A La Carte Dining Comparison: American Flagship First Dining Vs. United Polaris Lounge

The past couple of years US airlines have really been upping their game when it comes to the lounges they offer. From Delta’s SkyClub in Seattle, to American’s Flagship Lounge Chicago, to American’s Flagship First Dining New York, to United’s Polaris Lounge Chicago, I love the direction US airlines are taking with their premium ground experience.

If you told me a few years ago that a US airline would offer an a la carte dining experience in their lounge, I wouldn’t have believed it.

I reviewed United’s Polaris Lounge Chicago just a couple of days ago, and the part of the experience that impressed me most was the sit-down dining experience. In this post I wanted to compare the a la carte dining experiences offered by American and United.

When American opened their Flagship First Dining at JFK, they claimed they were the “first U.S. airline to open a restaurant-style dining experience on the ground.” Is that claim true, given that United’s Polaris Lounge opened before?

American Flagship First Dining

American’s Flagship First Dining is a lounge within a lounge, and is exclusively available to those traveling in international first class, as well as in first class on select premium transcontinental flights.

The JFK lounge is stunning. It feels high end, has lots of natural light, and perhaps most impressively, is generally empty. While most premium lounges nowadays are packed, when I visited only a couple of other tables were taken. The facility is a true sanctuary.

The food was really good as well, both in terms of presentation and quality.

While a lot of lounges offer custom cocktails, I was impressed by the quality of the cocktails in the lounge, which were a step up both in terms of taste and presentation.

Service was excellent, though I think perhaps this lounge suffers from being too quiet, because you can hear everything the servers say… including their complaints.

United Polaris Lounge Dining

While American’s Flagship First Dining is only open to international first class passengers, United’s Polaris Lounge is open to international business class passengers, so access to it is much less restrictive.

The dining area doesn’t have the same ambiance as Flagship First Dining, as it’s integrated into the rest of the lounge. So while Flagship First Dining is an oasis, the Polaris Lounge isn’t quite as relaxing, especially during peak hours.

What impressed me most about dining in the Polaris Lounge was the quality of the food. It was excellent, and in my opinion on par with what American serves.

I only had one cocktail in the lounge, which was great, though not quite to the level of what’s offered in American’s Flagship First Dining.

On the drink front, one advantage the Polaris Lounge has is that freshly prepare espresso-based drinks, rather than using a machine. I’m a sucker for a good cappuccino.

In terms of service, it was excellent as well, roughly on par with the Polaris Lounge.

So, which dining experience is better?

One would assume that Flagship First Dining would be significantly better than the dining experience in the Polaris Lounge, given that the former is only open to first class passengers, while the latter is also open to business class passengers.

Based on my experience, Flagship First Dining has a huge edge in terms of the ambiance it offers, a slight edge for the cocktails, and maybe a slight edge for the variety of food on offer.

The Polaris Lounge has an advantage for having espresso-based drinks.

But other than that, I thought the experiences were roughly comparable. In terms of food quality and service, both were excellent.

So, is American’s claim that they’re the “first U.S. airline to open a restaurant-style dining experience on the ground” honest, given that United’s Polaris Lounge opened first? American makes this claim because the restaurant is a completely separate experience from the lounge, you’re seated by a host, etc. While that’s true, other than that I think it’s perfectly reasonable to call the Polaris Lounge experience a proper restaurant-style dining experience as well — both facilities have excellent food, cocktails, and service.

Based on my (admittedly limited) data points, the main difference between the two facilities is the ambiance.

If you’ve used United’s Polaris Lounge or American’s Flagship First Dining, what did you think? Do you think there’s a major difference between the a la carte dining experiences?

Comments

  1. Hey Lucky,

    Can I confirm with that flying CX in business I can access the American Flagship lounge at Chicago? Leaving for HK in a few weeks via ORD.

    Thanks!

  2. I’d think the lack of crowds would carry more weight than a lot of other things given how many complaints I’ve seen/heard about the Polaris Lounge. Exclusivity does have its perks. I’m not as dependent on cappuccino as you, so that wouldn’t be a factor. But having to hover around people waiting for a seat would drive me nuts. So I’d have to hands-down say Flagship Dining wins.

    Plus, I’m curious as to how the product will suffer when UA expands the Polaris Lounge. Someone else mentioned that the Polaris Lounge doesn’t seem to be sustainable and that United will likely “enhance” the offering by making cuts when they realize they overpromised and are now under-delivering. Though I’m very pleasantly surprised by United’s upping of their game. If only the timeline of rollout for all things Polaris was actually helpful…

  3. So basically, for only offering Polaris as its premium offering, every Polaris Business Class passenger on United might have access to the Polaris Lounge. While only the few routes with AA First will have access to the First Lounge. And the food and service are pretty comparable. When a Business Class Lounge is pretty comparable to a First Class Lounge, you know the winner is the Business Class Lounge.

    United wins. Polaris wins. Not surprisingly, either. United, for anyone who hasn’t been paying attention, has actively been upgrading its experience and customer service. American, on the other hand, has been settling more and more into mediocrity.

  4. @Bill – you probably don’t know that AA also has new and elevated Flagship Lounges. They are quite nice and AA actually already has a bunch of them, in less time than UA has done a single Polaris.

    UA has potential but so far Polaris is much more hype than reality.

  5. @ Bill

    “United, for anyone who hasn’t been paying attention, has actively been upgrading its experience and customer service.”

    Quite right. Now, let’s just hear something from Dr Dao…

    United are appalling. Which is not to say American isnt, too.

  6. @Bill I’m just here waiting for some delta brat to come in and start “but actually…”-ing you for having the audacity to say something nice about united. Ha.

  7. I believe AA dining and Flagship Lounges now have a 21 year age limit. This is a deal breaker for my wife and I since we often fly F with our seven year old in tow.

  8. Bus-station ambiance in the Polaris lounge — where everyone in the very crowded lounge walks past the dining tables to reach the main seating area, some bumping into the diners as they walk absent-mindedly while barking into their phones — is unacceptable.

    Ben, did you take your photos in the Polaris lounge at 8 am on a Sunday morning? I have never seen that lounge so empty.

  9. Anyone comparing the crowded United lounge to American’s Flagship First one must be out of their mind. The Polaris lounge is SO crowded – unbelievable. I visited twice, on a Tuesday and on a Thursday afternoon. Food was scarce (more leftovers than anything else), it was hard to find a table, and attendants were mostly uninterested.

    The AA lounge, on the other hand, is private, empty, with great food. Just like LH FCT it’s exclusive and private.

    So, no – you can’t really compare.

    Plus, what’s all this hype with Polaris?! The airplane retrofitting is painfully slow, the overall configuration is very dense, and overall it’s not like UA commands premium markets like JFK, LAX, or LHR anyways… (*rolling my eyes*)

  10. To answer some questions- at least re Polaris lounge- the dining is free and amazing. I was there from 2:30-4p and had no problem getting a shower in the fantastic shower room, and a custom made lunch (I am a vegetarian and the chef whipped up a vegetarian version of the burger for me). I did tip my waiter because he was so pleasant and helpful when I inquired about vegetarian options. I just shook his hand as I left and said thank you and gave him the tip that way (like you would a car service driver). I had heard about the overcrowding but didn’t experience it even at peak arrival/departure of international flights. I cannot wait until the others open. I do agree its taking WAY too long to open the lounges and upgrade the seats on the planes.

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