My Confusion With United Polaris Lounge A La Carte Dining

Filed Under: United

Yesterday I visited the United Polaris Lounge Newark, which is the second Polaris Lounge I visited (I also went to the one in Chicago last year). United has added three Polaris Lounges in the past several weeks, which is impressive.

I’ll have a separate post with my thoughts on the lounge, though there’s one thing that surprised me just as much about this lounge as the one in Chicago, and at first I assumed it was a one-off thing.

One of the impressive things about United’s Polaris Lounges is that they have a la carte dining. It’s as close as you’ll get to a restaurant quality experience when flying business class on a US airline, so United deserves a lot of credit for offering that.

However, I couldn’t help but notice that barely anyone took advantage of this feature, and I can’t quite wrap my head around why. The dining area is fairly large, with seating for about 50 people, though over the several hours I was there, I never saw more than half a dozen tables taken.

This is in spite of the wait staff actively soliciting people to eat here. As each person walked into the lounge they’d say “hi, welcome. Would you like to join us for a meal? We have a la carte dining.”

Despite their encouragement, it seemed like almost everyone had an excuse for why they didn’t want to. This exactly matches my experience at the Polaris Lounge Chicago.

I can’t fully wrap my head around this. If anything, you’d think that demand would be through the roof, given the novelty of it, and that this is something United passengers aren’t used to.

I understand generally food demand is probably going to be highest in Amex Centurion Lounges, for example, where many people are traveling domestically, mostly in economy, so just about everyone treats the lounge as an all-you-can-eat buffet. I also get that many passengers don’t have a lot of time, or may not be hungry (though in general eating before boarding a quick overnight flight seems like a smart decision).

However, there are plenty of international business class lounges where a good percentage of people seem to eat. Just look at the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse or Air Canada Signature Suite, for example.

I’m curious to hear what experience you guys have had. Have I just had two experiences that aren’t reflective of how things usually are, or is this normal? And if so, why? I feel like there has to be an explanation, and the only theory I can come up with is that people must assume it’s not free, given a) that they don’t expect this from a US airline and b) that the employees in the lounge actively encourage people to come here.

Perhaps this is compounded by the fact that United often sends out invites for Classified, the overpriced, invitation-only restaurant at Newark Airport.

What has your experience been with Polaris Lounge dining area crowding? Have my experiences been out of the ordinary, or has anyone else noticed how few people partake in the dining option?

Comments
  1. Usually I rush into a lounge, stuff my face with the buffet food and have a couple of drinks which can last all of 15-20 min. At least with Newark, I never seem to get there with too much time to spare…I mean who wants to spend extra time there?

  2. Quite frankly I usually don’t take advantage of lounge dining as I prefer to eat in the plane if I travel in a premium class, and I can’t have 2 dinners in a row.
    Also you need to have enough time to sit and wait for food, so unless you’re on a long connection I don’t think people like to arrive with hours to spare at the airport.

  3. Do you have examples of what excuses people were giving United staff for not wanting to go sit down in the restaurant area?

  4. I think it’s because U.S. customers are not accustomed to doing so (our lounges are generally poor and haven’t traditionally offered this feature). People who travel more frequently on Emirates F or other such products are probably more likely to take advantage. Hopefully with time it will change as I would hate for them to eliminate it due to lack of demand.

  5. @ Clem — You’re right, it’s possible that people have the impression that it takes a while for the food to come out, though in reality it comes out really fast. Too fast. I had time and was served starters and mains at the same time.

  6. @ EJ — Most common was “oh, I think I’m just going to go sit over here.” I was surprised that most answers weren’t “I’m not hungry” or “I don’t have much time.”

  7. United needs to push this much more aggressively, especially at Newark and Chicago (and ultimately Dulles) for the short transatlantic flights, where the onboard meal service eats into sleep time. I had the a la carte at ORD last year before flying to Frankfurt but couldn’t sleep on the plane for all the plates being passed over me (aisle on a 2-4-2 777).

    Of course not everyone can get to the lounge in time for a sit down meal but those that can should be strongly encouraged to eat before the 6.5 hour hop to LHR, DUB, EDI, AMS, CDG, etc..

