It's a clear day, and the waters of The Woodlands shimmer from 3,000 feet. Piloting a rented Piper Archer III, Yasmina Platt glides through the air, even letting a companion take the wheel of the light little plane for a time as they make their way from the Houston Executive Airport in Brookshire to the Conroe–North Houston Regional Airport. Then Platt circles for a bit, waiting for the go-ahead to begin her descent. The purpose of the 15-minute flight? To eat a delicious burger.
As Platt walks into the airport, a sign directs her to “climb and maintain for 280 feet for good eating.” In other words: take the elevator to the third floor to find the Black Walnut Café, co-owned by airplane enthusiast Haydar Kustu. He meets Platt and a reporter at the restaurant, where they plan to indulge in the ritual known as the “$100 hamburger run.”
The tradition of taking a short plane trip to a nearby small airport—just to have a meal—dates back at least a few decades. Pilot John Purner, who runs 100dollarhamburger.com, a catalogue of the best airport diners, wrote The $100 Hamburger: A Guide to Pilots’ Favorite Fly-In Restaurants in 1998. The $100 number, however, is a bit outdated. Platt calculates that rental costs, plus fuel for a round trip, today costs closer to $130.
While the practice is more about flying than food, one should never underestimate the power of a good burger. “$100 burger joints are getting people excited about aviation,” says Platt, who is both the Central Southwest regional manager for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association and a flight instructor. Since the 1980s, the number of pilots in the United States has declined from 827,000 to a bit over 600,000. Meanwhile, our culture’s food obsession continues to build at a fever pitch.
At Black Walnut in Conroe, it’s clear which crowd Kustu wants to attract: The menu features an actual $100 burger, a seven-ounce Angus chuck patty covered in melted mozzarella, lettuce, onion and tomato and served on an onion bun with fries. It’s well-made if unexceptional, but for $100, diners get the usually-$9 burger, plus a $100 gift card. In effect, that juicy patty is free to anyone who buys the card.
Platt waves to friends, and they gather to chat about their planes as she nibbles on a burger. “It’s like if you meet at a bar and you talk about the parts on your Harley,” she explains. “We’re gonna go flying either way, but that’s our excuse.”
Social media has helped the cause of the $100 hamburger run. Platt says that often when she posts on Twitter and Facebook that she and a few friends are planning on hitting a particular airport, other pilots will take the opportunity to meet up, too. Because of that, it’s not uncommon for a weekend jaunt to turn into something like an aerial tailgate party.
Today is actually a two-$100-run day for Platt. When she leaves Conroe for the Brenham Municipal Airport, it’s clear that she’s not alone in craving one of Southern Flyer Diner’s exquisite malted chocolate milkshakes. In her hands, the Piper sails to the ground almost as though there’s no difference between air and tarmac, onto an airstrip surrounded by bluebonnets. Once inside, the image is less pastoral—at 3 p.m., there’s an hour wait.
“It’s a popular place,” Platt shrugs. Piloting seems to work up an appetite: Finally seated, she gets a plate of catfish to go with her shake, which should sustain her through the half-hour return trip to Brookshire.
The quirky spot, owned along with the airport by Jack Hess, has been on the top of Purner’s list since its 2002 inception for its unbeatable shakes and chipper teenage waitresses in poodle skirts. Even for non-pilots, planes are part of the appeal. A waterside porch here also boasts a view of the airfield, and families gawk as servicemen jump into their helicopters after lunch. Yes, the fried catfish with sweet hush puppies and homemade slaw is worth driving in for, but as the next generation watches diners take off, visions of $100 hamburgers may be dancing in their heads.