Can Airplane Food Actually Be “Restaurant Quality?”

Airline food tends to be the punchline of many jokes, and the average traveler would probably compare it more closely to dog food than anything else. That’s if you even get food for free on your flight, which is a luxury nowadays.

Of course it’s a different story for premium travelers, as many airlines are trying to differentiate their premium cabin products through food & wine. This brings us to the question that Matt78 asked in the Ask Lucky forum:

I do most of my flying in economy and am looking forward to trying premium cabin flying and was wondering how the quality and taste of their meals compare with medium to high priced restaurants on the ground?

This is an interesting topic, as I’ve sometimes used the term “restaurant quality” to refer to especially good airline food. Admittedly “restaurant quality” is a bit of a fluff term, since it doesn’t actually describe what you should expect. Applebee’s and The Capital Grille are both restaurants, so which establishment does “restaurant quality” describe? Beyond that, there are all kinds of independent restaurants which put The Capital Grille to shame.

The problem is that we’ll never be able to objectively compare airplane food to food on the ground. That’s because most people either love or hate flying, and that rubs off on everything they experience on planes. For example, I think all of us aviation geeks can agree that an ice cream sundae simply tastes better on a plane than on the ground. You could buy all the ingredients on the ground, but there’s something special about enjoying a sundae at 38,000 feet while traveling somewhere fun.

American-Business-Class-A321 - 30

As far as the food quality itself goes, I’d say first & business class airline food falls into three general categories:

  • There’s food which you eat simply because you’re hungry, but you’d never pay for on the ground — this includes things like many business class meals on US carriers
  • There’s food which is actually excellent, which you’d pay for on the ground — this includes food in international first class on some carriers
  • There’s food which is a treat on a plane which you might not be willing to pay for and/or wouldn’t order on the ground, but enjoy immensely — this might include caviar, warm chocolate chip cookies, warm mixed nuts, ice cream sundaes, etc.

To give a few examples, flying American business class from Dallas to Beijing last week I selected the cashew nut chicken main course, which was perfectly edible though also completely unmemorable. I wouldn’t have been happy if I ordered that as my main course at a proper Chinese restaurant, though I may have been happy with the quality if I were eating at Applebee’s, for example.

American-Business-Class-Meal

In the next category there’s food which I’d actually order in a restaurant and be thrilled with. For example, Etihad has an onboard chef, including a “from the grill” menu, where you can customize your order however you want. You can choose your type of meat and accompaniments.

The salmon biryani I had from Abu Dhabi to New York in first class was spectacular, and I would have been thrilled if I had ordered such a meal in a high end restaurant.

Etihad-A380-Apartment - 41

The same is true of the vanilla cream profiteroles I had in Oman Air business class, which were as good as any I’ve had on the ground.

Oman-Air-787-Business-Class - 52

And then you have some real special treats, which many of us will gladly enjoy on planes but would never pay for on the ground. For example, the caviar and Krug service in Cathay Pacific first class. Each passenger gets a tin of Calvisius caviar, which is excellent quality.

Cathay-Pacific-First-Class-777 - 27

Now, it’s proven that your taste buds aren’t quite as alert at altitude as on the ground, so some would argue you can’t enjoy it as much in the air. That being said, for me dining is largely about ambiance, and that’s something you can’t beat when you’re flying across an ocean having a face-to-face dinner with someone special in your life.

Bottom line

Airline food is a controversial topic which elicits strong opinions. You have some people who think airplane food can be as good as anything served on the ground, while you have others who compare even international first class dining to dog food.

I think there are some fantastic dining experiences to be had in the air. While business class food on many airlines might not be something you’re willing to pay for in a restaurant, there are certainly exceptions. I’ve had plenty of meals on planes which I would have paid for in restaurants.

What it comes down to for me is that a large part of my perception and enjoyment of restaurants is based around the ambiance. In other words, I’ll almost always pick a restaurant with an awesome ambiance and good food over one with marginally better food without a good ambiance.

As an aviation geek, there’s no better ambiance in the world than on a plane on one of my favorite airlines. So yes, some of my favorite dining experiences have been in Cathay Pacific first class, Emirates first class, Etihad first class, etc.

Where do you stand on airplane food?

Comments

  1. I don’t like nuts on my ice cream. You can’t enjoy either. One stealing attention from the other.

  2. I think this is largely right, except for the part about dining being “largely about ambiance” 😉

    We need to develop your appreciation for strip mall ethnic restaurants that are cooking at a very high level, and for that matter some of the more interesting places in Tokyo!

