Five pilots sat around a table over lunch recently, discussing gumbo, cargo flights out of Winnipeg and getting stuck in a holding pattern. They were at Ardmore Municipal Airport in Oklahoma watching planes come and go from the dining room at Jake's Joint.
The chef-driven restaurant adjacent to the runway there is known for its blue-plate specials. This day’s was gumbo and fried shrimp po’ boys with a remoulade sauce, but they’d run out of gumbo by 12:30 p.m. Tall burgers and thick chicken-fried chicken sandwiches had to do.
No one complained.
Pilot Ashley Blythe and I had ascended from Arlington Municipal Airport about an hour earlier in his 1966 Beechcraft Bonanza V35 V-tail, which employs almost all the same instruments it had when it rolled off the assembly line some 54 years ago. We were flying “vintage.” The radio frequencies were manually dialed in, connecting us to the eyes in the sky, the Fort Worth Air Route Traffic Control Center.
While cruising along at 3,500 feet just north of Fort Worth, Blythe requested permission from air traffic control to climb to 5,500 feet. They kindly told him to sit tight and alerted him to a passenger plane that was 6 miles out and would soon pass above us.
We waited, happy to be patient and, me personally, amazed at the air traffic controllers’ complete awareness of the sky. Soon a large, blue and orange plane appeared to our northwest and flew overhead. Afterward, we climbed.
Thinking that the more I knew, the more relaxed I'd be — this being my first flight in a small private plane — I asked, “Why did you want to climb from 3,500 to 5,500 feet?”
“Because if something does go wrong,” answered Blythe, “there’s more time to take care of it at 5,500 feet.”
But I wasn’t there to get an education on safe flying altitudes. I was there to learn about $100 hamburgers. I tried to stay focused on that. And the ground.
A $100 hamburger is a generic term used by pilots who fly for an hour or so, grab a bite to eat — not necessarily a hamburger — then fly back home. There was a time when such an endeavor, with gas and food, cost about $100. Thus, a “$100 hamburger.” Now it costs a bit more, depending on the distance, but the original phrase has stuck.
These are mostly general aviation pilots flying to smaller regional airports for hobby or students accumulating flight hours. We’re not talking about those ferrying passengers into Dallas Love Field or Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.
Lunch at Jake’s included a mix of pilots. One was an aspiring commercial pilot; one was an air traffic controller; one flies cargo planes (he was off-duty and flew on his own that day); along with a couple of pilots who just appreciate a good meal.
As it turns out, a bevy of food gems the aviation community is partial to flies right under our radar. Some of these restaurants are right next to runways, while others may require a pilot to hop in a “courtesy car,” a spare vehicle kept at airports for errands or lunch.
Four local pilots were kind enough to share their top three favorite restaurants for $100 hamburgers, 12 in all, most of them not far from North Texas. No matter how you get there, all these places would make for a fulfilling road trip. Or perhaps it’s an excuse to take your first discovery flight.
Pilot Christy Wong
The sky was clear blue, and the air was cold but calm as Wong and I stood on the tarmac at Grand Prairie Municipal Airport. We were looking at her Piper Warrior II, which she adoringly calls the “Wong Warrior.” We’d just finished lunch, cheeseburgers at the Radial Cafe inside the small terminal.
On the runway ahead of us, a white and blue Cessna was practicing touch-and-goes, a common training maneuver for student pilots, landing and then immediately taking off again.
To our west, an enormous, white 777 appeared in the sky banking north, probably lining up for a runway at DFW Airport. It was a beast. Wong, whose face is framed by blond curls, looked up at the huge vessel and a bright smile spread across her face.
She pointed to the plane, turned to me and said, “My dream is to fly that.”
A wave of nausea floated through me. But, for the past year, Wong, 37, has been on a dogged mission to complete her 1,500 hours and various exams needed to become a commercial pilot. And she’s almost there. Her ultimate goal, 15 to 20 years down the road, is to be a captain on a 777.
Wong’s favorite $100 hamburgers:
The Beacon CafeHicks Airfield
171 Aviator Drive, Fort Worth
Miles from downtown Dallas: 43
When you first drive into Hicks Airfield, it seems like you’re headed straight for the runway. But, no worries. You’re safe. Follow the signs to the far end of the landing strip to The Beacon Cafe, where cars squeeze into a small parking lot and airplanes park wherever they want. Once inside, diners can watch planes take off and land between bites of French toast and sips of coffee.
