Where to Find the Best Food in Domestic Airport Lounges

Feb 24, 2018

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Premium airport lounges around the world feature amenities such as spas, showers and dedicated work spaces, but the food often steals the show. If you’re on a short transatlantic flight or an international flight leaving late in the evening, few things are more convenient than the ability to have dinner in the lounge and sleep on the plane. You’d expect restaurant-quality dining in a first or business-class lounge in Paris, Hong Kong or Singapore, but finding it here at home is far more difficult. In this post we’ll look at four lounges with seated dining that will dazzle your palate, along with two locations that have interesting and varied buffets.

In This Post

Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse (JFK)

Virgin Atlantic was one of the pioneers in upscale US airport lounges, and a $7 million renovation in 2012 by Slade Architecture doubled the size of its facility at John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) to 10,000 square feet. Entrance is complimentary for Upper Class passengers; Delta Diamond, Platinum and Gold Medallion members with same-day, nonstop flights to the U.K.; Flying Club Gold members, Singapore Airlines Suites passengers, and those holding first- or business-class tickets on LATAM. Virgin Atlantic Main Cabin Select and Elevate Gold passengers may pay an entrance fee of $75 for adults and $40 for children ages 5-12. The Clubhouse is located in Terminal 4, and is open from 5-8am and 2:30-9pm.

Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse
Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse JFK. (Photo courtesy Virgin Atlantic)

You can order food anywhere you sit, but opt for the Brasserie if you prefer dedicated table service. Offerings begin with an assortment of tapas and proceed to salads, light bites and larger plates, and conclude with cheeses and desserts. There’s a children’s menu as well. The wine list is short but well-chosen.

Other clubhouse locations in the US include San Francisco (SFO), Los Angeles (LAX) and Washington, DC (IAD). As of November 2017, the LAX Clubhouse grants entry to Priority Pass members.

AA Flagship Lounge (MIA)

American has been upping its game recently to appeal to premium-class passengers, and a large part of that strategy is the revival of the Flagship Lounges. The newly renovated lounge at Miami International (MIA) offers dedicated, sit-down dining for first-class travelers on qualifying flights to Europe, Asia, South America and Australia, as well as those connecting through JFK on transcontinental first class to SFO or LAX.

The first-class dining area is located in the Flagship Lounge near Gate D30, and is open from 2-10:30pm. It consists of an intimate bar with a small lounge, and a more formal dining room seating 20; the former has a view of the runways, while the dining room overlooks the terminal. The all-day menu consists of a half-dozen starters and entrees, along with a selection of desserts, wines and spirits.

If you’re traveling in business, you won’t go hungry, either: Passengers have access to an extensive hot and cold buffet, along with an action station featuring a rotating repertoire of regional dishes. There’s a large self-service bar to accompany the food.

In addition to MIA, American also has Flagship Lounges at JFK, LAX and Chicago’s O’Hare (ORD), with plans to expand to Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW), London Heathrow (LHR) and Philadelphia (PHL) later in 2018.

United Polaris Lounge (ORD)

In late 2016, United rolled out Polaris as the replacement for its BusinessFirst premium-cabin service, along with a promise to build a series of lounges to complement the in-flight experience. ORD is the only one to open thus far, but most observers report that the food compares to some of the best restaurants in the area. The lounge is located next to Gate C18 in Terminal 1. Access is limited to United Polaris first and business passengers, as well as those traveling in business and first on Star Alliance flights.

The Polaris Lounge offers seated dining in addition to an elaborate cold and hot buffet. The dishes were designed by chef Art Smith, a leading proponent of modern Southern cuisine who worked for two Florida governors and spent a decade as personal chef to Oprah Winfrey. The bar program was created by Adam Seger, Chicago’s master mixologist. The large, sleek bar offers private lockers for United’s most frequent flyers (while you can’t carry full-sized bottles through security, the airline will stock wine and liquor for you).

