Flying was on the menu

Being stuck at home this past year has provided ample time to sort and declutter piles of travel files collected over fifty-plus years of flying.

Some stuff was just junk and got recycled. But not all was worthless; well, at least, not to me.

I came across a large cache of memorabilia of international flying starting in the 1980s when I could first afford First Class overseas.  For reasons that perplex my wife—who thinks I’m crazy, anyway—I brought home quite a number of wine and food menus from some of those wonderful flights.

Looking back over those testaments to flying in the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s, I realize international First Class service reached a zenith that has never since been equaled or eclipsed.  Even in the immediate post-9/11 era, while U.S. airlines drastically retrenched, most overseas carriers continued to provide superior sharp-end service.  The worldwide decline in front cabin service standards, in my opinion, occurred somewhat later as most First Class cabins were replaced by improved versions of Business Class.

Recently, I began cataloging and admiring the menus I’d brought home over that 20+ year period.  I have over 100, as seen in the picture below.  The ones on the table are just the International FIRST CLASS menus, including two British Airways Concorde flights. The lowly business class menus are on the chair seat.

Maybe, I thought, I should blog about some of those experiences.  After all, I remember a lot of those often spectacular meals.  I especially remember the caviars (called out in various menus as Beluga, Sevruga, Osetra, Iranian, and Caspian) which EVEN DELTA was serving in the 90s.

I distinctly remember the fine red wines and the Champagnes, vintages like the Dom Perignon 1980 on Concorde in 1989.

And on a bunch of menus, I made notes to myself about the food and drink.  For example, one famous label French white I described as “Horrible! Like drinking ditch water.”

But my wife’s reaction, and that of a professional journalist friend whose opinion I trust, to my saving the menus was the same:  “Why?”

This is where my expectations and levels of anticipation about flying differ from most folks.  To me, the nuanced experiences of getting there has always been as important as arriving. The menus deeply thrill me with multiple layers of happy remembrances.  And thus I will soon write about some of those flights and the memories they conjure.

Not in every case, but on some I remember:

  • The order of service,
  • Whether the cutlery was silver or cheap metal,
  • Whether the glassware was crystal or shoddy glass,
  • The FA attitudes (genuine or contrived),
  • Whether they kept my water glass full (and my Champagne),
  • Whether the silverware and crystal was laid out correctly,
  • Whether the napkin was linen or a cheap and disgusting cotton-polyester,
  • The nuanced flavors (or not),
  • Whether what was supposed to be hot was hot and whether cold was cold,
  • The presentations,
  • The quantities,
  • Whether I was asked if I wanted second servings,
  • Whether the cabin crew tried to rush me for their own convenience,
  • The olfactory excitation—especially the wines,
  • The artistry and quality of the dining and wine menus itself (many are indeed things of beauty in and of themselves),
  • The variety and selection of wines – for example, Asiana in the 1990s in First Class offered no less than four luxury cuvee Champagnes to choose from—and that was just the Champagnes on offer, and
  • Whether the FAs offered me an entire bottle of wine or Champagne to take with me on arrival (UA several times gave me an unopened bottle of Dom as I left one of their trans-Pacific 747s).

That’s just off the top of my head.  As I browse the menus, rich memories are stirred of sharp-end experiences, albeit ephemeral—just a few hours of flying that, to me, are as much fun as where I am going. 

Or a disappointment.  I noted the little things in cabin service up front, too: 

  • Whether I was greeted by name,
  • Shown to my seat,
  • Assisted with carryon,
  • Immediately offered a glass of Champagne,
  • My jacket whisked away and hung (and brought back just after touchdown, neatly folded, and sometimes brushed and pressed),
  • Whether the Champagne was a fine one and poured in front of me (a sure sign of pride and care, as opposed to filling a line of glasses in the galley),
  • Whether the Champagne was properly chilled and fizzy, and
  • Whether the purser or chief FA came by to speak (I never cared whether the Captain came by, as he wasn’t invested in cabin service).

All those recollections come pouring back as I look through the menus, some vivid when I read my notes scribbled onto menus about the flights. 

I could always tell if the service was truly spectacular or if the FAs were just acting out parts.  Singapore, for example, with grand marketing about superior service, certainly offered expensive wines and food, but their lovely and polite cabin crews somehow never came across as sincere and confident in what they were doing.  SQ service seemed stiff and rote as opposed to the unaffected charm and poise of senior British Airways flight attendants.

The pinnacle of BA professionalism shone aboard Concorde, which I flew JFK to LHR and back one lucky week in late 1989.  I took along a camcorder and have a lengthy DVD record of the entire trip, which I’ve often thought of posting to YouTube. Passengers were given this binder as a keepsake:

The short three and half hours across the Atlantic was hardly sufficient for a deep dive into Concorde’s wine treasures, though I gave it the old college try.  I remember being gleefully knee-walking drunk by the time I stumbled off at Heathrow and glad not to be working the next day.  Here are two photos of the menus and some of the memorabilia from those flights:

I have scaled back my international front cabin expectations these days to be appropriately low of Business Class, let alone when sitting in mid-cabin Premium Economy or sardine-class Coach.  Armed with such a realistic Zen attitude, I am always shocked and humbled when I find superb and sincere service in, say, lowly coach on Emirates.  No, not the hoity-toity luxuries presented to me in seat 1A of yesteryear, but, hey, no regrets.  I have great memories of the way things were.

Reliving some of those memories, I’ll use the menus to muse about frivolous but fun stuff like which ones were the most artful and which ones were just plain ugly, a discussion of caviars (never a bad one to my palate), thoughts on good and not-so-good wines way up in the sky, and perhaps the correlation of food quality served versus dishes described in print.  And so on.  After all, if I can’t really go anywhere exotic right now, why not enjoy happy reminiscences of past trips?

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