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Diners like The Airfield Café in North Hampton, New Hampshire or Nancy’s Airfield Café in Stow, Massachusetts are interesting in the same way that Drive-In movie theaters are interesting: there aren’t that many of them, and the persistence and presence of these institutions don’t just reflect the generic New England-like idea of looking at a piece of architecture and deciding to attach something else onto it, but an interesting way of the idea of eating at airports that has existed through the years.
Fine dining came to airports in the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s through a combination of demand and an expectation that restaurants in airports would have significant responsibility for an airport’s overall revenue. In other words: good food aimed not just at travelers, but towards those who might not be traveling at all (with an eye cast towards later converting them into travelers.)
While fine dining obviously exists in airports today — and while the airport in Pittsburgh has moved to let the public hang out in a portion of the airport, amongst a small handful of others — neither of these things are a cheap cup of coffee served with some eggs next to a field of Piper Cubs, Cessna Skyhawks, and more. As a place, the Café is not as defined by class as some of the airport dining experiences of the past, and the lack of that assertion of money feels bracing — that strange relief of realizing you’re worrying about outsized wealth striking a location down while simultaneously knowing that it isn’t nearby, and feeling grateful for it.
“‘Normal’ food sells,” Scott Aversano, the owner The Airfield Café, told me when reached by e-mail. “We always felt good food at reasonable prices will always work even in bad times. And the pilots in our area are very much regular people. I was actually told to close [the place] and change [the] name and raise [the] prices and [change the] style of food but I could not do that as” — amongst other reasons — “I don’t think it works long term.”
The implicit relationship between how the cafe and the airfield physically fit into the landscape seems loaded with such friendly potential that you’re almost surprised when you don’t see more of that potential in action — when you don’t see someone wandering straight from the runaway into the restaurant to have a cup of coffee as someone throws a tarp over the plane outside.
If the pace of The Airfield Café is too frenetic and packed and you have an interest in exploring a few Massachusetts backroads, then you should make your way to Nancy’s Airfield Café in Stowe. Nancy’s Airfield Café has a homemade vibe to it: the interior is filled with light yellow and light green colors amongst wooden tables, chairs, homemade coffee mugs, and scatterings of Christmas lights. The airport and the cafe are surrounded by trees. When I visited the café near the end of September, I was able to watch a harvester carry a boxload of pumpkins with its lift parallel to the runway while the titular Nancy herself roamed around with what seemed to be a friendly word. A plane landed, pulled up near the café to pump some gas, and someone working in an office attached to the café went out with a clipboard to say hello.
Families may have started to stop going to airport restaurants in the 1970’s, but there are still families visiting both cafés. You hear them say things like, “Good to see you.” And folks watch the planes come and go.