These Military Base Food Courts Are Beyond Impressive

Military bases aren't always austere places fortified behind walls and closed off from the rest of civilization. On the contrary, most modern-day bases are filled with things to do and places to go. Many are home to food courts, much like those found in residential shopping malls. Living on a military base, as either an active duty soldier or a family member of one, can make people homesick. Food courts and other communal gathering spaces can be comforting to people who are new to military life or have been stationed at a base for a long while. A lot of military base food courts are open to the general public and tend to draw in crowds — especially the good ones.

The food courts on bases are part of a retail service system known as the Exchange. An Exchange offers meal variety beyond what is served in traditional base dining halls, but we have to mention that some military dining halls have an ambiance and menus that surpass what you might expect from the armed forces. Exchanges typically stick to the same fast food restaurants in their food courts — think Subway and Panda Express. But some outshine others by offering a little extra — be it a more impressive interior, creative seasonal events, or a few additional dining choices. Let's look at the military food courts (and a couple of dining halls too) that make the base a little less basic.

The food court at Texas' Fort Bliss is pretty blissful

There is no shortage of options at the Army and Air Force Exchange (AAFES) food court found at Fort Bliss. The AAFES is a mini-mall found on many American military bases throughout the world and is home to a plethora of food court restaurants, but if you've visited more than one Exchange, you've probably noticed that the chain restaurants featured are usually the same, or very similar. With more than 2,400 international AAFES locations, Fort Bliss stands out. The Exchange at this Texan base has one of the most comprehensive food court selections on any base in the States. It's also a lot prettier inside and out.

Fort Bliss' food court is located within Castner Range, a portion of the Franklin Mountains that has been declared by President Biden as a national landmark. The food court is part of an open-concept marketplace known as Freedom Crossing. It was the first large-scale military shopping center to be open to the general public, thereby providing a greater sense of community throughout the base. The building project broke ground in 2009 and put a focus on using recycled materials and the results are impressive. Along with a solid roster of casual food court spots, Fort Bliss Exchange is home to a Texas Roadhouse, Buffalo Wild Wings, and Happy's Irish Pub and Grill.

The Ramstein Air Base food court was the first of its kind

Some military base food courts offer a fraction of the food choices you might see in a typical shopping mall while others go beyond it. The Ramstein Kaiserslautern Military Community Center (KMCC) is in Ramstein-Miesenbach, Germany. It offers one of the most impressive exchange food courts in existence. Ramstein Air Base's Exchange is the largest in Europe and was the first ever to bear the official Exchange logo. The facility's soaring windowed ceilings, gleaming white pillars, and flurry of special events and guest vendors have earned it a reputation as one of the best on any U.S. military base in the world. Food court offerings are plentiful here and range from American fast casual classics like Taco Bell, and Five Guys to lesser-known, somewhat lighter options like Spudz and Bun-D. Visitors can also swing by the Coffee Bike for an authentic cappuccino and or indulge their sweet tooth with a dessert or pastry from Barbarossa Bakery.

Soldiers (and their families) who are stationed on Ramstein Air Base don't always have to rely on the permanent storefronts in the food court because the many different events hosted there often involve food and drinks. Depending on the week, you could pair an evening of shopping with a whisky or beer tasting and sample gelato from a pop-up shop. You may also want to saunter outside, where food trucks are known to be lined up on the pavement selling gyros, Jamaican cuisine, Filipino Food, and more.

Fort Campbell in Kentucky has Panera Bread — a military base food court rarity

Fort Campbell is perhaps best known as the military base where a young Jimi Hendrix was stationed, but it should also earn credit for amping up its food court game. Made-to-order omelets and healthy lunch options are for the taking at Hot Pita, an outpost of the Exchange concession. In the fall of 2021, Fort Campbell became the first military base to open a Panera Bread in its food court. Within the past few years, the armed forces have sought to modernize grab-and-go food choices for military members and families. In addition to the opening of Panera Bread, Fort Campbell has also set up new food kiosks equipped with nutritionally-minded, fresh-made entrees, sandwiches, and salads that have been a big hit with base residents. As part of this modernization, the U.S. Army has also developed a line of food trucks called The Culinary Outpost. This food truck debuted on the Fort Campbell base in 2021, cooking simple food like cheeseburgers for diners. The Culinary Outpost can still be found on other U.S. bases but hasn't been active on Fort Campbell as much these days — good thing there are so many good alternatives at the food court.

Wilderness Inn of Anchorage Alaska is an award-winning dining hall

The Wilderness Inn dining hall facility, referred to in military shorthand as DFAC has stepped up its game in recent years. After a full remodel in 2016, Wilderness Inn can seat over 300 diners at once with the addition of booths and high-top tables. The interior is spacious, charmingly rustic, and the menu is well-considered. The effort put forth by Elmendorf-Richardson, the joint base shared by the United States Army and Air Force, shows. This dining hall received the Philip A. Connelly Award, an acknowledgment given by the armed forces for its exemplary facility and food preparation. Sure, there's a decent Exchange on this Anchorage base, but considering the formal accolades, Wilderness Inn might be cooking up a more satisfying meal.

