One of my favorite airport restaurants is the Yankee Clipper, found just off the rotunda of the Marine Air Terminal at La Guardia Airport.
The Marine Air Terminal rotunda is one of the most special places in all of commercial aviation, and having a cool restaurant on hand is a great way to bring people in — if not for the cuisine, to at least appreciate the historic building, with its flying fish relief, art deco detailing, and of course the famous “Flight” mural by James Brooks. The restaurant is owned and run by Rocco Manniello, who has decorated the alcove with a series of historic photos from the days of Pan Am’s flying boats, which once docked just outside.
In my book I say this:
“The next time you’re at La Guardia, check out Rocco Manniello’s Yankee Clipper restaurant over at the Marine Air Terminal. Rocco’s is a cafeteria-style place on the left-hand side of the rotunda. It’s good greasy spoon food with absolutely no corporate affiliation. If Anthony Bourdain ever does a segment on airport food, Rocco’s should be his first stop.”
Well, that was a nice idea. The trouble is, Rocco has really let the place go to hell. On my last three or four visits, I left depressed and disappointed. The restaurant was dirty and swarming with flies. The tables were greasy and the floor looked like it hadn’t been swept in days. A pair of wall-mounted TVs were cranked to eleven, blaring some inane afternoon talk show at the handful of diners (almost exclusively airline employees) trying to enjoy their lunches.
The food? You can only go so wrong with a wrap, I suppose, but the offerings in the steam trays definitely looked like they’d been sitting there too long.
Come on Rocco, you’re ruining my credibility. If Anthony Bourdain isn’t annoyed with me enough already for ripping off the title to his bestselling book (that’d be Kitchen Confidential), he’d surely lose all respect for me should he take my advice and give the Yankee Clipper a try.
It doesn’t need to be this way. It would take only a token bit of effort to get the place in shape. Things like a mop and sponge aren’t exactly major investments. You’ve got a great location, and who doesn’t love those stylish, aluminum-backed chairs? (The chairs are done in the same art-deco style as the building’s window and door frames. Could they possibly be original?)
I hope the Yankee Clipper’s days aren’t numbered. For nostalgia’s sake, sure, but also because it’s one of the few independent restaurants still to be found at an American airport. In fact, it’s one of the few independent anythings still to be found at an American airport. The more our terminals and shopping malls become indistinguishable from one another, the more valuable a place like Rocco’s becomes.
Commissioned in 1952, the James Brooks painting traces the history of aviation from mythical to (then) modern, Icarus to Pan Am Clipper. The style is a less-than-shy nod at Socialist realism, and at the height of ’50s McCarthyism, in a controversy not unlike that surrounding Diego Rivera’s famous mural at Rockefeller Center, it was declared propaganda and obliterated with gray paint. Not until 1977 was it restored.
The Marine Air Terminal is at the far southwest corner of La Guardia airport, directly adjacent to the Delta Shuttle.
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Patrick Smith is an airline pilot and the host of www.askthepilot.com. His new book is “Cockpit Confidential: Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel”.
Photos courtesy of the author.