favorites. Berghoff’s in the airport makes sandwiches to order, slicing roasted meats directly from the oven. And Rick Bayless runs a Mexican restaurant with freshly made Mexican sandwiches, a guacamole bar, Intelligentsia coffee, tortilla chips, and organic yogurt with a selection of fresh fruits.

ice cream with sprinkles Austin airport

But lest anyone think the trend toward better airport dining is an American thing, I remember entering the airport in Berlin, and as I rounded the corner after the security area, I inhaled something familiar and warm: the smell of yeast and freshly baked bread filling the air. And soon I was standing in front of a full-on working bread oven with sacks of flour off to the side, not for decoration, but which the bakers were dipping in to for flour and grains as they mixed up loaves of bread. Once cooled, the loaves of organic breads were used to make sandwiches to order, with such offerings as country ham, arugula, and sun-dried tomatoes. There was also a machine pressing fresh (organic) oranges for juice.

(Perhaps someone will tell the airport officials to try to get the people who makes those fantastic sandwiches at Le Petit Vendôme to open up a stand at CDG airport. Personally, I would head to the airport early for one of those. And probably grab a second one for the plane ride.)

I’ve also had bowls of udon at Narita airport in Tokyo, San Crispino gelato (Caramel with bits of crackly meringue, if you must know) while waiting for my flight to depart in Rome, and slid a fork into a slice of Bavarian nut-filled torte at Dallmayr in the Munich airport.

So here’s a few things I imagine for The Perfect Airport in Paris:

-A wine bar where people could sit and sample some of the great French wines. With the wines, serve charcuterie platters like they do at the many wine bars in Paris. Nothing could be simpler to serve up and France has some wonderful country hams, sausages, rillettes, and pâtés.

-Speaking of which, who don’t love Champagne? (I, for example, am a huge fan.) Instead of the Champagne producers spending their time (and money) targeting Americans with an advertising campaign featuring Venetian masks, how about getting the Champagne producers together and setting up a Champagne bar for travelers to sip a glass of something that France does exceptionally well?

-It was likely really cool in the 80s but the novelty has worn off. So let’s turn the horrible Plexiglas Escher-esque hamster cage of Terminal 1 into a garden to celebrate the long-standing tradition of French farming. That big, grimy empty space would be an interesting place to grow and expose visitors to some of the lush fruits and vegetables France was always known for. Or how about a demonstration area of how grapes are grown since wine is such an important product of France? It might be kind of goofy to grow grapes at the airport, but if they grown them in Paris (and make wine from them), cru de Roissy just might take off.

-A cheese shop and tasting area. Visitors could get a plate of various cheeses from France, and buy prime examples of those cheeses to bring home rather than the shrink-wrapped specimens unattractively thrown together in the refrigerated bin in the duty-free shop. Although things could get a little stinky, cheese is the number-one greatest thing that no one does better than France. Really.

-How about a chocolate arcade? Get a group of the best chocolate shops in Paris, like La Maison du Chocolat, Patrick Roger, Michel Chaudun, and John-Charles Rochoux, and have a hall with kiosks from chocolates from these masters of chocolate.

Some of them already have kiosks in the department stores in Paris so obviously they’re able to do it successfully. And if Ladurée can have a small cart selling macarons, why not encourage the chocolatiers to do the same? I can’t think of a better place to pick up some last-moment gifts.

(And folks could stop worrying about their chocolates being confiscated by chocolate-loving security agents since they would have already passed through airport security.)

-Open up some tea salons. Paris is famous for its salons de thé, pleasant places to pass the time, such as Mariage Frères, Ladurée, and Angelina. How nice it would be for people will extra time on their hands to sit down and how tea and a light lunch or a pastry before their flight?

-A bar à huitres! France abounds with fresh oysters which get delivered daily from the shores of Brittany, Normandy, and the mid-Atlantique. How about setting up a counter so travelers could enjoy a dozen oysters with some rye bread and extraordinary French salted butter? And Sancerre, mais oui…

-Fire up a bread oven. I can’t imagine anyone not wanting to arrive back home clutching a loaf of real, authentic French bread from Paris. Someone like Eric Kayser, who’s been able to successfully open a multitude of bakeries in Paris (and the United States, Greece…and the Ukraine, Morocco…and Russia, Dubai, Lebanon and Japan…) could have a working oven selling bread and sandwiches made on their fresh bread. Hey, if they can do it thousands of miles away, surely doing it right next to Paris wouldn’t be all that hard.

-A sushi bar. Since I arrived in Paris, the quality of Japanese food has skyrocketed and although the industrial take-outs have invaded the streets, the throngs packing the places on the rue Saint Anne are testaments that authentic Japanese food has won over plenty of Parisians. The food is healthy and light, and places like Matsuri have shown that you can serve sustainable seafood and be a success.