United has plans to open eight more Polaris Lounges in the US. Expect to see Houston (IAH), Newark (EWR) and San Francisco (SFO) by summer 2018 and Los Angeles (LAX) in Fall 2018. The precise dates haven’t yet been determined by the airline for Washington, DC (IAD), London Heathrow (LHR), Hong Kong (HKG) and Tokyo (NRT).

Qantas First Class Lounge (LAX)

Located on Level 5 of the Tom Bradley International Terminal and operated jointly with BA and Cathay Pacific, this lounge spans 17,500 square feet and was designed by Marc Newson, the man responsible for the airline’s First Class lounges in Sydney and Melbourne. You can get in if you’re flying in first or business on Qantas; if you’re a Qantas elite or club member; if you hold Emerald or Sapphire status on Oneworld, are booked in first or business on a Oneworld flight, or traveling on a Jetstar Business Max fare.

The menu in the 74-seat restaurant was created by famed Australian chef Neil Perry, the airline’s culinary director and proprietor of Rockpool in Sydney. “I’ll give up my children if it’s not the best lounge in America by a country mile!” he declared prior to opening, and as far as we know the kids aren’t yet up for adoption. The dishes change with the seasons, and the emphasis is on light, graceful Australian classics composed of locally sourced ingredients with a California twist. The wines are a mix of producers from the Golden State and small vineyards from Down Under.

The lounge is open from 6:30am to 11:30pm daily, with all-day dining available from noon onward.

Cathay Pacific First Class Lounge (SFO)

This lounge underwent a dramatic expansion in 2015, and now accommodates 175 passengers in a space of 9,000 square feet. To get in, you’ll need to be holding a first or business-class ticket on Cathay Pacific, or be a Oneworld Emerald or Sapphire elite traveling on a Oneworld flight in any class.

Typical items on the buffet include sandwiches, sliders, sliced meats and cheeses, salads, fried rice and stir-fried vegetables. Selections fluctuate throughout the day, with wider choices available prior to the departure of international flights. What sets this spread apart, though, is the trademark Noodle Bar found in all Cathay Pacific lounges. Dishes are cooked to order, and diners have a choice of vegetarian noodles, wonton noodles with pork and shrimp and Dan Dan noodles prepared with peanut broth, ground peanuts and sesame and chili oils.

Cathay Pacific First Class Lounge SFO
(Photo courtesy Cathay Pacific)

The lounge is located on the fourth floor of the South Hall, International Terminal, and is open from 7:30am to 1:00am daily.

American Express Centurion Lounge (DFW)

American Express has set a new standard with its network of Centurion Lounges, currently found at Las Vegas (LAS), Seattle (SEA), DFW, MIA, LGA, IAH, PHL and SFO in the US. While they don’t offer seated dining, the menus are designed by celebrity chefs and reflect the cooking of each region. To gain entry, you’ll need to be carrying the American Express Centurion Card, or either The Platinum Card® from American Express or The Business Platinum Card® from American Express. The DFW lounge is located across from Gate D17, and is open from 5:30am to 10:00pm.

Dean Fearing, a James Beard Award-winning chef who is generally regarded as the godfather of Southwestern cuisine, is the creator of the dishes on the buffet. As in other Centurion Lounges, the cocktails were devised by Jim Meehan of Manhattan’s PDT and the wines are curated by sommelier Anthony Giglio. Look for typical plates such as pulled pork casserole, Texas borracho beans, Spanish rice, smoked pecan-crusted chicken breast, house-smoked BBQ brisket and roast maple butternut squash soup.

Bottom Line

There are airport lounges in the US where the food rivals anything found in Europe or Asia. They provide either seated dining or buffets, and some offer both. Top lounges include the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse (JFK), AA Flagship First Lounge (MIA), United Polaris Lounge (ORD), Qantas First Class (LAX), Cathay Pacific First Class (SFO) and American Express Centurion (DFW).

Featured photo courtesy of Cathay Pacific.

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