  8. My money’s on Jim. A la carte generally suggests that you’ll pay for each item separately and it’s possible that many people feel they’re being solicited to buy a meal.

  9. The lounge opened June 1st and the concept is brand new. However, if people do not take advantage of it, I can see United quickly (and quietly) taking the offering away. United’s Polaris on board catering is actually decent. Recently flew FCO-EWR and found the food of good portion and reasonably good. Flew LHR-JFK on AA the month prior in Business Class and the food was really, REALLY bad.

  10. I would assume that most passengers based in the US are conditioned to believing that lounge food is basically inedible. I mean, the same airline that brought us Polaris dining, has also at one point put hot dogs in its United Clubs. Add to that complicated entrance requirements – most travelers don’t know this is an option ahead of time (or that Polaris lounges are different than United Clubs). I would also say, most people who are travelling for business probably want to minimize time spent in an airport. As United publicizes this more and frequent travelers catch on, it might pick up.

  11. They need to mention it’s complimentary……my guess is like Jim and people think they’ll have to pay.

  12. Americans are well trained where we assume we have to pay for anything and everything from an airline.

  13. @Lucky’s experience does not quite match mine. I had to wait about 10 minutes to get a table at SFO Polaris lounge a few weeks ago because the dining area was full. When I was visited the EWR lounge a few weeks ago, the dining area was more than half full (though it’s big so there’s lots of capacity).

    I don’t think many people are confused about pricing as fancy drinks at the bar are free and many people use those, so they should know everything in the lounge is free — and the menu, with no prices on them, is often put out in front of the dining room. Also this lounge is only open to people on biz tickets, often people traveling on an expense account. I doubt they’re afraid of being charged if they want sit-down dining.

    My guess is many people prefer to eat on board since it’s the only thing you can productively do there — whereas on the ground, you can send work emails, return phone calls, etc. Plus there’s a huge area to relax away from the restaurant, and it’s usually less noisy/crowded there.

    Also EWR Terminal C has a lot of O&D traffic, much less connecting than at other United hubs, and it’s a very premium and business heavy market. A lot of paid biz passengers probably arrive just in time for their flight and don’t have a lot of time to spend in the lounge, and may not really care about maximizing the value of the experience. They probably don’t want to risk being bogged down with a la carte dining; even if it sometimes comes out quickly, there’s always a risk it takes too long.

    Lastly the buffet is perfectly fine in my view if you don’t want wait service. While I agree with @lucky and much prefer the restaurant-style dining, I can understand that for people with limited time just grabbing some of the decent stuff at the buffet and having more time for whatever else they want to accomplish might be more relaxing.

  14. regarding Classified – the 20% discount for Chase UA cardmembers does help bring the price to a slightly more reasonable price point (and you don’t need to have the physical card with you since the boarding pass QR scan will validate it on the backend), and considering for the first 2/3rd of our breakfast dining my partner and i had the ENTIRE Classified to ourselves for our honeymoon trip to Aruba, the small premium you pay is well worth the level of privacy you normally would expected from SQ Private Room or LH FCT.

    Now back to the main topic of Polaris Lounge Dining – it’s also heavily influenced by what’s happening right after the lounge portion – full service on-board meal very shortly after take off – unless you’re opting for pre-dining against a short TATL flight to maximize sleep or a midnight westbound TPAC departure where staying awake just to eat onboard at 2am isn’t that attractive an option.

    And yes, I did click into your VS and AC links just to see. The AC one showed plenty of photos of an empty dining area and i couldn’t find any photo evidence showing the higher usage as you’ve suggested.

    Perhaps sharing the context would help, like, when was your flight, and which span of “several hours” were you there. I can’t imagine the dining area to have much usage if, say, your flight were 11am and you were there 8:00-10:30.

  15. The staff needs to include the word “complimentary” in their offer. Flyers in the USA are conditioned to expect anything nice in an airport lounge to cost extra.

  16. @ henry LAX — The Air Canada Signature Suite review was during a media event, so that’s why the tables were empty. Based on what I have heard, it has been quite popular. I was in the Polaris Lounge from 11AM until 4PM. It was dead from 11AM to 12:30PM (which makes sense due to flight timings), but then started to fill up, because there are lots of flights leaving around 5PM. Even at 4PM the dining area was quite empty.