The food at Wilderness Inn is served cafeteria style, but the menu is crafted with more care than the military mess halls of yore. Rotating menus feature selections like tempura fried fish, garlic-roasted potato wedges, and glazed carrots for lunch. Dinner may be comprised of sauteed spinach, roasted brussel sprouts, rosemary roast pork, spicy baked fish, rice pilaf, and roasted sweet potato wedges. Patrons of Wilderness Inn are treated to a taco bar one night and a Mongolian bar the next. There are crab boils, holiday-themed meals, and daily hearty breakfasts. Wilderness Inn even offers customized 30-day meal plans to those trying to watch their weight.

The food court at Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam is a top seller

So far, all of the Exchange food courts we've talked about are part of the AAFES division, but other military branches have Exchange groups of their own. For example, the NEX, which stands for Navy Exchange, is exclusive to naval bases while the MCX, short for Marine Corps Exchange, is exclusive to marine corps bases. Pearl Harbor Hickam is a joint base in Honolulu, Hawaii where service members from both the Navy and Air Force are stationed. That means there is an AAFES Exchange and a NEX, both of which have sizeable food courts. On the Peal Harbor Hickam base, NEX is the standout.

The first thing you'll probably notice when you step inside the NEX building is the deep blue mural on the dome ceiling depicting humpback whales and dolphins swimming underwater, an immersive ode to the magnificence of the Pacific Ocean on which the base sits. There are many options at the NEX food court including more unique picks like Yummy's Korean BBQ, Sumo Sushi, and a pop-up shop from classic Hawaiian bakery The Cookie Corner. Between the exceptional food court and the many shops, it's no wonder Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam won the Bingham Award in 2021 as a recognition of its outstanding sales numbers — which totaled $50 million for the fiscal year.

Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek South Korea has something for everyone

South Korean base Camp Humpherys is the largest overseas American base with 36,500 people calling it home. In 2017, a brand new Exchange was introduced to the premises, and the locals arrived in droves. Arby's, Dunkin', Auntie Annie's, Pizza Hut, and the like are to be expected from an Exchange at this point, but these aren't the only food court picks at Camp Humphreys. Joayo and Don Chicken by Korea Place is a genuine Korean fried chicken franchise that's sure to draw hungry customers looking for some comfort food. Family breakfast at The Original Pancake House can make everyone at the table happy, where crepes with fresh fruit, pancake flavors galore, and various egg specialties are just a portion of the menu.

With such an abundance of food court restaurants on Camp Humphreys, it might seem like eating there means you have to embrace fatty food. But that isn't the case. Camp Humphreys is a part of the Be Fit 360°program that is committed to giving military members and their families a plethora of healthier food options at most food court outposts. In conjunction with Be Fit 360° Joayo sells roasted half and whole chickens rather than the traditional fried version and Subway offers protein bowls for those who want to cut back on carbs.

Fort Cavazos in Killeen, Texas has a new name and a lot of food court options

Those well-versed in domestic U.S. military bases probably know the name Fort Hood, which as of May 2023 has been renamed Fort Cavazos after Mexican American and Texas native Richard Vavazos, the first ever Latino four-star General. What you may or may not know is that Fort Cavazos has several expansive food courts providing more fast-casual offerings than most military bases. Yes, you've got your Burger King, Starbucks, Domino's, and Pizza Hut but you could also satisfy a fast food craving with Jack in the Box or Jimmy Johns — two chains that can't be found at your average military food court. There are also a few atypical restaurants that set the Exchange at Fort Cavazos apart. For instance, there's Cafe Baklava, which offers tasty Turkish meals like falafel wraps, stuffed eggplant, and of course, baklava for dessert. Just be advised it's only open on weekdays. Feel like chicken but tired of Popeyes? Why not try Slim Chickens, specializing in all kinds of chicken dishes, from sandwiches, wraps, and salads to the crowd-pleasing chicken and waffles? Looking for something super healthy on your lunch break? Freshëns Food Studio is your go-to for nourishing smoothies, grilled flatbread, high-quality meatless protein dishes, and delicious rice bowls. We venture to guess that General Cavazos would have liked to eat a meal here.

Schofield Barracks packs in new eateries but still honors its Hawaiian roots

Hawaii's big island has quite a few military base Exchanges, but Schofield Barracks holds its own by consistently bringing new eateries to the food court. So far in 2023, there have been grand openings for Moe's Southwest Grill and Cake Dreams Bakeshop— the latter is the latest business venture from Hawaiian natives Nixon and Cori, the season three winners of the Netflix competition show "Sugar Rush". Before that, Bing Bros joined the party, selling Asian-inspired wraps and bowls. In 2021, Schofield Exchange delighted children all over the base by introducing Raising Cane's to the food court, an eatery that mainly focuses on chicken fingers.

Food court patrons also enjoy Hi Blend, a Schofield Exchange exclusive that serves smoothies, fresh juices, acai bowls, and other diet-friendly fares. As we've seen the best Exchange food courts host many events year after year, and Schofield's is no different. Goodie bags are passed out on Mother's Day, and an afternoon's worth of food and activities are planned in honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.

