Review: United Polaris Lounge Chicago

TL;DR Version: The Polaris lounge at O’Hare is the first legacy carrier operated lounge I would ever consider going out of my way to arrive early at.  Today, I did just that—arriving at 7:30 am for a 4:15 pm departure.  And for the avoidance of doubt, I loved every minute of it.

The experience began with a series of welcoming smiles, which is something I most certainly do not take for granted when it comes to the legacy carriers.  Smiles are very rare and precious commodity at UA ever since the Continental acquisition merger, and it was a nice change of pace to see so many of them at the Polaris lounge.

After I was given the grand tour by a lounge attendant who was clearly very proud (and rightly so) of what they’ve built here, I made my way around the lounge taking photo after relentless photo.  This is the part of blogging that I’ve found the most difficult to handle so far: the awkwardness of making everyone else feel awkward—by taking twenty thousand photos.  Perhaps it’s all in my head, since the staff truly embraced—and even encouraged—my photography, but still… it felt weird.

The first thing you notice when you walk in is that there are about 37 staff members in view at all times.  And given that I was only one of five people in the lounge at 7:30 am, that equated to roughly a 1,000-to-1 staff-to-guest ratio.  At least, it felt that way.

Believe it or not, there are no pax in this picture.

When I finally sat down in the reserved dining area, I was quickly intercepted by a waiter who was now the third person to remind me that, “everything is complimentary.” Unfortunately, this time it was followed up with, “I just bring that up in case you would like to leave a tip.”  It’s 7:30 am, I’m half-asleep, I haven’t even sat down yet, and you’re seriously already hitting me up for a tip?  As much as I tried not to think about it, that comment preoccupied my mind for the entire rest of my stay.  I didn’t want to be the jerk who didn’t leave a tip, but at the same time I didn’t like feeling as though I was being told what to do.  In the end, I did leave him a $10 tip, but only because his service was actually good—not because he guilted me into it.  I think.

Switching gears slightly, I learned early on from being a regular reader of One Mile at a Time that balancing attentiveness vs. privacy is a very challenging—yet important—skill for those in the service industry.  On the one hand, if you’re left alone for too long, then you’re feeling neglected when you need something.  On the other hand, if you’re constantly stared at by the entire staff, it can feel overbearing and even oppressive.  In the early am hours, the team certainly leaned towards the latter.  Everything I discussed with the waiter was overheard by four to five other employees at the bar, to the point that I might as well have ordered from my table without a waiter—the staff at the bar had already entered the details of my order long before my waiter could even walk the ten steps back to the bar.

Aside from the abundant staffing levels, the second thing you’ll notice is that there is plenty of general seating.

Beyond that, you’ll also find more than enough “reserved” seating for their restaurant-style dining area, which I was extremely excited to try after hearing about so much about its impending launch.

Before we jump into the dining service, let’s quickly cover off on the other services in the lounge.

Throughout the day, there is a fully stocked buffet area.  Breakfast options are offered from opening until 10:30 am.

Right around 11:00 am is when they switched over to their lunch/dinner buffet options.

Truth be told, I didn’t try a single buffet item because I wanted to save my appetite for the formal dining service, so I’m afraid I can’t offer any opinions. That said, everything looked great.

After photographing the buffet, I was proactively asked by an attentive staff member whether I would like to take pictures of the valet area.  Umm, let me think… yes, please!

Inside the dedicated valet section, there are two separate areas: one for showers, and another for angled daybeds.  Both areas are technically limited to 50 minutes of use, but I was told that if there isn’t a line, they’ll let you extend your stay.  They just want to ensure that you don’t miss your flight, which, to my naïve surprise has apparently already happened many times since the relatively recent opening of this wonderful O’Hare oasis (December, 2016).

After getting my photographic fill of the shower stalls, I was escorted to the day beds by my energetic and exuberant United accompaniment.

