Using Miles for An Incredible Meal: The MileagePlus Spring Dining Series

Apr 19, 2017

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As a holder of many credit cards, I get emails with “exclusive” offers all the time. Often the promise of exclusivity isn’t anything more than an opportunity to spend money or miles on products I don’t want, events that are nowhere near where I live or services I don’t need.

But once in a while, something catches my eye, like when I got an email in February from a united.com address for “private, farm-to-table meals at some of the best restaurants in the country.” Even better, one of the restaurants was not far from my Los Angeles home and I would be in town on the advertised night.

The cost? 10,000 United MileagePlus miles per person. I happen to have a lot of these miles, thanks mostly to the United MileagePlus Explorer Card from Chase. In fact, it was because I have this card that I received the invitation. This would be an event exclusively for holders of one of United’s Visa Signature products.

I was able to make the "purchase"
I was able to make the “purchase” for the event from my mobile phone. Soon after, the event was sold out.

Still, I am notoriously stingy with redeeming miles and I rarely use them for anything other than award flightsTPG values United miles at 1.5 cents, so I wanted this redemption to provide at least $150 of value — that’s way more than I usually spend on a dinner, but looking at the quality of the restaurant and the perks the event promised, I decided it was worth the risk. I clicked the link on the email and soon 20,000 miles (for myself and a guest) were deducted from my MileagePlus account.

Herringbone restaurant in Santa Monica, California.
Herringbone restaurant in Santa Monica, California.

Herringbone‘s Santa Monica location is across from the ocean and has been open almost two years. Its original shingle is in La Jolla, with an outlet in Las Vegas and another about to open in Honolulu. Herringbone is the creation of celebrity chef Brian Malarkey, who competed on Bravo’s Top Chef and was on ABC’s The Taste. Malarkey describes the menu as “fish meets field,” emphasizing fresh line-caught seafood and local vegetables. The restaurant rates at least four out of five stars on OpenTable, Yelp and TripAdvisor.

The staff was happy to welcome me with free champagne. I was happy to accept.
The staff was happy to welcome me with free champagne. I was happy to accept.

Arriving at Herringbone, it didn’t take long to see that I would not have to worry about getting my miles’ worth. After the free valet parking and a quick check-in with the host, servers with trays of Champagne awaited.

The raw bar with all sorts of fresh shellfish.
The raw bar with all sorts of fresh shellfish.

Behind that, an unlimited raw bar with crab legs, shrimp and varieties of oysters.

The stylish bar with craft cocktail menus.
The stylish bar with craft cocktail menus.

Next to that, a full open bar serving custom craft cocktails in addition to the usual drinks on offer.

People who don't eat seafood (like me) were not left out.
People who don’t eat seafood (like me) were not left out.

Across from there, an enormous buffet of non-seafood items, centered on prosciutto, salami, cheese and fruit.

Have you ever seen a more beautiful meatball?
Have you ever seen a more beautiful meatball?

Servers passed around additional treats: salmon crudo, crab cakes and more.

All that food… and then the dinner.

Herringbone's space is a natural for a big group dinner.
Herringbone’s space is a natural for a big group dinner.

The entire restaurant was bought out for this event, with 65 guests in attendance spread out over three long tables. With a DJ and a roving photographer, the vibe was so intimate and joyous that I caught myself looking for a bride and groom. This wasn’t a meal: This was an event. A makeshift photo booth complete with step-and-repeat banner added to the glamour.

Chef Explains
Chef Brian Malarkey mixes with the diners and explains the food and wine.

The star of the evening was the chef, who gave an introductory talk and spoke about the food between courses. He knew his audience well. “I’ve been a United MileagePlus Visa cardholder for several years,” Chef Malarkey beamed, before explaining that each course would come with a “fun pairing” of California wine and that all the vegetables were from the nearby farmers market.

The menu for the evening promised a lot... and delivered.
The menu for the evening promised a lot… and delivered.

The food was tremendous. This wasn’t a meal: This was a feast. And with each new course, a new wine, each of them delicious.

The huge portion of angus short rib with crispy fingerlings, cipollini, watercress and chimichurri.
The huge portion of angus short rib with crispy fingerlings, cipollini, watercress and chimichurri.

Each portion was as enormous as it was tasty. I am not one to leave short rib on the plate, but this one defeated me.

Death by Potatoes and life-giving roasted vegetables.
Death by Potatoes and life-giving roasted vegetables.

Even simple roasted vegetables burst with flavor and freshness. More complex dishes like the Death By Potatoes were sumptuous.

What;s better than a dessert? TWO desserts!
What’s better than a dessert? TWO desserts!

In addition to the stellar food, the service was top-notch. When a waiter noticed I hadn’t touched my appetizer (I don’t eat seafood), he brought me a fresh bruschetta. When I had to step out to use the restroom, I returned to see my napkin neatly folded on my chair. Inquiring about one of the wines brought me a hearty refill. Every question I had was answered politely and knowledgeably. In a town where restaurant workers have earned a reputation for being overworked and aloof, Herringbone’s service was robust and engaged.

Gift bags await while cooks prepare the night's meal.
Gift bags await while cooks prepare the night’s meal.

As guests exited, each received a MileagePlus gift bag. This proved to be the evening’s only disappointment. While the chef-autographed menu was a nice souvenir, the ad for a credit card we obviously already had as well as a mason jar with a do-it-yourself basil herb garden were off the mark. I hate to look a gift bag in the mouth, but after all the decadence of the past few hours, it seemed a little chintzy.

Still, overall this was an incredible value for 10,000 miles. How does United make money on this? A marketing rep from MileagePlus told me they don’t. They value MP miles at 1 cent per point, so to them they got $100 from each guest. They take the loss because they want to bring people together with common interests (food, wine, travel) and get people to think of their miles as a currency. With value like this, I am all in on this currency — the drinks alone were worth more than $100 to me.

The spring events are offered in seven cities. Another rep told me that restaurants are chosen based on the location, how they can accommodate a large group, how rare it is for a diner to get a booking there and the chef’s availability. While many of the remaining events are sold out, as of this writing, Chicago is still available as a buy-it-now for 10,000 miles and other venues have enhanced experiences up for auction. All have a farm-to-table emphasis, and if the food at Herringbone is any indication, your table will be a happy one.

It would have been very easy and understandable for the hosts to cheap out: drink tickets, tax not included and such. And even then, this would have been a special evening. That there was such generosity — of food and drink and of spirit — is what put this over the top.

The MileagePlus Spring Dining Series gave me a huge plus for my mileage. I can’t wait to try it again.

This event made me like my MileagePlus Explorer Card even more.
This event made me like my MileagePlus Explorer Card even more.

All photos by the writer.

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