Dining at the airport in recent years has taken on an increasingly rarefied air, with coal-fired pizzas and pastries from an award-winning bakery.

But many of the 38 million harried travelers rolling through the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport annually may just crave a cheeseburger from a national chain and “a brownie the size of Nebraska,” said travel industry analyst Henry Harteveldt.

That’s why the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) has launched a $17 million overhaul of the four food courts in Terminal 1 (Lindbergh), including a rebuild of the large communal dining area along the main mall.

The new options — ranging from Peoples Organic to Panda Express — represent “a classic new definition of a food court, which will entail a handful representing really fresh ingredients and a better variety of price points,” said Liz Grzechowiak, the MAC’s assistant director for Concessions and Business Development. The Chili’s restaurant, which closed several years ago to make way for a pub serving local craft beers, is coming back in the revamped food court.

Dining options at airports have become more important to the traveling public as airlines have pared back on complimentary in-flight food offerings and as security has been tightened.

While retooling the broader slate of food and retail offerings at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport over the past two years, the MAC took great care to represent the Twin Cities’ vibrant dining scene. Already, local favorites Red Cow, Black Sheep Coal Fired Pizza, Salty Tart Bakery and others have set up shop, and more are coming in the food court redo, such as PinKU Japanese Street Food, based in northeast Minneapolis.

“We love local [fare], and we had this mantra during planning that the best way to know a culture is through its food,” Grzechowiak said.

“But you have to respect that not everybody is looking for that, and not everybody is looking for a gourmet experience,” she added. “Sometimes people are exhausted and they just want to take the kids somewhere that they can afford what’s quick and familiar.”

Traveling through

Between now and December 2019, each of the food courts in Terminal 1 — along the A, C and F concourses and the mall — will be refurbished, with new brands introduced, while others will be expanded or phased out. It’s the most expansive renovation of the airport’s food court fare in at least a decade.

“This really does need a refresh,” said Linda Larson of Minneapolis, who was sitting at the food court on the C concourse with her niece Sarah Larson on Thursday. “More fresh options would be good, nothing too fried.”

About 35 percent of the travelers at MSP — the nation’s 16th busiest airport — are connecting passengers with a layover. Translation: hungry people with time to kill.

“You will see everybody from the budget traveler to the international premium cabin travelers, old to young, male, female, all ethnicities eating at food courts because they are inexpensive, quick and reliable,” Harteveldt said.

Food courts also appeal to the 19,000 badged employees at the airport who may be looking for more affordable options while on break.

“We don’t fly to a lot of places with food courts,” said Capt. Dylan Brewer of Air Choice One, which serves destinations such as Fort Dodge and Mason City, Iowa, and Ironwood, Mich. But he prefers healthier food options: “It depends on the day.”

While airport food can be more expensive, MAC rules preclude pricing that is more than 10 percent higher than non-airport locations.

“It’s expensive. I don’t use the food court here unless I really need to,” said Alaska resident Greg Naatz, who was visiting family in Minnesota last week. “I bring snacks instead.”

More natural light

Part of the project now under construction involves an ambitious physical renovation of the food court along the main mall of Terminal 1, MSP’s busiest.

The building will be extended toward the airfield and feature a wall of windows a story and a half high to permit more natural light into the food court and the mall thoroughfare, Grzechowiak said.

The wall was inspired by a similar one at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. “It’s a huge, glorious wall of windows that lets in sunlight. People just kind of surround it,” she said.

Harteveldt, of San Francisco-based Atmosphere Research Group, says diners like looking at the airfield “as long as they’re not overlooking an air conditioning or exhaust unit.

“A lot of people are bored by flying, but when they’re looking at the ballet of the airport, with the planes and carts whizzing around, it gives you something to maybe dream about,” he said.

Liquid recycling stations will also be featured at the new food courts — an idea plucked from the Portland International Airport in Oregon. If someone is throwing away a soda still loaded with ice, the ice can be disposed of separately in the liquid station, minimizing the amount of garbage processed at the airport.

“People have really big expectations now,” Grzechowiak said. Not only do they want quality food that’s quick and convenient, they “want to know sustainable elements in food buying are being used,” too.