Which Airlines Have the Best Food and Drinks?

From bibimbap to Ethiopian doro wat, handcrafted cheese to Icelandic craft gin, these are some of the best food and drinks we’ve had at cruising altitude.

A meal tray with five food items in an Air France business-class seat

Air France is among the airlines that is seriously upping its culinary game—especially in business class.

Photo by Jessie Beck

In-flight drinking and dining are in the midst of a massive rebirth following the pause in food and beverage services during the pandemic. From Air France linking up with renowned chefs to curate its premium meals, to Delta’s new food and wine options across its cabin categories, and Hawaiian Airlines’ island-inspired in-flight meals, carriers are finding new and innovative ways to tantalize our taste buds, which isn’t always easy to do at altitude.

“We cannot serve [seafood] that’s raw. So, how do you serve a raw oyster without serving a raw oyster? This is actually a slow-poached oyster, 165 degrees for about 30 or 40 minutes and then I do an escabeche style on them,” explains chef Molly Brandt of in-flight catering service Gategroup. In December, Gategroup, the largest airline caterer in the world, hosted a tasting at the company’s Seattle food preparation center. Brandt, who showcased dishes that included the aforementioned oyster shooter, a beautifully rich chanterelle mousse, a butternut-rutabaga okonomiyaki, and (my personal favorite) a teriyaki chicken loaf, was brought on board to present new and exciting recipes to airline clients that are looking to differentiate themselves from the competition—especially in an increasingly heated race to court and impress premium customers.

As airlines bring back their meal programs, snack options (both complimentary and paid), and drink menus en masse, the return of such offerings has been met with mixed reviews. For some (usually seated toward the front of the plane where most of the culinary innovations take place), it can be an exciting and rewarding part of the flying experience, while for others (often those in cattle class), it’s a reminder of just how disappointing airplane food continues to be.

But in 2024, the aim is to continually up the ante, regardless of where you are sitting, says Jens Kuhlen, president of Gategroup North America, which works with airlines that include Delta Air Lines, Virgin Atlantic, Air France, and Air Canada. The goal is to be “innovative” in terms of designing in-flight meals and to present “what is hopefully not a boring meal when you are up in the air, regardless of which class you’re in.” Kuhlen notes that, in addition to culinary innovations, airline catering services like Gategroup are also striving to reduce their environmental impact by presenting more sustainable packaging, dishware, cups, and cutlery.

Despite a stereotypical disappointment that has plagued airplane food for years, most frequent travelers (ourselves included) have had at least a few great (memorable even) meals, snack items, or beverages at cruising altitude. Here are some of the in-flight food and drinks that have impressed AFAR editors and contributors the most.

Airlines with the best inflight food

Several Ethiopian dishes alongside some rolled-up injera

If you’re traveling business class on Ethiopian Airlines, you’ll get treated to a selection of traditional dishes and injera flatbread.

Photo by Linda Hughes Photography/Shutterstock

Ethiopian Airlines’ traditional Ethiopian spread in business

A welcome departure from most other business-class meals, Ethiopian Airlines rolls out an assortment of traditional Ethiopian meat and vegetable dishes alongside the iconic injera flatbread that is used to scoop it all up. This is definitely not your standard plated meal. For those seated in business (or what Ethiopian refers to as “Cloud Nine”), flight attendants bring out a cart loaded with rolls of the flatbread (and by rolls, I mean the sour, almost pancake-like injera bread rolled up in small spongy tubes) and large bowls of traditional saucy dishes such as the stew-like chicken doro wot. You can also add some vegetable side dishes to your colorful plate from a beyenatu spread that might include green beans, yellow split peas with turmeric, and spiced lentils. The smorgasbord of selections are then meant to be sopped up using torn-off pieces of injera bread just as you would do at a traditional Ethiopian restaurant. It’s a great introduction for those heading to Ethiopia, or one final taste of Ethiopian cuisine before heading home. — Michelle Baran, deputy editor, news

Overhead view of Korean Air's standard bibimbap in-flight meal

It’s rare to get a decent meal in economy—Korean Air’s standard bibimbap is the exception.