The Beacon Cafe is a truly unique dining experience, and they know how to brunch. All the standard requirements like an omelet bar, mounds of bacon, biscuits and fruit are part of the setup. But the star of the show is the pineapple upside-down pancake with chunks of fruit, a caramel drizzle and a fluffy scoop of butter on top.
Brunch is only on the weekends ($14.99 for adults, $7.99 for kids 10 and younger). The weekday menu has omelets, breakfast classics, huevos rancheros, dirty eggs and hash, and a protein plate. Chef’s specialties include a Reuben sandwich, steak and cheese, a chicken (sous vide) Philly, The Chuck Norris (a half-pound BLT) and The Texan, which is a hot ham-and-cheese sandwich made with raspberry French toast.
Open 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.
Radial CafeGrand Prairie Municipal Airport
3116 S. Great Southwest Parkway, Grand Prairie
Miles from downtown Dallas: 20
The Radial Cafe sits inside the fixed-base operator (FBO), which is like a small terminal sans the security lines. Pilots park their planes within 25 feet of the cafe door, while people who arrive via car park in the lot on the other side of the FBO. Anyone can eat at the Radial Cafe, no screening or boarding pass necessary.
A wall of glass separates the dining area from the runway, making it a great place to watch airplanes and helicopters come and go. There’s also outside seating for when the weather is nice. The airport is popular for private jets, and with a helipad and support facilities for training, there’s usually a good amount of activity.
The Radial Cafe is a walk-up counter where breakfast and lunch are made to order. The lunch menu has a variety of big, juicy burgers, chicken-fried steak and the daily specials, including enchiladas or tacos. Seems like this spot would be more popular locally, but most people probably don’t even realize it’s there.
Open 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Closed Sunday.
Delta Charlie’sDallas Executive Airport
5303 Challenger Drive, Dallas
Miles from downtown Dallas: 9
Originally known and still often referred to as Red Bird Airport, this southern Dallas facility has been welcoming planes since 1947. Delta Charlie’s, inside the FBO, is popular for its “Dinner and Flight” experience, which includes a three-course meal and an aerial tour of the Dallas skyline with a private pilot.
Whether or not you want to take a whirl in an airplane, you should check out Delta Charlie’s. Once again, patrons arrive in both planes and cars. The large sandwich plates passing through the dining room are head-turners — like the house-made meatloaf sandwich, grilled with cheddar cheese on Texas toast. The salads are fresh and replete, and the Texas catfish plate was very popular on a recent visit.
Open 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.
Pilot Jeff Biehler
Biehler learned to fly after his heavy metal band Maleveller broke up.
“I had more free time and was looking for something else exciting to do,” Biehler says. “I watched the documentary Iron Maiden: Flight 666 and thought how cool that would be to fly your band around the world.”
In the documentary, lead singer Bruce Dickinson, clad in a full commercial pilot uniform, flies his bandmates to gigs from one corner of the planet to the other in a 747 jet.
“So, one day I went out to flight school at Addison Airport and told them I wanted to take off and land a plane. I did both in two flights, and I haven’t stopped flying since,” says Biehler, who has since earned his private pilot’s license and is working on his instrument ratings, which is a series of tests all pilots must pass to advance in their training.
Biehler’s favorite $100 hamburgers:
Weezy’sCox Field Airport
204 W. Front St., Blossom
Miles from downtown Dallas: 115
Biehler found this spot after flying into Paris, Texas. His flight instructor hopped in the courtesy car and drove east to Blossom, where they hung a left at the only stoplight in town.
Weezy’s has a fun small-town vibe. Friday night lights memorabilia and Little League team photos adorn the walls, all of which is as comforting as the food. The house cheeseburger, called the Cheesy Weezy, is served with a bag of chips and a pickle spear for only $4.99. The patty is juicy and flavorful, fresh cut vegetables add heft and the toasted buns provide a slight crunch.
The most popular item on the menu is the chicken-fried steak, which comes in either a small or a large covers-the-entire-plate portion.