  17. I am at the Newark Polaris Lounge right now- 3pm on a Friday and there is only one table open in the dining area-

  18. @lucky : okay … how many people you know would want a full service meal at 4 when they had lunch at 1230 and then dinner by 550 or so ?

    The VS clubhouse setup looks slightly different cuz if i’m interpreting your photos correctly, it’s a shared dining seating area for both buffet and a-la-carte, so some of the patrons you observe there may just be buffet ones.

    from personal experience, my conditions for opting for sit-down dining, for any airline, are (1) i’m even hungry at all, (2) tons of time to kill in the lounge, (3) the a-la-carte menu offers something very unique and/or the buffet appears underwhelming, and (4) i have little concern of the dining cannibalizing my appetite on board.

    The same way if I just took a shower before heading to HKG, I wouldn’t need to go check out the showering spa suite with square tub at Wing First. But I still appreciate CX offering it.

  19. I would be scared that my food wasn’t going to come in time. A far better invitation would be

    “Sir has time to dine from our a la carte menu, if Sir wishes?”

  20. Interesting. When I was at EWR the dining area was fairly full and had good rotation of tables (including several loud 20-somethings and a couple of families with teens in sweat-shorts, ew). The service was not great. The several times I’ve been to ORD’s Polaris lounge it has had maybe half the tables taken (though it is tucked away at the back of the lounge and not as obvious as the EWR dining area) but much better service overall and knowledge of menu/wine by the various wait staff. I can’t wait to try out IAH next month.

  21. It depends on the time of day. A lot of people doing the overnight NY-LON flights will dine in the BA lounge so they can maximize their sleeping time on board.

  22. I think part of your issue was the time you were there. As you mentioned, lunchtime is a slow time given the lack of flights at that hour, and I don’t know of very many people who would want a full meal between 2 and 4 pm.

    Putting that aside, it’s probably mostly the perception that sit-down dining is going to take a long time. And let’s face it, most business people aren’t going to show up 3 hours early for their flight or schedule a long layover just to eat in a lounge. You’re lucky (no pun intended) in that you can work virtually, but I can tell you at my last job, I needed every minute in the office or client site as I could get. If you’re cutting it as close as possible just getting to the airport, there’s no time for a sit-down meal. If you really can consistently get in and out quickly, then I’d say the lounge staff need to do a better job of telling passengers as they check in “you have plenty of time for a meal in our dining room if you wish”.

  23. @henry LAX:

    You bring up a great point about the VS Clubhouse. The mixed-use dining areas and wait staff are, to me, much more useful than the dedicated dining area. I’m usually in the Clubhouse for a few hours because I want to work and enjoy its offerings. I need space for my laptop as well as various print-outs of spreadsheets or PowerPoint plus any food that’s brought. I find it’s easier to spread out in the “general population” portion of the lounge as opposed to a tiny dining table. Add to that when a waitperson specifically approaches me once seated, it is indicative that the items are complimentary – something that other commenters have mentioned may cause people to shy away.

  24. UA nickel and dimes you for everything, so they have trained their flyers to expect that nothing from UA is free. UA has also trained its flyers to expect less-than-decent food. So why bother with double disappointment – lounge food and airplane food? UA presents a very confusing image – part LCC and part “wannabe” premium carrier. The LCC image prevails at UA.

  25. I’ve been to Chicago’s lounge several times and have always ordered from the menu and never have been to the buffet. Great service and I do tip.

  26. @EthaninSF- Don’t knock hotdogs. Lufthansa Senator lounges (fra, muc) use to have turkey, then beef frankfurters with all the trimmings.

    Did the SF Polaris lounge dining last week; about 25% occupied. I did a chicken Katsura bento. My partner was told two of his choices were not available; he opted for the bento.

    They were pre-made, cold, and not very edible. The sauce was a sugary ketchup. The server said a lot of people complained about it.
    The bento items had substitutions that did not match menu. I told server that the missing items were in the buffet. She shrugged and walked away.

    Of the few people in lounge, most on phones talking too loudly, and a family with young kids playing games on iPads with volume up. Blinds were up and area was filled with too much sunlight.

