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The Best Restaurants in the Sky

These airlines are stepping it up a notch with gourmet, inflight dining.

When it comes to inflight dining, airlines are upping their game to win attention from travelers. Few might base travel plans around what’s being served after takeoff, but it can certainly make a positive impression.

On longer flights with only endless sitcoms, napping, or reading to pass the time, the dining experience is actually something to look forward to. The pointy (pricey) end of the plane has long been pampered with tasty meals, but throw in a few celebrity chefs and it can become a bonafide restaurant in the sky.

It’s not as easy as it sounds, though. Flavor palates change at high altitude, meaning what might taste sensational on the ground falls flat on the taste buds in the sky. Add to that cramped galleys with limited storage space, and the challenge craft restaurant-quality meals only grows.

Restaurants in the sky

Many airlines are tweaking recipes to more easily create the experience of a gourmet restaurant in the air. Delta recently launched a menu from restaurateur Danny Meyer’s Union Square Café in New York on select transatlantic flights, serving dishes like short rib stracotto and gulf shrimp and polenta. Delta also partners with Napa Valley chef and Food Network star Michael Chiarello to serve Southern Italian cuisine with a Californian twist on its transcontinental flights, as well as restaurateur and Chef Linton Hopkins for southern-inspired meals on select business class flights from Atlanta.

JetBlue shook things up when it launched its Mint premium cabin offering meals plucked from the menu of New York’s Saxon + Parole restaurant. Australian Chef Neil Perry of Sydney’s Rockpool Bar and Grill crafts dishes for Qantas passengers including a savory lamb cassoulet and celeriac and farro soup.

Chef Danny Meyer's of the Union Square Café

Of course, the success of Nobu restaurants is no secret, but Qatar Airways’s inflight meal service may surprise fans of its namesake chef, Nobu Matsuhisa, and colleague Vineet Bhatia. The duo are in charge of many of the la carte menu items in first and business class.

Hawaiian Airlines partners with a rotating class of top chefs to cater its island-flavored meals. This month, Chef Lee Anne Wong from Honolulu’s Koko Head Cafe is designing the menu, which includes a miso-ginger salmon salad and mahi poke omelet.

Those with a penchant for Nordic tastes will find Finnair to be as close as it gets to Michelin-starred flying. Good luck getting a reservation at Helsinki’s Nokka, but Finnair serves many of its recipes in the sky. To top it off, tasty dishes like wild reindeer and grilled sander fillet are served on stylish dishware from Finnish designer Marimekko.

Airlines like to regionalize the menu depending upon the destination, but Singapore Airlines goes one step further and partners with its own international panel of chefs including New York culinary star Alfred Portale, executive chef of Gotham Bar & Grill and named “best chef in New York” by the James Beard Foundation, and Sanjeev Kapoor, a master chef with one of the longest running culinary programs in India.

Chef Marcus Lindner of Hotel Alpina Gstaad designs menus on Swiss International flights; the latest offering includes veal ragout with arugula spätzle and pike perch with cider compote. Even in economy class, Zurich’s well-known vegetarian restaurant Hiltl crafts the meat-free dining choices.

Chinese American Chef Anita Lo, owner of Annisa in New York, designs menus for Air China’s North American flights. KLM flights departing Amsterdam are treated to dishes like fillet of cod with traditional mustard from Dutch Chef Jacob Jan Boerma of the triple Michelin-starred Restaurant de Leest in Vaassen. Boerma also operates a new restaurant in Amsterdam’s renovated Hotel Krasnapolsky adding yet another feather to his cap.

Michelin-starred chef Daniel Boulud is crafting business and first class meals for Air France on 11 of its North American routes (including Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York among others). The entrees all have French routes, but portray a bit of international flair. Options include sea bass wrapped in vine leaves with za’atar, farro, and grape or Moroccan chicken tagine with lemon, cauliflower, and couscous.

Even airlines focused on leisure travel are pulling out the stops for passengers paying for a premium seat. Thomas Cook Airlines serves meals planned by British Chef James Martin known for his BBC series, “Saturday Kitchen.”

It’s all in the presentation

What good is chef-inspired cuisine if it’s slapped down on a cheap, plastic tray? Typically, airlines offer the most refined experience in first class, complete with caviar carts and wine tastings. Some airlines choose to invest not only in the ingredients, but the service delivery in business class, too.

Most North American and European carriers rattle down the aisle with a beat-up cart, which in business class does not lend itself to an appetizing experience. Others like Lufthansa and Qatar Airways opt for a more restaurant-style setup forgoing trays and setting up tables with linens, service ware, and bread baskets while following the passenger’s own pace of dining.

Turkish Airlines serves appetizers a la carte from a multi-level trolley allowing passengers to choose as much as they like. Royal Jordanian serves the main meal family style where passengers can see large casserole dishes of food and try a bit of everything.

Inflight chefs, donning white toques, travel aboard Austrian and Turkish Airlines flights to prepare cuisine crafted by catering company Do & Co. They are tasked with taking orders and plating meals with flair. Airline food is cooked on the ground and then immediately chilled and transferred to the aircraft to be reheated inflight. While the chef may not cook meals from scratch, they can add a little sizzle to the experience.

Reservations at these sky-high dining rooms are significantly more expensive than your favorite Earth-bound restaurant, but the views can be much better at 36,000 feet.

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