Weezy’s has a $5.99 daily lunch special, which on Fridays is catfish, hush puppies, fries and coleslaw. Saturday night is steak and shrimp served with two sides for $12.99. You’d be remiss to skip the fried pies, which are made in-house from scratch.
Open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Closed Sunday.
Red Barn CafeSulphur Springs Municipal Airport
1310 N. Hillcrest Drive, Sulphur Springs
Miles from downtown Dallas: 80
The Red Barn Cafe sits just across the highway from the Sulphur Springs Municipal Airport. First thing you need to know is that this is strictly a cash-only operation. According to online reviews, many pilots fly into this airport just to eat at the Red Barn Cafe, and for good reason.
For 20 years, the Scherer family has been serving home-cooked meals such as smothered steak, meatloaf, enchiladas, chicken spaghetti, hamburger steaks, fried pork chops and taco salads. They’ve had the same chef testing and perfecting recipes since day one. Everything from the batters and dressings to the daily specials are made from scratch. They also serve breakfast all day.
The big sign out front hasn’t weathered well, but you can’t miss this spot as it is literally across the street from the airport.
Open 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday.
The SpreadShreveport Downtown Airport
711 Horseshoe Blvd., Bossier City, Louisiana
Miles from downtown Dallas: 190
When Biehler’s looking to test his luck, he flies into Shreveport and eats at The Spread, an all-you-can-eat buffet inside Horseshoe Bossier City, before hitting the craps table.
In general, casino buffets are something on which you might want to hedge your bets, but Horseshoe puts some effort into its spread, calling the buffet one giant “gourmet meal.”
On Saturday and Sunday, the focus is brunch (8 a.m. to 4 p.m., $18.99), and Friday and Saturday they have a Seafood Extravaganza from 4 o 10 p.m. ($32.99). The Spread recently added new daily Caribbean and sushi dishes, as well.
Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday; 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Pilot Ashley Blythe
Blythe’s dad loved to fly. When he was young, his father would strap the boy’s car seat into the back of a plane and take him along on flying adventures.
“He didn’t get to keep doing it after I was about 10 years old, flying is an expensive hobby, but the vague memories of the sounds, smells and the sensation of flying never fully escaped me,” Blythe says. “About 10 years ago, my friend Chad asked if I wanted to go flying and get some breakfast in Sulphur Springs (at the Red Barn Cafe), and it all came back to me and reminded me how much I enjoyed flying.
“In 2015, I started the process and became a student all over again with the Private Pilot Ground School,” says Blythe, 42. “I found an instructor that summer and took my first official lesson. As a self-confessed nerd and lover of all things science, I loved learning about aviation, the weather, aerodynamics, systems. All of it is exciting to me.”
Blythe’s favorite $100 hamburgers:
Jake’s JointArdmore Municipal Airport
620 General Drive, Ardmore, Oklahoma
Miles from downtown Dallas: 125
About a 2-hour drive from Dallas, or a 20-minute flight, chef-driven Jake’s Joint sits right on the runway. Updated weekly, the menu includes anything from fish sandwiches to fried mac-and-cheese, chicken-fried chicken with country gravy and a bacon-avocado sandwich that might be enough to persuade you to take up flying.
Larry Core is the chef at Jake’s Joint and explains that the owner, Jerry Allan King-Echevarria (whose initials spell "Jake"), wanted a restaurant where his employees at the Ardmore facility of King Aerospace Commercial Corp. could get a quick meal and a place where he could entertain his customers. Chef Core, a graduate of Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, has worked in high-profile kitchens, jets and yachts around the world.
The only disappointing aspect is that this spot is only open for lunch during the week.
Open 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday. Closed weekends.
Hard Eight Pit BBQStephenville Clark Regional Airport
1091 Glen Rose Road, Stephenville
Miles from downtown Dallas: 99
Hard Eight Pit BBQ opened its first restaurant in Stephenville in 2003. Since that time, they’ve expanded into a handful of locations around Dallas-Fort Worth, but at least a half-dozen pilots I spoke to for this article said they prefer this original spot. Sounds like a perfect excuse to do two things they love: eat barbecue and fly.
So many customers fly into the Stephenville Clark Regional Airport just to eat at Hard Eight that the restaurant regularly sends a car to retrieve pilots. About 20 times a week, in fact. After a pound of brisket, potato salad, jalapeño sweet corn and fresh pie, pilots surely need more speed for the liftoff on the return flight.