    I’ll stick with self-serve buffet and find a quieter place to relax; away from the upscale Applebee’s.
    Me thinks United Opscwants to discourage use of this fine dining perk.

  27. It’s definitely not knowing that it’s complimentary. I was recently on one of Delta’s transcon routes with meal service in economy, and the flight attendants were basically ignored when they came down the aisle with menus and the meal cart, never mentioning that the meal was complimentary. The passengers around me were suddenly interested in the food when I asked for a veggie wrap box and wasn’t asked to pay.

  28. I’m at the EWR Polaris Lounge now. The dining is full and they have a waitlist. The lounge itself is very busy. When I’m in Chicago it’s always been pretty peaceful, it’s just like a united club but nicer. Much louder than Chicago.

  29. @RJM got it right. Add the word “complimentary” and the dining room will be full.

  30. See Pete’s comment about stuffing his face at the buffet. Most people probably don’t realize this exists, or as others have said, they are “afraid” of paying. Since they are in Polaris, that seems odd.

    If no one takes advantage, United will drop this in a hot minute.

  31. I am only permitted entry to Polaris Lounge in order to use the dining option on the OUTbound international flight in Business. So for every RT ticket, e.g., MSY-IAH-AMS/CDG/EZE-EWR-MSY, I only have one shot at it, and that is on the outbound flight. No good for dining after ARRIVING flight FROM international city and making a transfer to the final return destination. Thus, I can use it on only 1/2 of my international travel in Business on UA. Not so attractive therefor. Probably no one else minds, but I sure do.

  32. I was lucky enough to end up at the Polaris lounge in ORD on a return trip this week (someone else’s upgrade coupons plus a seriously delayed connecting flight), and if I had not read about the lounges on OMAAT and TPG, I also would have assumed that “a la carte dining” would be a paid add-on.

    I was there at about 1:30pm, and the dining area was filled about proportionately to the rest of the lounge (maybe about 20% capacity). I didn’t have much time, but I was able to order an excellent burger in the short turnaround.

  33. If you get food from the buffet you get to see what you’re eating in advance. And you control the portion size and timing. I also didn’t see any recharging outlets at those tables in the pic.

  34. “I am only permitted entry to Polaris Lounge in order to use the dining option on the OUTbound international flight in Business. So for every RT ticket, e.g., MSY-IAH-AMS/CDG/EZE-EWR-MSY, I only have one shot at it, and that is on the outbound flight. No good for dining after ARRIVING flight FROM international city and making a transfer to the final return destination.”

    No that’s not correct. As long as you have your Polaris boarding pass for the inbound international flight you can use the lounge during the INTL-DOM connection. I did just that a few weeks ago (at SFO) on the HKG-SFO-PDX sectors.

    Note the inbound flight has to be a UA flight in J (on other Star Alliance airlines it is outbound only).

    https://www.united.com/web/en-US/content/travel/airport/lounge/access.aspx

  35. Spent some time at Polaris ORD recently connecting to Intl flight. Enjoyed nice lunch during long layover. Dining area was almost empty.

  36. I have only visited the ORD lounge three times. First time was the opening month and then two more times 6 month apart. Very different experiences. The staff and drinks always great but the food not. In the opening month everything was great. Both next times i had chewy fried lukewarm chicken,smelly veggies, and oily overcooked pasta so… From now on only gonna do the small plates.

  37. United under Scott Kirby’s spreadsheet rule is banking flights. This cuts down on connection time for many people.

    TLDR: Scott Kirby sucks.

  38. Up until this post, I assumed it was food you have to pay for. Just like the beer at the united club, there is free cheap beer and the better beer you pay for. In the polaris lounge there is free food and the better food you pay for.

  39. At SFO last month, every seat in the dining room and main eating areas was taken on my inbound and outbound legs.
    No issues there. I’ll recheck in Sept when I go back through and I’ll check the LHR experience in Aug, now that you’ve brought this to light.

  40. I have been to the ORD Polaris lounge 4 times. On the first 3 times it was so crowded there was no seating at the dining area. On the fourth time it was around 11 AM mid-week and I wanted to order from the menu just because I was entitled to do so, on general principles. So I did. My order took 45 minutes to be delivered and I had to rush to eat before walking over to F gates for my flight home. Food was fine, not worth the wait, would rather have better items on the buffet.

