LAX hopes to give taste buds quite a ride

Can Los Angeles’ world-class culinary magic bring new spice to the drab corridors of LAX? City leaders are about to find out.

This week airport officials began unveiling a long-awaited series of bids to replace the dated fast-food restaurants and retail shops that for years have greeted travelers at Los Angeles International Airport.

LAX food proposals: An article in Section A on April 16 about restaurants proposed for Los Angeles International Airport stated that Jorge Rodriguez is co-owner of La Serenata de Garibaldi. Rodriguez’s brother and sister-in-law, Jose and Aurora Rodriguez, are owners of the restaurant. Jorge assists with public relations. In addition, the article said Los Angeles chef Susan Feniger planned to open Border Grill Taqueria but failed to identify Feniger’s partner in the venture, chef Mary Sue Milliken. —

In their place, they hope to highlight some of the city’s most renowned chefs and make the first L.A. experience of tourists and business executives more than a mad dash for planes, bags and taxis.

Inside Terminal 7, chef Nancy Silverton would like to open Spuntino, an Italian snack bar where passengers would nosh on focaccia, cured meats, and pressed sandwiches with bread from La Brea Bakery.

“I want to avoid the cheesiness of what we think of as fast food,” Silverton said. “Quick doesn’t have to mean bad.”

Bertha’s Soul Food, one of the oldest establishments of its type of Los Angeles, is ready to start cookin’ in Terminal 4.

For lighter fare, coffee and tasty beignets would be offered at the L.A. Mill, whose owner has partnered with chef Michael Mina. Travelers also might be able to buy freshly baked pastries from the reformed gang members at Homeboy Industries, founded by Father Gregory Boyle, or decompress in a terminal spa before or after their flights.

At LAX on Thursday, John Andreshias, a 52-year-old sales executive, said he welcomed the overhaul. He was waiting for his flight in Terminal 4, where the dining options included a Chili’s Too and a Burger King.

“It’s good to get rid of some of the chains,” Andreshias said. “I want more opportunity than a greasy chicken sandwich or a greasy burger.”

The proposals come from a variety of companies and entrepreneurs vying for 10 coveted food, beverage and retail contracts that involve 42 locations inside the third-busiest commercial airport in the nation -- one with a reputation for being not so passenger-friendly.

On Thursday, LAX officials unveiled the contenders that airport staff has recommended for contracts after evaluating competitive bids.

If approved by airport commissioners and the City Council in the weeks ahead, the new contracts would represent a dramatic change for an airport whose officials were once reluctant to turn LAX into anything resembling a shopping mall.

“The goal is to have some real capital improvements, make our concessions more physically attractive, increase revenue and give the airport the feel of L.A.,” said Alan Rothenberg, president of the Board of Airport Commissioners.

Rothenberg and other airport leaders hope the first overhaul of LAX concessions since 1995 will help reverse the airport’s sagging reputation among travelers, who have repeatedly griped about mediocre dining, aging terminals, traffic congestion and long security lines.

For years, the public has rated the airport average or below average in consumer questionnaires. In the latest J.D. Power survey of airport quality, passengers ranked LAX 19th out of the 20 largest airports in the United States. The restaurants, fast-food outlets and beverage stands were given two stars out of five.

“This is a great thing,” said Kathy Briski, president-elect of the Los Angeles Business Travel Assn., who flies out of LAX weekly. “I’d like to have something more than Starbucks for breakfast.”

Within the next few weeks, airport commissioners will begin selecting the restaurateurs and retailers for Terminals 4, 5, 7 and 8. Bidding for Terminals 1, 2, 3, and 6 is expected in the months ahead. The Tom Bradley International Terminal will be addressed later.

Among recommended contenders are Areas USA, the Miami-based subsidiary of a Spanish company that serves 73 airports around the globe; a joint venture involving former Lakers star Magic Johnson; XpresSpa, which operates spas at 14 major airports; SSP America Inc., whose parent company serves hundreds of airports and railroad stations in 34 countries; and THS/Marbella Food Service Partnership IV.

Gone from the preferred list or relegated to smaller roles in the current bids are HMS Host Corp., Delaware North Cos. and the Hudson Group, the master concessionaires that held long-term contracts to manage nearly all the airport’s beverage, food and retail outlets.

These companies provided the airport with well-known brands such as Wolfgang Puck, Karl Strauss and California Pizza Kitchen, but those concessions, LAX officials say, are almost 15 years old.

Airport leaders now want more options and better food in a setting that appeals to the 57 million airline passengers that use LAX annually.

“The airport needs upgrades and change; this is what we represent,” said Xavier Rabell, chief executive officer of Areas USA. “We will bring the right mix of local concepts, innovation, variety and sense of place to LAX so people can see what Los Angeles is all about.”

Each finalist has put together a package of restaurants, fast-food outlets, beverage stands, travel services and retail stores. Their offerings include 27 restaurants -- 12 from Los Angeles and 10 from other areas of Southern California.

The list of proposed restaurants is a microcosm of the local dining scene, from big names such as Silverton, who co-owns Hollywood’s Pizzeria Mozza and Osteria Mozza with celebrity chef Mario Batali, to small businesses such as the Westside’s Buttercake Bakery, which specializes in buttercream-smeared cupcakes.

“We endeavored to bring the names, the icons in the culinary world of Los Angeles,” says Pat Carroll, vice president of brands and concepts for SSP America, whose bid includes 15 restaurants and concessions -- more than half of the potential new restaurants that could arrive at LAX by 2011.

Other possibilities include Geisha House, M Cafe de Chaya, Border Grill Taqueria from chef Susan Feniger, Koreatown favorite Park’s Bar-B-Q, Joachim Splichal’s Market Cafe and Nick + Stef’s Steakhouse, 25 Degrees, Groundwork Coffee, Panda Express and Peet’s Coffee & Tea.

Travelers in Terminal 5 might pick up empanadas and tortas courtesy of La Serenata de Garibaldi, a well-known Boyle Heights restaurant. Co-owner Jorge Rodriguez says his brother, chef Jose Rodriguez, has already created two new salsas for the occasion, habanero papaya and almond raspberry habanero.

“They call him the master of salsas in Los Angeles,” Rodriguez said.

Rod White, the current owner of 45-year-old Bertha’s Soul Food, is no less excited at the prospect of opening an outpost in the Delta Air Lines terminal. “The southern route,” he quipped.

“For us to be able to say you’re going to take oxtails, take greens, take macaroni and cheese on the plane with you, it’s historic,” White said. “Now, for the very first time, African American cuisine will be represented at LAX. That’s a godsend.”