Photo by Dr. Victor Wong/Shutterstock

Korean Air’s bibimbap in economy

For me, eating economy-class airplane food is usually only reserved for moments of absolute emergency. I usually skip it entirely and just plow through my personal snack stash. But there has been one time in all my years of international travel that I was actually impressed with the back of the plane offering, and that was flying Korean Air and opting for the bibimbap. It’s a build your own adventure of rice, ground pork, and assorted veggies, which you stir together with the provided hot pepper Gochujang sauce (you add as little or as much as you want to reach your desired spice level) and bean paste. So fun, so simple, so delicious, so satisfying. And I’m not the only one who has noticed Korean Air’s standout meals. In December, the carrier was named as best for airline cuisine in Global Traveler’s annual reader survey, and Korean Air is continuing to innovate with a recently introduced vegan menu inspired by traditional Korean temple cuisine. —M.B.

Alaska Airlines' Signature fruit and cheese platter on an airplane tray table between a small box of water and a blue charging iPhone

Can you ever really go wrong with a solid cheese plate like Alaska Airlines Signature fruit and cheese platter?

Photo by Ingrid Barrenrine/Alaska Airlines

Alaska Airlines’ cheese plate

I’m not saying that my loyalty to Alaska Airlines stems from its Signature Fruit & Cheese Platter, but I’m also not saying that isn’t the reason. It doesn’t matter when the flight is—it could be a red-eye from Seattle to New York for all I care—I’m going to order the cheese tray. It includes two pieces of Tillamook’s Sharp Cheddar, a wedge of brie, two triangles of Beecher’s Flagship Handmade Cheese, five crackers, green and purple grapes, apple slices, and a Seattle Chocolate dark chocolate truffle. It’s reliable, has the perfect cheese-to-cracker ratio, and in a world of overpriced airline snacks, it’s surprisingly affordable at just $8.50.

For me, especially when paired with a glass of wine and an in-flight movie, it’s the perfect little luxury to kick-start a trip. And if you’re looking for a testament to how tasty and loved the trays are, consider this: The fruit and cheese trays are always offered as a complimentary business-class meal option, in addition to whatever else is on offer. And it’s usually what is snatched up first.

When it first landed on the in-flight menu, it was on a first-come, first-served basis, meaning that they could (and often did) run out of trays before reaching those seated in the back of the plane, which sometimes led to in-air meltdowns. Postpandemic, they’ve switched to a preorder system, where in-flight meals must be ordered through the app at least 24 hours before takeoff. Now, if I’m traveling alone, I’ll order two: One for myself and one to bring home to my partner, who feels just as passionately about the cheesy goodness as I do. —Bailey Berg, contributor

Salmon with baby carrots and green vegetables on a white plate with a pitcher of sauce adjacent

Air France recently tapped chef Dominique Crenn to create meals for long-haul business-class fliers.

Courtesy of Air France

Air France’s Michelin-backed business-class meals

Food is one of the areas where Air France really shines, which I recently got to experience during a flight in the French carrier’s newly updated business-class cabins. The in-flight menus are designed in collaboration with more than a dozen French chefs, including some names behind Michelin-starred restaurants, such as Dominique Crenn from San Francisco’s Atelier Crenn. Since it was a morning flight, I ordered a sizable brunch featuring an English muffin topped with salmon lox, in addition to a warm mushroom and spinach frittata, fresh fruit, and plain yogurt with granola. Toward the end of the flight, I was also served a light snack that included a savory, puff pastry dish, an almond financier, and more fresh fruit. A selection of packaged snacks, including a truly decadent gourmet chocolate bar, was served between meal services.

Those who are flying during dinner service can expect an even more exciting selection of dishes, which, depending on the day, could be a savory beef fillet with port sauce and carrots or a vegetarian risotto with artichokes and mushrooms. Naturally, the French airline also offers an excellent array of wine and champagne for business-class passengers, such as a refreshing 2021 Chablis Jean-Marc Brocard Vieilles Vignes De Sainte-Claire. —Jessie Beck, associate director, video and SEO