  3. I think your categories are spot on. Dining isn’t about just food, but ambiance, presentation, etc. While business class on United is better than economy, there’s nothing at all memorable about it and I would be upset if paying for it on the ground. But like you said, l found Etihad first class on the A380 to be outstanding; great (and it really was great) food, a large table for two to eat comfortably and attentive, pleasant service made it something l won’t soon forget.

  4. I hated how on my American Eagle flight, the one where I got to visit the cockpit and you wrote a blog post about, had no warmer/oven for food. This meant, for a 3 hour flight, in first class, the food was served cold :/

  5. do&co is my favorite catering.. I even went to the do&co hotel in Vienna just to order their mousse au chocolate.. the same i first tasted on an intra-european economy flight (4-5 years ago)..
    So yeah, flying austrian is definitely having restaurant quality food.

  6. You are clearly not a foodie, which is totally fine 🙂 Having a quality meal up in the air, even in international first class of the types of CX, EY, is very rare.

    Btw, biryani is always layered and that looks like colored rice next to a piece of fish. Delicious it might be, but it’s not biryani.

  7. agree with @gary leff.
    in LA especially, some of the BEST food comes from the strip mall ethnic restaurnats, especially the Asian food (Chinese in the San Gabriel Valley comes to mind quickly, but examples of other ethnic food abound all over LA, and in several other US cities/ metro areas – Vietnamese in suburban Houston, Korean and Vietnamese in suburban Dallas, Vietnamese in Suburban DC, etc). And in Tokyo most of the best food is in small places you’d never be able to find on your own, but are the best there is, etc.

  8. Food is always a controversial topic, even amongst foodies! Nowadays I prefer to eat my meals in the lounge, especially if I know the first class lounge or business class lounge (particularly Virgin Clubhouse) is really good. Once up in the air, I’ll eat what they serve but at least I know I won’t go hungry!

  9. Agree totally about ambiance being important as well as the actual food. I fly mostly UA, BA, LH and TK in premium cabins. UA and BA are very forgettable. The food is usually edible but served badly and often at the wrong temperature. They are both sub-Applebee’s.

    The food on LH is rather better but served equally badly (I’m talking Business here, not First). So whilst the food is fine, the ambiance is not because the FAs run it as a production line.

    And then there’s TK. Not only is the food excellent, but there’s real care taken in the presentation and serving of the food. Whichever course is presented, it’s an exciting treat as it’s revealed to you as an individual. They simply get it right.

  10. The food in general is weak even in premium classes. While I haven’t had D&O, I have had multiple SQ F, CX F and EY F (once). While there are some meals that are acceptible at a restaurant, there wasn’t any that would make me want to keep going back to that restaurant. I’m happy if the fish is relatively fresh and not dry on a plane. It takes more for me to rave about the restaurant.

    Dining ON A PLANE is a lot about the ambiance. It’s so elegant to dine with my wife at 35,000 feet in the better F classes, that we look forward to it. Otherwise, there isn’t any cooking that couldn’t be easily replicated at an average restaurant.

    As mentioned on another thread, start going to some really renowned restaurants when you are in Paris or NYC to see what great cooking really is.

  11. Food on a plane (or in an airport lounge for that matter) will never be as good as a high end restaurant (and I don’t consider myself a foodie). I would never order steak or fish in a plane, for example.

    Ambiance will help at a restaurant when the food isn’t great, but when the food *is* great, I don’t care as much about any so-called “ambiance”.

  12. Goodness me, the reasoning in this post is deeply confused. You asked if food can be as good as dining in a medium to high priced restaurant. The question of whether the dining experience on a plane equates to that level of restaurant is an entirely different question.

    Id agree with you on the second question, but on the first? Not a chance, if you’ve ever stepped foot in a medium to high priced restaurant. Excellent quality raw ingredients served on a plane are the obvious exception, but you obviously can’t make an argument on the basis that airline food in premium classes (and a well-rounded meal in any sense of the word) can consist only of caviar and Balik salmon!

  13. I’ve never really had a memorable meal in the air that I’d say is comparable to a top-quality restaurant meal, even in first class. There are so many details that contribute to the whole fine dining experience that it’s just impossible to get them all working given the onboard challenges: tiny galley kitchen and very dry air being two of the main culprits. Such details as food temperature are very important, but almost impossible to get right on a plane. On top of that, very little can be freshly prepared, and reheated food is never going to be good as something that was made 5 minutes before it appears on your plate.

