But with the widespread adoption of premium travel credit cards, the perks of lounge access have become available to the bourgeoisie. And you can see the effect. Approach the airline lounge counter, and you’ll often be greeted with the welcome, “I’m sorry, we’re not taking Priority Pass customers right now.” If you do make your way in, every armchair may already be full. There’s free food and bad prosecco, but it’s no sanctuary.
So one airline has taken exclusivity a step further: United Airlines has Classified, the post-pandemic rebirth of a secret invitation-only restaurant tucked away behind a private door. It’s not advertised or even teased in commercials; it’s the kind of word-of-mouth thing that makes marketers and travel bloggers salivate. The caveat is that it’s at Newark Airport, widely regarded as the one of the worst airports in the United States.
To gain access, you input your name and United MileagePlus number on a special website. The algorithm is a secret; status is no guarantee that you’ll get a reservation. United representatives say it takes in a variety of factors, including loyalty and frequency of travel. Boasting a measly Silver status on United, I didn’t make the cut, but my partner’s Gold did the trick, so I booked a reservation under her name.
So in spitting cold rain on the busiest travel weekend of the year, after a holiday with family in New York, we drove to Newark Airport, young kids in tow, to see how the elite lunch.
Classified, a double entendre if there ever was one, is hidden behind the cheerful bistro Saison in Newark’s Terminal C. At the back of the restaurant, past an unmarked door, we’re led down a dark corridor into the small, rectangular dining room.
(Full disclosure: United arranged for us to get through security without plane tickets, but you’ll need to book travel if you want to try Classified yourself.)
Tables are set with wine glasses and seasonal flower arrangements. Modern brass chandeliers hang from recessed ceiling mounts, caramel leather dining chairs are tucked beneath generous white tables, and the banquettes along the wall are nestled in molded clamshell pods with a wavy pattern. A wall of windows, divided by gauzy curtains, looks out onto the silent tarmac. It’s an oasis of calm, marred only by two unnecessary flat-screen TVs on either end of the room.
Only three tables were occupied at 1 p.m. — unusually quiet for a busy travel weekend, though our charming server Aaron Murrell said it fills up fast during breakfast and dinner hours.
“Ooh, it’s beautiful,” my daughter loudly exclaimed, plopping herself into a chair and reaching for her coloring books. Immediately, I became hyper-conscious of the kids’ behavior: “Don’t ruin this for the fancy people,” I thought.
The menu is refined modern steakhouse, including a raw bar (that’s on you if a half-dozen littleneck clams seems like a good idea before a bumpy flight to Cleveland), salads, sandwiches and cuts of dry-aged prime beef. It’s not cheap, but pace David Brooks and his New York Times expense account: $78 here will still get you a jumbo shrimp cocktail, steak tartare and a negroni poured tableside.
A middle-aged couple from Colorado, visiting their daughter in New York, were dining by the window. Outside in the frigid early-winter rain, baggage handlers were unloading a plane and tossing luggage into carts. They’ve been to Classified a half-dozen times. “Why are we letting people know about this place?” the wife said, offering that she sits on the boards of health-care companies. I asked her husband what he does for a living. He paused, warily. “Let’s say I’m retired … for now.”
Retired? Frequent fancy airport dining? Clearly, I’m in the wrong business.
“We have a lot of repeat guests that come back frequently,” said chef Frank Pulgiano, 60, who helms the kitchen at Classified. “There’s nothing like it in the world.” But is the food any good?
Mac and cheese fit for a 5-year-old
We started with a Tsukiji tuna crudo over a spicy mayo, dotted with chunks of avocado and cracked black pepper. It was fine, though I’d wager that it’s not flown in daily from the famous — but now shuttered — Tokyo fish market. A dull Caesar salad followed. My 5-year-old daughter tore through the truffle mac and cheese with toasted breadcrumbs, though, an adult, I found it almost entirely devoid of that mushroom-y flavor. My son’s burger — a 28-day dry-aged Pat LaFrieda patty — was solid. Former House speaker Nancy Pelosi ordered one recently, Pulgiano said.
Zachary Friedman and Ethan Sukoneck, cousins and both students at Ohio State, were grabbing a bite before a flight back to school. “I would much rather be here than the new United Clubs. I’ve been in all of them. It’s a nicer environment, and the food is fantastic,” Friedman said.
Sukoneck concurred: “This blows the food at school out of the water.”
A butter-poached filet of halibut with chimichurri was overcooked, and the watercress salad alongside looked beat up. The New York strip steak was well-seasoned and tender — and it better be: The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey mandates that all knives at the airport be rounded or plastic. Desserts were a seasonal pumpkin tart with whipped cream and berries, and a chocolate hazelnut Paris-Brest. The kids wiped the plates clean.
I asked Eric Antmann, a technology salesperson from Miami who was dining alone, what he thought of his experience. “Eleven out of 10,” Antmann said, noting that he would book travel through Newark again over New York airports just to eat at Classified. Okay, let’s not go quite that far.
Is it the best restaurant in Newark Airport? Absolutely. Is it the classiest restaurant in an American airport? Probably. Is it a good restaurant? Sorry, no.
By the standards of any city, it’s just meh. Despite lovely service and a nice room, the food just doesn’t hit the high notes — and that’s perhaps understandable with one kitchen churning out plates for four different restaurants across the terminal. If you’ve ever flown in international business class (particularly on an Asian or Emirati airline), you’ll have been wowed by the meal service aboard. There’s just something magical about eating sushi or a lamb tagine at 35,000 feet. But back on the ground, that food wouldn’t pass muster.
I’ve had Korean BBQ tacos from a food truck inside a terminal at Los Angeles that were legitimately good. Rick Bayless’s Tortas Frontera in O’Hare packs the heat and killer micheladas. Austin has an outpost of the famous Salt Lick BBQ if you want the meat sweats before boarding.
But the experience of Classified counts for something. It makes you feel special, cocooned, elite. There’s something legitimately cool about a speakeasy-style spot in an airport. Sure, lunch for a family of four with a glass of wine and a cocktail cost about the same as an economy plane ticket. But that’s beside the point for those who can afford it.
The Colorado woman wearily sighed, referring to the perceived lack of exclusivity of United’s elite status tier: “Isn’t the whole world 1K?”
For the rest of us, who hoard our twice-annual lounge passes like they’re bullion, one can only dream. (Travel blogs say you’ll need to spend roughly $20,000 on airfare to achieve that status. But hey, free bag check and preboarding!) If you’re lucky enough to get an invite to Classified, it’s well worth the money for that taste of rarefied air.
But be warned: The thrill of dining like the rich makes it hard to go back to normal life. You’ll forever look down your nose at a southwestern chicken wrap pulled from a grab-and-go refrigerator. The thought of cramming into the back of a plane for a four-hour flight after a taste of the good life is almost too much to bear.