-Fire up a rôtisserie. One of the best things at French markets are the spit-roasted chickens which are hard to screw up and really incredibly easy; you just season the chicken, stick it on the broche, and let ‘em spin until the skin gets nice and crispy. Imagine sitting down to a plate of roast chicken and potatoes cooked in the drippings with a glass of vin de Loire before hitting the walkway to the plane and facing the airline’s version of poulet rôti.



Related Links

Frommer’s Top Ten Airport Restaurants (USA Today)

Grabbing a Bite Between Flights (New York Times)

Best Airport Restaurants (Travel+Leisure)

O’Hare Unveils Airport Aeroponics (American Public Media)

Ultimate Airport Dining Survival Guide: Best Airport Restaurants (Food+Wine)

Airport Dining (Charles de Gaulle Airport Reviews)

130 comments

  • Thank you so much for the link of the “survey”!

    And I do second Alec’s comment on luggage delivery. CDG and Orly are the worst airports I know when it comes to that. Just yesterday we’d been waiting for 10 minutes at Orly when they completely switched off the conveyor belt! (While still flashing “delivery in progress”, bien sûr!)

    I think it was in CDG2 where we had to wait a whole hour even though the plane was docked about ten metres apart outside.

    Since we fly to/from Paris almost once a month we try to pack carry-on- luggage but more often than not that’s not possible. It really is a pain in the a.!

  • David,
    Somehow you’ve became my favorite just because of reading your posts. This comment is not related to this post but I agree that CDG is the worst airport in the world. I wish all your “imaginations” come true!

    P.S. I’m going to buy your books finally. :)

    Janis,
    Latvia

  • Your ideas for food are great – but I have to say that CDG is the most dismal airport I have ever visited. I think even more dismal than the one in Moscow because I envision such beauty in Paris (and the city does not dissappoint). When I arrive at CDG I just move out as quickly as I can and the same for leaving – as I leave the city I go with the mentality that the trip is over. So sad.

  • Not only is CDG one of the worst airports in the ways you mentioned, but if heaven forfend, you are travelling with someone in a wheelchair, be prepared for one nightmare after another. They have 2 wheelchairs in the entire airport, both of which hold people weighing 100 lbs or less only. Fortunately, my mother was a tiny thing. After waiting endlessly for transport, the escalators were all out of service and there were no elevators in the area where we arrived. Plus the usual French attitude at the nerve of us to put them out by wanting to bring someone to Paris who couldn’t walk on her own. No other airport in the world is as ridiculous to navigate in my experience. Even Dulles, which I do rank among the worst, had wheelchairs and working elevators. My mother loved Paris so much, that even knowing she would have to endure CDG, she though it was worth it. All she wanted was one last opportunity to sit at a cafe and watch the world go by.

  • A bread store would be amazing at the airport. How many times I’ve tried to smuggle bread through security in Paris is going to remain my secret, but to be able to buy it freely would possibly allow me to share my love of Parisian bread with my family and friends (if i don’t eat it all before getting off the plane, that is). It would be even better if there was a Breton butter kiosk next door!

    A wine bar, chocolate shop and macaron stand would round it out nicely. Just the thought of this perfect airport is enough for me to ask where I can sign up to be the first patron!

  • David, David, David! I’ve just made your Devil’s Food Cake and EVERYTHING about it is first rate. The ingredients mixed perfectly, the batter cooked to the precise minute, the frosting is restaurant quality and the resulting cake is spectacular. Thank you so much.

  • david, i have a question completely unrelated to this post:

    what happens if you whip ice cream batter (like whipped cream) before churning it? would it make it lighter, or would it just make it weird?

    please let me know, if you get a chance! thanks!

  • Well if you think the food at CDG is abysmal, try LAX or JFK at the non-Jet Blue terminals.
    FYI, there is a La Maison du Chocolat and some very decent options, once you reach the gates for Air France/Delta etc at Terminal 2 (I think it’s 2E). I always spend my last euros buying duty-free La Maison du Chocolat bars before I leave. There’s also some Ladurée outposts.

    Now the problem of course is before you pass security, and if you have to go through Terminal 1 which is the ugliest, crappiest one on Earth, and I did fly out of Bratislava and Detroit airports (speaking of dismal food…)

    There’s also a Flo in one of the Terminal 2, it may be 2C. Decent coffee and croissants, I’ve never tried anything else because I typically fly out in the morning.

    Now the greatest thing at CDG, compared to most US airports, is that a couple of newstands/bookstores actually do stock very good books that are not crappy crime fiction or romance.

  • Oh I AM laughing!!! Scrub as you might, you can’t wash out the American Entrepreneurial spirit! It is alive and well no matter how long you stay in France! All of your ideas are, of course, great! These ideas just pop out of our American heads – we can’t help it… And aren’t they logical… Kudos if you can get any one of them going. I remember the old Orly airport from years ago as having some wonderful things. Of course I hadn’t traveled as much then, so perhaps it was less intriguing then I remember. But, I was quite shocked the first time I landed at CDG and discovered their food services to be as bad as LAX. I really didn’t think there could be two such miserable experiences in the western world. Maybe the only innovation left is at Apple!

