Airport bars: No longer among the saddest places in the world.

No one can argue with the fact that sitting belly to the bar inside an airport is like having a flashing "lonely" sign above your head. Think George Clooney moping his way through "Up in the Air." Or Tom Hanks eating ketchup packets in "The Terminal." Overpriced cocktails, grumpy travelers, missed connections, bad food. Sounds like a soul-sucking experience, to say the least.

On a recent Friday, I finagled my way past security at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and asked bartenders for their thoughts on the way people stereotype airport bars.

"They've been going to the wrong airport bars," said Lisa-Marie Danger Smith, who works every weekend at the airport's version of Ike's Food & Cocktails.

More than 32 million people pass through the Twin Cities airport each year. If you're always rushing to catch your flight, you might have missed what any seasoned traveler will tell you: The bar scene out there isn't what it used to be (and that's a good thing). Our airport is ahead of the curve when it comes to bringing local concepts into the concourses.

These include the new Surdyk's Flights wine bar, French Meadow Bakery, O'Gara's, Axel's Bonfire and two Ike's locations.

"A lot of airports are trying to emulate what we've done here," said Butch Howard, the man in charge of HMS Host, the company that licenses and operates many of the airport's food and drink tenants.

Most of these bars are in Lindbergh Terminal's squeaky-clean mall area, accessible only to travelers and staff (though people picking up passengers might want to check out the pre-security Houlihan's on the ticketing level). One traveler, Oren Mauldin of Seattle, told me: "In the States, I would say this is one of the nicest airports. No nasty '70s carpet."

So, we win in the carpet department. But what about the bars? Even with the apparent influx of creativity and comfort, boozing at the airport still produces its own quirks.

Unlike "streetside" bars (airport lingo for city bars) where business is late-night, these spots close down around 9 p.m. -- except when there's a late flight to Las Vegas. Then it's time to party.

Beer for breakfast

Junior Pantaleo has been bartending since 1979. He has seen the evolution from serving liquor at a makeshift stand in the concourse to his current position at the shiny, antioxidant-cocktail-making French Meadow Bakery. He works the bar's morning shift, which has become much more rewarding lately. In 2009, the airport commission got the state to roll back the start time for liquor service to 6 a.m. (it's 8 a.m. everywhere else). Yep, you can drink out here even before the sun comes up.

"I'd much rather wait on the guy that's drinking at 6 a.m. than someone at midnight," Pantaleo said.

Customers are often affluent (a good thing), in a rush (not a good thing) and wanting to talk (good or bad, depending on whom you get). In this mix are plenty of characters, Pantaleo said (he's one himself). The gregarious bartender is known for flagging down potential customers in the concourse by yelling out, "Cocktails!" However, he cautioned that not everyone should drink at the airport. He still remembers a young man from Alabama who spent his Christmas there chasing a love connection that never panned out.

"I've waited on Jessica Simpson -- twice," Pantaleo said. He also served legendary college basketball coach (and all-around hothead) Bobby Knight: "The most gracious, funny guy you'll ever meet."

Ike's bartender Smith (or Smitty, as she's known) loves hearing travelers' stories from behind the restaurant's granite-top bar.

"Out here, I get to hear stories from all over the world," she said. "Everyone has a story. I always ask them to tell it."

She took a chance on the airport six years ago and never looked back at the streetside bars. "No more bar fights, no bouncers," she said. "Less chaos, less drama."

Even so, bartending at the airport can feel a lot like working on an island. Some bartenders have quit because they couldn't take the security hassles. "This must be the only job where you have to take off your shoes when you get to work," one of them told me.

Conversation starter

You could see her blue martini from a mile away. As a platinum member of Continental Airlines, Laura Weisensell flies almost every week. The Cleveland auditing consultant said watching Clooney in "Up in the Air" was like watching her own life. While the bar scene has changed, flying the friendly skies can still be a bit lonely.

Thus: her neon-bright cocktail. She calls it a "conversation piece," something to get fellow bargoers talking. She meets people, engages them in conversation and then goes on her way. "You really don't have time to form real relationships," Weisensell said. "It's a snapshot in time is how I like to put it."

She came out to the airport a few hours early to drink at Ike's, her favorite spot at MSP. Ike's is a sleek replica of the 1940s-style bar in downtown Minneapolis. Weisensell feels like a regular here, even though she lives 700 miles away.

In this new age of airport bars, I'd call that progress. Well, sort of. We're just talking about airport bars here. These are businesses made out of necessity: People have to fly, people have to wait, people have to drink. Might as well do it in style, right? Maybe the Seattle guy -- the one who praised the airport's lack of bad carpet -- said it best:

"If you have to spend a couple hours someplace, you could do worse."

thorgen@startribune.com • 612-673-7909 • Follow him on Twitter: @tomhorgen