Utah's Hill Air Force Base puts local eateries in its food court

One of the biggest challenges for military base food courts is to not be a clone of every other Exchange facility. This is a difficult feat because there are only so many fast food joints that have the proper contracts to operate at an Exchange. Luckily, if you're stationed at Hill Air Force Base in Utah, you'll get some more interesting places to dine at the food court. One of those places is misoYUM, a popular food truck fleet in Utah that sells takeout boxes of Asian classics. In the spring of 2023, Beto's joined the food court lineup at Hill. Beto's is a local Mexican fast-casual restaurant with numerous locations in Utah that prides itself on serving awesome breakfast and lunch items made with natural ingredients.

Another unsung perk to food courts like the one at Hill is the presence of booths in its seating area. Having a meal at a booth seat makes the space feel more modern while also creating space for a larger number of guests. So whether you're stopping at Starbucks for a morning coffee or trying out Beto's or misoYUM for the first time, you'll have room to spread out in the food court dining area.

New arrivals keep things fresh at Fort Meade, Maryland

As we've seen, many military bases strive to bring variance and intrigue to its food courts and that's exactly what Fort Meade in Maryland is doing. New arrivals, local vendors, and food-related events are a regular occurrence at the Fort Meade Exchange food court. The usual fixtures like Starbucks, Panda Express, and Charleys Philly Steaks are present alongside some slightly more atypical Exchange food court eateries such as Qdoba Mexican Eats and Pokemoto.

The dining options are plentiful outdoors too. During the warm weather months, you can grab a bite to eat at one of Fort Meade's vendor fairs. If you love street food you'll probably want to make time to visit the Exchange for Food Truck Wednesdays. Cuisine options from the food trucks have a major international flair. The food trucks parked at the Fort Meade base will include Mexican fare, comforting soul food, and classic Carribean. There are also vegan options, pizza, and sweet treats like Hawaiian-style shaved ice and bubble tea.

Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri makes a great breakfast

We've learned about how military dining halls like Wilderness Inn have gone the extra mile to ramp up the quality and diversity of its food, and the dining facility at Missouri's Fort Leonard Wood has taken similar measures. The main difference is that Fort Leonard Wood's best DFAC is actually inside the General Leonard Wood Army Community Hospital.

Forget what you thought you knew about sad trays of hospital breakfast. At Fort Leonard Wood, you will be able to customize a perfectly folded omelet and pair it with anything from hash browns, fried chicken and grits, fresh fruit, bacon, or sausage. There are hard-boiled eggs and oven-baked biscuits, all of it is right there on the hospital's ground floor. As one of the Army's premier training bases, there are several DFACs at Fort Leonard Wood, as well as a food court at the Exchange, but according to those who call the base home, the hospital DFAC's breakfast is not to be missed.

Yokota Air Base in Tokyo, Japan has been honored for its service

If you're going to live on a military base, Hawaii is a great place to do so. The Exchange at Yokota puts a lot of emphasis on friendly service and community events, which makes the food court here a pleasant place to eat. The Yokota Air Base has made an effort to make sure that Exchange must-haves like Taco Bell, Popeyes, and Burger King offer lower calorie items and vegetarian-friendly picks so that diners have some healthier foods to choose from. The food court also provides military personnel and their families a taste of the familiar by way of its base ops snack bar known as the American Eatery. This quick, affordable option is serving up quesadillas, tuna salad sandwiches, BLTs, omelets, and other American favorites. And if you're really in the mood for a meal inspired by U.S. nostalgia, you should venture to Route 16, an on-base 1950's style diner that serves milkshakes, malts, and pulled pork sandwiches.

The thoughtfulness and dedication of food court staff members have not gone unnoticed. Yokota Air Base is widely known to have one of the best Exchanges in the world. Recently, it was awarded the Director/CEO Cup, the highest honor that can be given to an Army & Air Force Exchange Service.

California's Camp Pendleton has some seriously stunning dining facilities

Fear not Marine soldiers, an impressive food court is in store for you too, especially if you're headed to Camp Pendleton in San Diego, California. Edson Range and Chappo are two mess halls located on Camp Pendleton that have set a new standard for the future of military base DFACs. These two facilities were built with an in-depth consideration of solar energy and how to use the position of the southern California sun to the buildings' advantage. Both were designed with methodically placed glass paneling that would maximize sun exposure and allow for scenic views of the base's natural landscape. Prominent roof overhangs and light-reflecting exterior shelves were installed to minimize glare without obstructing the impact of natural light from inside the space. The finished products resulted in a laundry list of awards honoring Camp Pendleton's triumphs in sustainability and design.

The innovations don't end there. Chappo Dining Facility is the first mess hall to include a permanent outdoor seating area (with TVs and grills!) as well as a drive-thru window. If you're not taking your meal to go, take the opportunity to eat in the open-concept dining area where cozy booths and armchairs are mixed among gleaming rows of tables. In 2016, Edson Range earned the Major General William Pendleton Thompson Hill Award for having the best food service operation of any mess hall in the Marine Corps.