Open 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday.
The Runway CafeTexas Gulf Coast Regional Airport
7915 Airport Way, Angleton
Miles from downtown Dallas: 286
The Runway Cafe, about 45 miles south of downtown Houston, is a destination for pilots craving seafood but is also a great place for anyone to watch airplanes come and go. Chef Yanara Ou is originally from Cambodia, and his dishes are a colorful, cultural mix of the Texas Gulf Coast, Mexico and Asia. Plus steak.
The daily specials here are hard to beat. Recently, a whole fried catfish (tail on) with fries and a salad or coleslaw was available for just $8.99. Other specials include grilled frog legs, pork chops, two pieces of fried catfish and stuffed crab, Mexican soup (caldo de camaron) and pad Thai. But, certainly don’t skip over the Lucy Juicy Burger or what Yanara claims is “the best gumbo in the area.” The T-bone steak is served with a baked potato, grilled veggies and a salad or coleslaw for $18.99. Yanara also makes homemade desserts.
Open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday through Saturday.
Pilot Jared Levy
Levy, 42, grew up in Philadelphia. His grandfather was a World War II pilot, and his father worked at Philadelphia International Airport, which meant he had a lot of exposure to planes and the aviation community from an early age. He learned to fly when he was a teenager, and it’s been a hobby ever since.
“I’ll take my friends and family on vacations,” Levy says. “I also act as a co-pilot in a multitude of different aircrafts, all around the country.”
Levy explains that all pilots have to constantly keep up on their training. In fact, he just completed his bi-annual flight review and medical examination to ensure he was fit to fly his “baby,” a French-made Socata TB-20, for Taco Tuesday.
Levy’s favorite $100 hamburgers:
Stumpy’s Lakeside GrillGranbury Regional Airport
2323 S. Morgan St., Granbury
Miles from downtown Dallas: 71
Stumpy’s is in sort of a unique classification here because, while it’s not on a runway, it’s a spot that Levy flies to for a specific meal. This lakeside restaurant makes their tacos “la costra” style, á la Mexico City; the cheese is placed directly on the griddle, allowing it to melt and turn slightly crisp. The result is pure Taco Tuesday greatness.
Stumpy’s is located at Lake Granbury Marina, about a mile south of U.S. Highway 377. Eating here is a full-family event. Guests can shop, feed ducks, indulge in cupcakes from the bakery or imbibe a frozen margarita from the bar, all while enjoying the lake view.
If Tuesday doesn’t work for you, then Fridays are rib night and Saturdays are an ode to brisket tacos.
Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday; closed Monday.
Spoons CafeMcKinney National Airport
100 E. Louisiana St., McKinney
Miles from downtown Dallas: 36
Spoons in downtown McKinney sits in a restored 1920s-era Texas Power and Light Co. building. Karen Klassen opened this spot in 2004 with zero experience in the restaurant industry. On her website, she explains she pulled an oven out of her own home to get this place started. Fifteen years later, Spoons is thriving.
The four-page menu starts with breakfast, which is served all day, and ends with Texas Size Frito Chili Pie ($10). The theme is home cooking, including thick pies, from-scratch soups, burgers, sandwiches, salads and a handful of other entrees, like enchiladas, chicken tetrazzini and King Ranch casserole. Spoons also has a full bar with wine, beer and craft cocktails.
Open 7:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Black Walnut CafeConroe-North Houston Regional Airport
2971 Hawthorne Drive, Conroe
Miles from downtown Dallas: 202
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Black Walnut Cafe is best known for brunch. And while there are seven locations throughout the state, including a few in North Texas, the Conroe spot is on the third floor of the FBO at the Conroe-North Houston Regional Airport, offering a great view of airplanes parked below and of the runway. Even better is when the weather is nice and the patio is open.
If you’re able to pass on the caramel apple French toast (but why would you?) or any of the delicate poached egg dishes, then you can order an actual $100 Hamburger, which includes a $100 gift card (hamburger not included).
Here each burger is made with a half-pound of ground brisket and chuck, piled with American cheese, lettuce, tomato and house-made pickles with a brioche bun that is slathered with a spicy mustard mayonnaise.
Open 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily.