When sumptuous service was standard on U.S. airlines

March 17, 2021

Last week I admired international first class menu cover art from airlines around the world in the 1980s, 90s, and early 2000s, but stopped short of turning the page.  This week I take a look inside the menus at what U.S. airlines were offering up front by way of food and drink in those glory years of overseas long-hauls.  For the moment, I’ll focus just on what our own American carriers presented to their top customers to compete for their trade on flights outside the United States.

Even though I was aboard on all those flights, looking back surprises me.  How quickly I’ve adjusted to less than the best.  I guess that North American airlines have largely succeeded in dumbing down my expectations of fine and elegant wining and dining when I’m fortunate enough to snag a seat in today’s Business Class cabin.  Admitting, that is, that my baseline for comparison is pre-Covid; post-Covid sharp end service is yet to be revealed.

During that period, Delta, Northwest, United, and American vied for premium customer business by offering spectacular food and drink in what was then rightly called “First Class” before Business Class was invented.  Offerings were equal to or better than those of vaunted Singapore Airlines. 

My most astonishing discovery—which I’d totally forgotten—was that Delta was pouring Krug Champagne on its flights across the Pacific.  Krug!  And a vintage Krug, no less, one-upping the nonvintage brut Krug on Singapore.  Not even Concorde served me Krug.  Yet here it is on the wine menu from the airline that grew from spraying cotton fields in the South:

Krug wasn’t the only fine Champagne Delta was doling out in First Class in that era.  Taittinger Comtes de Champagne is a luxury blanc de blancs cuvee (100% Pinot Chardonnay grapes) I enjoyed aboard DL87 Los Angeles to Hong Kong in September, 1994:

In my flying experiences it was exceedingly rare to see the beautiful hand-painted flower bottle of Perrier-Jouet “Belle Epoque” Champagne, which is among my favorites.  I was happy to see it on my Delta flight, which I believe was one of many comfortable rides on Delta’s MD-11s across the Pacific:

Praising the Champagne—my fave adult in-flight beverage—I did not intend to give short shrift to Delta’s dining options on many of those same flights.  At one point the airline featured delightful entrees from Bayona, famed New Orleans chef Susan Spicer’s French Quarter jewel of a restaurant where I’ve feasted many times over the decades.  Bayona is a veritable garden of earthly delights, with many scrumptious creole dish options.  Seeing a Susan Spicer dish on the menu en route to Taipei came across as especially exotic, made even more so by seeing the dual description in Chinese characters. 

Note, too, the Sevruga caviar option on the facing page left.  I enjoyed a second serving!

On a homeward flight from Hong Kong, Delta outdid itself by offering Sevruga caviar and goose liver pate as appetizers, followed by lobster bisque.  Tough choice, so I had all three.  I remember relishing the three appetizers in multiple portions and then forgoing the entrée and dessert for fear my arteries would burst.  Accompanied by either Krug, Taittinger, or Perrier-Jouet.  Take that, SQ!  Food and wine at 35,000 feet doesn’t get much better.

Such spreads weren’t only available trans-Pacific. From Germany, Delta in First Class made sure Sevruga caviar was on even the lunch menu, as shown below (from Munich, I think).

Delta coughed up some serious money to put top-quality Beluga caviar (from the Black Sea) on offer as an appetizer on another flight over the Atlantic, along with lobster medallions and scallops.

Delta wasn’t the only airline offering classic New Orleans fare from famous French Quarter chefs on flights in the Far East.  Northwest bragged about its grilled salmon with “oriental mustard glaze” from the Crescent City’s Windsor Court Hotel.  I had to read it several times as I pondered what seemed an oxymoron of a recipe combining Cajun New Orleans culinary with an East Asian sauce.  But then it clicked:  New Orleans cooks have made mouth-watering, cross-cultural cuisine for centuries—and flavorful sauces are quintessential to both South Louisiana and the Orient.

Northwest was always a classy outfit with a great sensitivity and respect for Asian cultures.  The same First Class menu, given to me on a NW flight from Seoul to Tokyo, featured the Windsor Court description four languages, including English (above), with separate pages (below) in Japanese, Korean, and Mandarin.

Some other airlines did the same, as this Canadian Airlines First Class menu from a 1994 flight Bangkok to Hong Kong illustrates.

United over the big Pacific was, like Delta, mindful that it was competing against monster service from Cathay, Japan Airlines, Singapore, and others.  UA tended to put on the dog to win business on those routes, serving Dom Perignon and, in my memory, always keeping my glass topped off with fully chilled Champagne.  At that time United senior FAs twice slipped me an entire bottle of Dom to go in a bag as I left the 747 front cabin, once arriving in Tokyo, and on another occasion in Hong Kong.

In what struck me as a paradox, United also offered Chandon on the same page as Dom, the California version of bubbly by the Dom maker.  Who, I wondered, would choose Chandon over Dom? No contest!

United was thoughtful in presenting caviar correctly as its own course and not an appetizer, and it paired luxury Black Sea Beluga fish eggs with ice-cold vodka in the Russian tradition.  Very nicely done, I always thought, and I remember plenty of Beluga was stocked for those of us who wanted seconds.  Or even thirds.  After all, caviar isn’t fattening.

I remember that American Airlines mostly brought up the rear in the race for international First Class food and drink.  This menu, which I believe came from a European flight, at least shows a caviar offering.  However, AA has crammed everything onto facing pages—a slap in the face to style—and the mention of caviar is cavalier, with no distinction of source (Caspian, Sevruga, Beluga, etc.), as well as being lost among the list of appetizers. 

Heck, even the “warm nuts” comes before caviar.  Not very classy for First Class overseas.  On the other hand, I recall that few fellow passengers opted for black fish eggs, and the flight attendants were more than happy to bring all the leftovers to me for finish off, which prompted me to donate my chateaubriand entrée to the galley for their dining pleasure behind the curtain.  My generosity was rewarded again later with both a hot fudge and a butterscotch sundae.

7 thoughts on “When sumptuous service was standard on U.S. airlines

  1. Thanks for a delicious journey down memory lane… especially enjoyable as I am a displaced New Orleans native, who worked for several years in F&B at Windsor Court and knew both Chef Kevin and Susan Spicer. Sadly I doubt we will ever experience that level of offerings again in the air,

    1. I agree! More’s the pity! At least I can still enjoy the fine NOLA cuisine when I visit.

      I envy your experience working at Windsor Court and knowing both chefs. That’s a great lifetime memory.

  2. Very sad but true. The airlines have been on a slippery slop downwards (Bob sledding would be more appropriate). The only motivation is bottom line, and being consummate liars simultaneously.

  3. Going back nearly 40 years, even domestic first class could be pretty special. I recall Chateaubriand being sliced from chart on a couple of Continental Denver to Newark diner flights!

  4. In 1967 I flew A-class (Propeller First Class) on United between Lansing and Chicago O’Hare. It was my first flight ever, and the equipment was a DC-6 retired from Mainliner service. On the way back to Lansing we were served shrimp cocktail and steak. And I only paid $15.65 round trip!

  5. In the 70’s my Dad let me fly first class from Chicago to Phoenix. American hand tossed the salad fresh.in the aisle on a cart. Amazing!!!

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