American Airlines opens its completely renovated Flagship Lounge on Thursday at Terminal 8 in New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, and journalists from Travel + Leisure, Food & Wine, and Fortune got an exclusive sneak peek.
The all-new lounge dedicated to business and first class fliers is part of the carrier’s $200-million investment in updating its aging premiere passenger lounges, which haven’t received a facelift since the 1980s. The Flagship lounge at JFK is the first to open, with the next renovated spaces scheduled to re-open this summer in Miami, followed by Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and eventually London.
Business and first class travelers flying on international and transcontinental routes from New York City will have exclusive access to the new Flagship Lounge. (Tough luck, Admirals Club members.) You’ll need a business class or first class ticket on qualifying itineraries to gain entry, or be an elite member of American’s AAdvantage program or invitation-only Concierge Key loyalty program for VIPs. More on that later.
The restricted access isn’t surprising, however. Given American’s merger with U.S. Airways and the combining of both airlines’ loyalty programs, the influx of elite members from both carriers has resulted in more fliers vying for upgrades as well as competing for space in American’s airport lounges.
The Flagship experience begins when travelers first arrive at Terminal 8 and use Flagship First Check-In, with seemingly white-gloved treatment normally reserved for VIPs and celebrities.
After entering a private, dedicated area designed to help international and transcontinental passengers get to the lounge faster, an American Airlines escort helps them check their luggage before whisking them through security via TSA Pre-Check.
While waiting for their flights to begin boarding, Flagship fliers have the option to relax in one of the lounge’s 310 seats and indulge in a full complimentary self-service cocktail bar, as well as a wine and champagne island and all-day buffet. There’s even a themed make-your-own specialty cocktail bar. On the day that we visited, it was a Bloody Mary bar in the morning and an Old Fashioned bar in the afternoon.
The lounge also has eight large shower rooms to help international travelers refresh before or after a long haul flight.
But the highlight of the new lounge is its Flagship First dining room, available only to First Class travelers. It is the first restaurant-style dining option to be offered by a U.S. carrier, joining similar offerings at lounges operated by British Airways, Qantas, Lufthansa, and the Gulf-based airlines.
The sit-down, full-service restaurant is completely complimentary and offers a seasonal menu with locally sourced ingredients. Artisanal cheese is supplied by Sprout Creek Farms in Poughkeepsie, New York, and the Flagship Burger is made with grass-fed beef from the award-winning Joyce Farms in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. To see our review of the new Flagship First Dining experience, watch the video above.
On the day of our visit, we tried the arancini and smoked duck breast appetizers, which are far superior to any of the other dining options available elsewhere in Terminal 8. We were also treated to a perfectly poached Loch Duart salmon filet from Scotland served with cauliflower risotto, a wild mushroom ragout, and doused just before serving with a warm spring broth. And we were pleasantly surprised by the fragrant aroma of the spiced lentil cake, an island of joy set in an oasis of tikka masala and served with goan stir-fried baby corn.
But the highlight of the meal was the flavorful, fresh Flagship Burger, a juicy sirloin patty capped with a generous spoonful of red onion and bacon marmalade, arugula, and a slice of beefsteak tomato. It is, perhaps, the best airport burger I’ve ever tasted.
Flagship First dining will only be available at American’s Flagship lounges in New York City, Miami, Los Angeles, Dallas-Fort Worth, and London. The menus are regionally inspired: For example, the Flagship Lounge in Miami will include ceviche and mofongo, to cater to passengers passing onto Central and South America, and we’re told that the Flagship First menu in Dallas will offer BBQ.
The lounges in Chicago and Philadelphia will have all-day buffets and cocktails, but without the complementary first-class dining experience, since they don’t serve as many transcontinental or international passengers.
A craft cocktail menu for all of the new Flagship Lounges was designed by renowned mixologist Pamela Wiznitzer. We particularly loved the gin basil lemonade, the spiced tequila, and the champagne cocktail. The wine list was chosen by master sommelier Desmond Echavarrie, a French Laundry alum. Our favorites include the lounge’s signature wines from Truchard, a 2015 Chardonnay and 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as a 2015 Avignonesi Montepulciano. Craft beers from Brooklyn Brewery and Sam Adams, as well as locally sourced spirits, also dominate the bar menu.
How to get access to American's Flagship Lounges
You must be traveling in first or business class on qualifying international flights operated by American Airlines or a oneworld airline between the U.S. and Europe, Asia, Central America, South America, Australia, New Zealand, and Mexico City, or on non-stop transcontinental flights between JFK and LAX, JFK and SFO, or LAX and MIA. International first class customers are permitted one guest, while other qualifying customers are not allowed to bring any guests.
Concierge Key members are allowed access only if departing or connecting to any flight marketed and operated by American or oneworld alliance carriers, regardless of cabin.
AAdvantage elite members, including Executive Platinum, Platinum Pro, and Platinum fliers are allowed entry on qualifying international flights operated by American or oneworld airlines, regardless of cabin. Executive Platinum customers traveling solely on North American itineraries, defined as the U.S, Canada, Mexico (except Mexico City), Bermuda, the Bahamas, and the Caribbean, do not qualify.
Oneworld elite members who have achieved Emerald and Sapphire status are permitted entry if departing or connecting to any flight marketed and operated by American or a oneworld airline, regardless of cabin, and are able to bring one guest.
How to get access to American’s Flagship First dining room
Complimentary full-service dining is available to first class passengers on American’s 3-class international and transcontinental flights between the U.S. and Europe, Asia, South America, and Australia, as well as on non-stop flights between JFK and LAX, JFK and SFO, and MIA and LAX.
First class fliers on international routes are permitted one guest, while guests are not allowed for first class fliers on transcontinental flights.
This article originally appeared in Travelandleisure.com