    That said, I’ve had plenty of enjoyable meals in first and business class. It works out best when airlines choose wisely. For instance, fattier cuts of beef (especially shortribs) can be fantastic, especially when they are kept moist in a sauce. I think Do & Co’s much-vaunted catering is partly due to their intelligent choice of in-flight food: I remember being quite impressed with their food on TK because it was all the sort of thing that can withstand air travel abuse, with lots of bold flavors. In contrast, one of the least memorable in flight meals I’ve had (aside from economy!) was the Japanese meal in ANA business class, which I was really looking forward to because I love sushi. Everything was the wrong temperature and the subtle flavors just didn’t come through.

    In all, it’s very hit-or-miss, and I’ve learned not to get too excited by the prospect of in-flight meals. That way I’m pleasantly surprised when the food is good, and not too disappointed when it kinda sucks, which it usually does.

  14. Turkish Airlines has the best tasting and highest quality food in the air and its not even close. Ive flown all the F carriers too and TK is leagues above everyone else.

  15. It all depends on the restaurant you are comparing the quality to. And price has nothing to do with the quality of the food (you reviewed the Michelin starred restaurant in Hong Kong that is very cheap and has amazing food). Thus, it all depends. I had great meals on premium class flights and had terrible meals as well. Once thing that I still don’t get it is why every US airline serves the same ice cream sundae as dessert on premium cabins?

  16. Most of the schlock that is served on US Airways d/b/a AA international business class is an unidentifiable amalgamation of barely recognizable protein adjacent to/or on top of a sodium-laden mass of fat-laced carbohydrate (case in point: Lucky’s picture). I’ve never been to Applebee’s, but I’m almost certain that whatever sort of Southwest Bacon Cheddar BBQ burger they serve is better than the crap AA feeds its passengers. I know there are limitations (e.g. food preservation, small galley, altitude), but US legacy carriers are quite simply not willing to make any sort of effort to serve something edible in any cabin.

    Also, comparing airplane food to restaurant food, really depends on what you’re actually eating. E.g. filet mignon, Lucky’s American chinese chicken monstrosity, a burger, street food noodles, international economy chicken and rice, etc’s on the ground equivalents are ALL going to be better on the ground.

  17. BTW, when we travel on vacation with the kids on international routes (usually on premium economy) we NEVER eat whatever they serve on coach. We either bring sandwiches and snacks from home or if there is a layover in another airport we go to a “decent” restaurant there and grab something to eat before the next flight.

  18. Just about any hot food served in Economy is going to be overcooked. Sometines it has been reheated from frozen, filled with preservatives and has that slimy taste. And even if you find it mildly edible, there never is enough of it.

    All of my experience in international Business or First Class is good. They give you enough food, you have four or five entree choices (avoid beef because it is frequently overcooked and tough), and it’s good quality. It can’t compare favorably to fine dining but I enjoy the entire experience on my flights and have never had a bad meal in a premium cabin.

    I’m a wine broker and the wine list in the premium cabins is decent. The free wine in economy on international flights is more like jet fuel than wine……

  19. Lucky, taste is entirely subjective, but what I’m curious about is whether consuming so much airplane food has had any perceivable effect on your health, fitness and overall wellness. They’re not the freshest or most nutritionally balanced meals out there, and I can’t imagine they were designed to be consumed with regularity.

  20. @Alex: I agree 100% with you. Eating that food over and over cannot be good at all. Yes, they may use fancy ingredients, etc… but those meals contain preservatives to keep them sort of “fresh” and there is lots of MSG and other processed stuff there. Also the fact that Lucky lives in hotels I would assume he always eats out which again is not the best option. Nothing beats a good home cooked meal. 🙂

  21. Sorry – but as a food lover and a gastro-tourist, I can only rank even the best airline food (talking about SQ, CX, ANA, etc.in first class or OS in biz) as a 4 or 5 out of a 10 compared to foods prepared with fresh ingredients at desirable restaurants (does not mean expensive restaurants) or at home. My advice is to always avoid meals on airlines when one can have something significantly better before heading to the airport for a journey – at the least that’s what my family and I do. Flying in First and Biz are solely for the comfort and space for my wife and children – definitely not the food which we avoid to the extent possible. If desperately hungry on a journey, I stick to cooked dishes with white fish or soups.