ANA’s first-class Japanese multicourse feast

A few years ago, I redeemed points for ANA’s magnificent first-class product called “The Suite” while traveling from New York to Tokyo. When it comes to the meal, passengers can select between a Western cuisine menu and a Japanese set menu, the latter typically heavier on the seafood. If you enjoy Japanese food and you’ve never had a set meal at 35,000 feet, you’ll be in for a treat. The meal was an over-the-top, multicourse feast that started with a delicate amuse bouche, followed by a selection of bite-size morsels, from simmered duck to deep-fried scallops to abalone and cucumber. Next, I was presented with a selection of fresh sashimi, including seared tuna and poached squid. And to cap it all off, I received my main course, a grilled, delicate Atlantic salmon, simmered beef with a red miso sauce, and accompaniments of steamed rice, miso soup, and Japanese pickles. The entire meal, from the elaborate presentation to the distinct flavors, was the perfect preview of upcoming culinary delights in Japan. —Chris Dong, contributor

Overhead view of green bowl containing seared tuna sashimi

ANA treats first-class passengers to a full-blown Japanese feast, including seared tuna sashimi.

Courtesy of Parco Chan/Unsplash

ANA’s vegan pasta in economy

In another vote for ANA’s food service, I have to give a nod to the vegan selection in economy. I’m not vegan, but a request for a vegetarian meal often gets routed as one. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was pleasantly surprised when I received a pasta with grilled mushrooms and leeks. The leeks were cooked enough to bring out their natural sweetness. A flavorful chickpea salad offered protein, which is often missing on vegetarian airline food. The fruit for dessert was perfectly ripe and crisp. —Sarika Bansal, editorial director

Austrian Airlines’ vegetarian service in business

Vegetarian meals on airplanes are even less inspired than standard meals. They come in two varieties: soggy pastas or greasy curries. So I was really impressed with how tasty, healthy—and appropriately sauced—the vegetarian service was in Austrian’s business class. The chef even came out and delivered the meal to me personally (or a guy in a chef’s hat, which is basically the same thing at 35,000 feet). Regardless, every course was delicious—and that’s by ground-based restaurant standards. I liked that the menu didn’t try to do anything especially complex or boundary-pushing, it just stuck to solid vegetable-based standards and executed them well. The meal started with a quinoa salad on top of surprisingly ripe tomatoes, progressed to a mix of grilled-just-right tofu and lightly seasoned vegetables, and finished with a berry cake in vanilla sauce. Whether you go for the vegetarian meal or not, don’t miss the Almdudler soda—the blend of herbs and elderflower is something of a classic in Austria. Also worth noting is that last year Austrian launched a new long-haul catering concept dubbed “Tastefully Austrian,” which includes a new Viennese coffeehouse service with coffees prepared directly in front of passengers and an accompanying dessert. And there’s also a separate cheese trolley.—Billie Cohen, executive editor

Icelandic gin and tonic on Icelandair, with closeup of mini bottle of gin and can of tonic next to glass of drink with lemon slice and small bowl of cheese crackers

Get an education in Icelandic gin courtesy of Icelandair.

Photo by Lyndsey Matthews

Icelandair’s gin library in the premium seats

I’m usually a ginger ale man when I’m flying—or Bloody Mary mix if I’m feeling really adventurous—but I was inspired to embrace my inner gin snob on a recent flight to Reykjavík in Icelandair’s Saga Premium cabin (Icelandair’s versions of business class). The drinks menu includes a “Gin Library” with a selection of spirits distilled on the island, and its blend of Nordic botanicals almost felt like an olfactory preview of what I’d be experiencing in a few hours: Ólafsson Gin, flavored with Arctic thyme, birch, and mountain moss; sweetly floral Himbrimi Old Tom Gin, with wildflowers and mountain honey; 64º Reykjavík Angelica Gin, which includes foraged angelica seeds alongside blueberries, rhubarb, crowberries, and caraway; and Glacier Gin, which is all about the pure Icelandic water, with notes of dandelion and bergamot. I tried a few, and they paired particularly perfectly with these little cheese crackers that come out as a predinner snack—and that I’ve been trying to find online ever since. —Nicholas DeRenzo, contributor

Michelle Baran is a deputy editor at AFAR where she oversees breaking news, travel intel, airline, cruise, and consumer travel news. Baran joined AFAR in August 2018 after an 11-year run as a senior editor and reporter at leading travel industry newspaper Travel Weekly.
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