Airlines really have a way of putting you in your place when it comes to checking into your flight. Group 1 is never group 1 – the true group 1 is reserved for elite customers who have flown enough and paid enough money to the airline to earn the privilege of bypassing the normal queue. And if you’re in a group lower than that, you’re not even a real person, are you?
It used to be the case that getting access to the airport lounge could make you feel somewhat special. But even lounges come in tiers. United, for instance, operates two: a sad lounge for the masses, crammed with people eating pretzels and hummus, and a much nicer Polaris lounge reserved for those first class jet setters with status. It’s always a sad, humbling moment when you accidentally walk into the Polaris lounge, only to be turned away and redirected to the other one. If you’re lucky enough to be a part of the group that’s allowed into the United Polaris Lounge in Newark Airport, you’ll probably notice that it offers sit-down meal service, free of charge. Because self-service, buffet style dining is for the masses, the 1% have someone else serve them.
So now that you’re here, should you actually take the plunge and have a full meal? Or should you hold yourself over with a few small bites and eat on the plane? The dining room at the United Polaris Lounge is prettily packaged, decked out in marble tables and exciting views of the tarmac, but the food unfortunately doesn’t always live up to the ambiance. On the whole, it’s superior to actual in-flight dining, because airplane food is airplane food, even if it’s served in business or first class – the braised beef is nowhere near fall-off-the-bone and the salad leaves always seem to be a little wilted. It’s especially useful if you’re on a red-eye, because then you can eat here and just skip the meal service on the plane and go to sleep.
But if the United Polaris dining lounge were a standalone restaurant, I would not necessarily choose to eat here over an actual restaurant. The food can be very hit-or-miss, with a few things tasting like they could be from a legitimate restaurant, and many things tasting like dishes from a Marriott or Hilton hotel restaurant in a third-tier city.
There were some dishes that were surprisingly good, like the tasty spring greens that were seasoned in XO sauce, and the fresh kale salad. The burger was solid in a Friendly’s restaurant sort of way, in that the patty wouldn’t get any high marks for any remarkable flavor or juiciness, but overall it was perfectly fine. The lemon chicken tagine was watery and tasteless, the worst of the bunch. The pizzetta tasted like a thick, carby flatbread creation that you’d get from a Cosi or Au Bon Pain. And somehow they managed to mess up both of their desserts, including a brownie sundae, which is usually impossible to mess up.
But who cares when you’re in a nice lounge and everything is for free. And if you’re already in the United Polaris lounge, chances are you’re en route to a more fabulous place and this meal will be a distant memory. I had a lot of fun experiencing the sit-down meal at the United Polaris lounge, even if the quality was uneven, and I’d definitely do it again, knowing that I should lower my expectations and skip the chicken tagine.