  • As one of your flight attendant readers, I’m laughing so hard that there may be wine coming out of my nose. Only might…I don’t waste wine.

    I fly from Africa to Alabama and all points in between (tho I live in SF – props to the food there) and you’d be surprised at the quality of food offerings in airports – or perhaps not. If you can get CDG to upgrade, say to ZRH standards I will owe you bigtime. If you can get them to upgrade to MEM standards, I will vote for you for pope. (Srsly delish bbq.)

  • Some the airports I’ve had only had Burger Kings and mediocre cafes (not Starbucks). Either that, or overpriced $10 salad (extra if you want anything other than two lettuce pieces).

    Japanese food is usually pretty light and satisfying, but some of the fusion rolls I’ve seen have more mayo-sauce than fish. Less of that and more of the authentic stuff, thanks.

  • Of course the HK airport has a French cognac bar. Where else are our nouveau riche mainland Chinese going to stop on their way back to Beijing?

  • CDG is such a nightmare – it seriously needs good food as consolation for anyone who has to use it!

  • Does that sign behind the Amy’s Ice Cream sign really say what it looks like it says??

  • HI David,

    Quick question: I live in Paris and will be flying to the US soon – I’d like to pack cheese from my local shop into my check-in luggage to share with my friends stateside. I’m told this is against US law, and that specially trained sniffer dogs may be used at the airport in the US to detect contraband foodstuffs (such as my cheese). Can you advise, please?

    Many thanks!

  • @Suzanne: no, it says “SALT LICK” (which is a huge lump of rock salt that farmers keep around for their livestock to lick when they feel their sodium levels getting low).

  • Sorry Suzanne, I actually meant @Shaun :p

  • I so agree!! I am so tired of getting Paul sandwiches at the airport. Paris is a city of delicious food and this is what they are showing to the world? By the way, I love Laduree and always get a huge box or macaron to take home but have to say that very often they are not fresh. It really is a shame to arrive in NY, share the treat with a friend, after talking about it for so long, and have them bite into a crunchy hard mess. I think that some things that can be made right at the airport are great but those that have to deliver their product from Paris and don’t do it as often as they should are going to disappoint. I love Heathrow for food, now that Wagamama is there I am a happy traveler. Paris, get your act together.

  • Reports from a friend who was at CDG just yesterday… she wanted to take the Laudree cart at the airport with her. So perhaps Laudree has some kind of presence at CDG?

  • The Honolulu airport is really bad too. With so much fresh ingredients we are subjected to a variety of fast food grease. Kauai’s airport is even worse. Friendly people, not food

  • Yes, yes, yes!! That would make CDG much more bearable. Terminal 2E has loads of French shops: Hermes, Dior etc – great, but more like a modern art display to most travellers and no use when you are looking for an alternative to the crappy self-service restaurant that has disgusting (non-French) food prepared in front of you if you so desire. I think that the airport authorities must make it prohibitively expensive for most businesses to contemplate opening there, which needs to change. If the French tourism industry pushed for the airport to act as an advertisment for the country people might be able to mention the airport’s name without expletives following!

    I hope someone listens to your suggestions – they should ALL be taken up!

  • To connect this topic with another recent post, I was at the airport in Aruba yesterday (I know, I know) and found speculoos at the duty free shop!

  • if all those shops open at the CDG… i just might stay there or ask to be bumped off to a later flight. tee hee hee

  • all lovely ideas- esp the oyster bar. the food is truly abysmal at CDG- why cant they be more like T5 at LHR? I have to say, though, i dont agree w you regarding Rome FCO. I lived there for many years (just moved two years ago) and the food at the airport is atrocious. Even the cornetti are from the supermarket, out of plastic bags. And they have one restaurant which serves pizza (frozen) and french fries- autogrill spizzico, utterly atrocious. x shayma

  • You are right. Many airports have “amped (sp?) up their food choices, since the airlines are not providing food, at least domestically unless you buy on the flight their unappetizing selections. You better eat before that long flight or at least buy something at the airport. Boston Logan has Roger Berkowitz’s Legal Seafoods and their test kitchen, and other good choices. You mentioned Newark which has plenty of food. I saw quite a few interesting selections in Amsterdam’s Schipol, but to say that CDG is lacking is interesting. At one time years ago, even Hartford’s Bradley had a good restaurant …whose name escapes me…that people went out to to dine at on a Saturday night, for the food and watching planes.

  • Now I am starving.. thank you. I’m traveling to Europe for a few months this summer and now all I can think about is.. “I wonder how the airport food in Zurich is….”
    Cheers!