  41. I wouldn’t go, because I wouldn’t want to have to “pay for my food” by tipping. If I could magically transport the lounge to Japan or France or Italy (i.e. no tipping), I would happily enjoy a free meal.

  42. We went to the ORD lounge last August, had plenty of time before our flight to CDG. We had to wait ~30 minutes before we could get a table for the a la carte dining, so the dining area was definitely packed.

    Our strategy was to eat a (better) dinner in the lounge and then try to sleep as much as possible on the plane since the flight was a red eye. If flying to Europe in UA biz again, we’ll definitely follow the same approach.

  43. I was in the Polaris lounge at sfo on June 28. I experienced the a la Carte dining which I thought was quite good. Service was fast. I had crab cakes and tomato basil soup. It was busy at times but there were always plenty of seats. I don’t think the word is out yet

  44. It just doesnt make sense to eat a lot at the lounge and then 1 hour later eat a 4 course meal on board. I guess people save their appetite for the plane, I know I do.

    Might also be the complimentary/do we have to pay $ misinformation deal.

  45. The last time I was in the ORD Polaris Lounge there was a waitlist for a table and it took 20 minutes for us to be seated.

  46. United needs to add signage throughout the lounge that the a la carte dining is complementary. And also add that the meals can be ready within 5-10 minutes. This will eliminate people’s confusion about the dining being gratis, as well as alleviate their concerns about the food taking too long to be served.

    I could actually see this a la carte dining being removed by United due to “low demand” if it doesn’t get utilized more.

  47. different than my experience at SFO. once during the break between breakfast and lunch they have to repeated turn away customers trying to see if they are open. another time I was there during dinner, I could only find 2 or 3 tables available for me with all others occupied. As people leaving after their meal I do not notice anyone tipping; probably because a check was never presented (so it doesn’t give people a visual cue of where to leave the tip).
    as a side note, around 10pm I had to wait for 5-10 minutes for shower, and there was people both before and after me in that queue.

  48. Been through the SFO Polaris lounge twice now. I only do ala carte dining on the way home after skipping the breakfast on the plane. And the burger is the only thing on the menu that I find appetizing. The food in the lounge is not great. On the outbound I far prefer the food served on the plane. I think people will eventually realize this.

    I’ve only tried menu dining in two other lounges: the Cathay lounge in HK and Qantas (LA) – they both blow Polaris away.

  49. I have been through the SFO Polaris lounge a couple of times now, always around 3-6PM. At that time, the lounge is quite empty and the restaurant has never been full or even semi-full. The food was okay but not more and the service quite slow.

  50. The dining room at the back of the SFO Polaris Lounge is often packed. People love the cioppino seafood stew, I guess! Service is great there, I was surprised to find. Most everyone I saw did tip there, so I don’t think people are turned off that. The servers were encouraging people to dine there, telling people that the tiramisu was only available in the dining room. But the Buffett selection seemed to suit most everyone else who wanted to be close to the bar.

  51. I prefer buffet. The main issue is time: I’ve been caught short in the Qantas F lounge, more than once, waiting an eternity for pretty ordinary food. A la carte might work for Lounge junkies/lizards and for those passengers who have plenty of time to spare. I just want something instantly, reasonably tasty and moderately healthy. The Emirates model is perfect for that.

  52. “where many people are traveling domestically, mostly in economy, so just about everyone treats the lounge as an all-you-can-eat buffet.”

    The sneer in that statement…

  53. This is probably why its a novelty in the USA. the customers just simply don’t want it and your observations seem to confirm this. The airlines know what they’re doing when it comes to offering market appropriate selections.

  54. Yep – Probably the IHOP scam fear raising its ugly head.

    “Would you like whipped cream or fresh fruit on your waffles?” Both of course cost money but the way it is presented one wrongly assumes it is is included. Then the bill comes and those $5 pancakes are now $10.

  55. I was in the lounge in Newark this past week. The waitress actually asked for a tip. Anyone else have that experience?

  56. I’m literally sitting in the Polaris lounge dining room right now in Chicago, and I’m still not convinced I won’t have to pay when I’m done eating!! It feels like it’s too good to be true, so they definitely should advertise more that it’s complimentary.

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