  22. “I wouldn’t have been happy if I ordered that as my main course at a proper Chinese restaurant”

    It wouldn’t have been on the menu at a proper Chinese restaurant 😛

  23. I agree with Dan Palangio 100%. I would say that food on SQ is probably the best that I have experienced compared to premium classes on other airlines. However, food on airlines are mediocre at best. I find the caviar to be especially tasteless and lacking the flavours attributed to real caviar.

  24. JAL First Class meal collaborated by Michelin 3 Star Ryugin blew me away. It’s far better than CX First Class meal. I would take JAL over CX 9 out of 10 times just for the meal and I really want to try Ryugin next time visiting Japan.

  25. I’m am thinking … edit “ambiance” and insert “experience” and if so I like Lucky’s point of view.

    The little lady and I flew back from Thailand in CX First Class to the US East Coast. Being our first trip all the way upfront we had a fantastic time.

    The caviar service was super cool, delicious and memorable.

    Being able to actually dine face to face…”very romantic” (Marissa Tomei in My Cousin Vinnie”)

    Krug tastes even better with caviar, and we’re no strangers to Champagne, but never had real caviar before. Were sold on it now.

    At one point I actually looked around our otherwise empty First Class cabin and said to her it’s like we’re on Airforce One!

    You can both have on your Bose Headphones because the cable still reaches one seat behind where you’re actual seat is. So we tuned to the same dinner music channel and had a shared experience in this way too. They should add in a way to talk over 2 sets of “Paired” headphones…but I digress.

    Entrees choices were Sea Bass and Sirloin. I had the steak and was actually very impressed with the cooked temperature (MR), flavor and marbling of the steak.

    Also, I couldn’t believe the size of the steak they served. It was easily 16 oz.

    Now, having been a server at The Capital Grille for over 10 years (in a previous life), some of the best steaks I have ever has in my entire life were cooked up for employee meal on an average Saturday afternoon.

    But, the Cathay steak was as good or better than I would have expected.

    The only thing I would do differently is not eat so much in the Pier 1st Lounge because we were as stuffed as a couple of Long Island ducks after dinner.

    It was truly a remarkable experience and one that we hope to repeat.

    I hate long posts so sorry, and if you made it all the way to the end, thanks!

  26. As an amateur foodie, I have to agree with the sentiments above that you can’t really compare the two. Why? Freshly prepared vs. reheated at 35,000 feet. The very best meal reheated at altitude simply isn’t going to match a great meal prepared with fresh ingredients in real time in terms of taste and presentation. Now that’s not to say I don’t enjoy premium class meal service. I consider the dining experience an integral part of flying J or F, and I really enjoy a meal service that’s well done. But though I’ve had many dishes of decent taste and quality in the air, that’s a secondary consideration.

  27. Flying in First Class or Biz is all about the space and privacy. Those are the two criteria that my biz jet customers cite as most important to them. Airline food is not supposed to amaze, but simply satisfy. If one desires a fine dining experience with some exquisite vintage champagne, real caviar and the finest ingredients, then visit a fine dining restaurant or cook at home.

  28. Also keep in mind your tastebuds will change at altitude, along with other environmental factors (ie. thinner air will also affect your sense of smell which has a large bearing on your sense of taste), so a true comparison is never possible.

    But Christ Jesus the ME3 menus sound divine!

  29. I have to say I throughly enjoyed the response from Modesassion!
    I get so tired of the whinging and whining that happens all the time!
    You want restaurant quality food? Eat in a restaurant! You are on a plane!
    Don’t like the food? Pack a lunch!

  30. I fly Emirates all the time and I have to tell you, the food in Business and First is OK. I’ve never had a good beef main course, but the fish is usually OK. Nothing special. In First, I do love the caviar and Dom, but really its about the seat, not the food. Sadly, Emirates is really two separate airlines. the one that flies the A380 (which is amazing) and all the other aircraft (Which really aren’t worth the money for Business Class. Etihad has a much better product). Sorry, that was way off topic 😉

  31. Airline food can be disgusting – what is the expectation at 35000 or 43000 ft? The best meal I had was the Kaiseki meal on ANA. Hoe does it compare to a real Kaiseki meal in Tokyo? 2/10 for the airline version relative to a 10 for the meal in Tokyo. Best solution is to eat before you depart for the journey and enjoy the spacious seat for what it’s designed for – resting between long trips.

  32. I once had incredible lamb chops in Turkish economy class from Lithuania to Istanbul. But then had a disappointing meal a few days later in Turkish business class from Istanbul to Frankfurt. Being a gluten-free weirdo, I bring my own food most of the time.

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