Daybed Amenities

View from the Daybeds

After parting ways with my tour guide, I took a couple of quick snaps of the main restroom area.

When I first arrived, I thought the large quantity of restrooms was farcical.  But it didn’t take long for the lounge to fill up, and for me to stand corrected—they were nearly all full.

And now without further ado, let’s move on to the dining service.  Let me start by saying that it pains me to admit this of any legacy carrier, but the food was not only outstanding—it actually far exceeded that of many of the world’s top international lounges, some of which don’t even offer a cook-to-order service (at least not this extensive).  In fact, as I write this, I am sitting in a undisclosed German first class area that is well known to be separate from the main terminal, and while I really enjoyed their dim sum service this morning, that was really all they had to offer from a cook-to-order perspective aside from eggs.  I seriously cannot believe I am saying this out loud—especially in reference to a legacy U.S. carrier.  Ben is going to kill me if he finds out about this.

One thing to keep in mind is that they will tell you at the front desk that breakfast dining service is from opening until 10:30 am, but the truth is that the kitchen closes for breakfast orders at 9:50 am, so make sure to get your order in by then, otherwise you’ll have to wait until they transition to lunch service at 10:30 am.

Dine on Demand Breakfast Menu

I ordered the Smoked Salmon and Potato Latkes with caviar, but received a poached egg on smoked salmon instead. I’m not sure what happened, but it was still very tasty.

Brioche French Toast

Let me be clear—they don’t carry whipped cream at the Polaris lounge.  Not even canned which cream (which to aficionados like me is an abomination anyway).  But that didn’t matter.  My server, who once rubbed me the wrong way when he hit me up for a tip in the first five minutes of my arrival, had committed to twisting the chef’s arm into whipping some up just for me—from scratch.  Not that that’s difficult or anything… but most proper restaurants can’t even be bothered, let alone lounges operated by legacy carriers.  By this point he’d earned that tip, and we hadn’t even gotten to lunch yet.

Speaking of lunch…

Buttermilk Fried Chicken

Shrimp and Grits

The fried chicken was killer.  It had just the right amount of mouth-watering flavor combined with good supplement of spice.  I was at a loss for what to try next, so I eventually decided to go with something I rarely order: shrimp and grits.  Never in a million years would I have expected to like it even more than the fried chicken, but that’s exactly what happened.  Order it!  You won’t be sorry.

Before I close out this review with the full menu, let me just say that the cocktails were downright awesome.  Every.  Single.  One.  Of.  Them.

Even the cocktails they didn’t have were great too.  By that I mean that I ordered a Last Word, and while the bar didn’t know what it was at first, my waiter intercepted and quickly googled it, assisting the bartender to a perfect execution.  Not only that, but roughly an hour later, a different employee I hadn’t met yet stopped by  and said, “I heard from my colleagues that you’re a Last Word drinker.”  Oh boy, where’s this going?  “If you like Mezcal, you absolutely have to stop by Dos Urban Cantina in Chicago and order a Mezcal Last Word—they’ll probably even comp it if you tell them I sent you.”  Score!  I love Mezcal.

And for your reading pleasure, the complete menu:

Finally, a bittersweet departure.  I easily could’ve stayed for hours longer.

Although I wasn’t flying UA, I was thankful to have the opportunity to spend my day in their glorious new lounge.

Conclusion

The United Polaris Lounge Chicago is without a doubt the best legacy carrier operated lounge I’ve ever visited in the U.S.  Admittedly, the hard product is where the bulk of that shines through, as the soft product still has some rough edges that reminded me I was still at home, versus a top-tier European or Asian lounge.  Some of those rough edges I mentioned above, others I left unsaid because individually they were too small to call out, but when taken as whole, added up to a work-in-progress.  That said, I think it speaks volumes that we’re even comparing a legacy carrier lounge to a top-tier foreign lounge.  Until now, such a comparison would’ve been ludicrous.  Now, however, I think it’s fair to say that United finally has a horse in the race.