An Unexpected Oasis: The Escape Lounge at Oakland International
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Oakland International Airport (OAK) is the oft-forgotten little sibling to its counterpart across the bay. San Francisco International (SFO) handles four times the number of airlines and passengers, including the vast majority of international traffic. OAK, on the other hand, caters to more budget airlines and passengers. I normally don't have high expectations for lounges in these smaller airports, which is what made the OAK Escape Lounge even more of a surprise when I visited recently.
This Escape Lounge falls somewhere in that overlooked group of lounges that aren't an airline lounges, a Priority Pass lounges or a flashy Centurion Lounge, though it has been part of the Amex Global Lounge Collection since last May. You can enter, along with two guests, if you have a Platinum Card® from American Express, or are an authorized user on someone's account. Centurion cardholders have the option to enter with a spouse and dependent children. Premium passengers traveling with British Airways, Azores Airlines and Norwegian also get complimentary access. Otherwise, entrance is $45.
The lounge is located in Terminal 1, but Terminal 2 is connected via a short walkway, so it's accessible from all gates. I visited on an arrival using my Amex Platinum card.
Both times I visited, I was checked in by the lounge supervisor, Jerry, and you'll have a hard time finding a more delightful welcoming attendant.
The lounge's capacity is 89 people, so it's not huge, but the layout affords a good balance of comfort and efficiency. It's basically one large room separated into sections by the buffet in the center.
The furniture in the front area has a living-room feel to it, and is next to a bar with snacks and newspapers and magazines.
There's more seating for smaller parties off to the side.
The main dining features a few boots and is located on the other side of the buffet.
My favorite spot in the lounge is the row of small benches along the window, where I set up shop both times I visited. The bench itself is wide enough for two people, convenient if you and your travel partner are same-side sitters. Otherwise, it was a big, comfy area for one.
My first visit was on a Saturday afternoon, and the lounge was nearly empty. My second was a Wednesday evening, and it was well over half full, but it didn't feel uncomfortably crowded.
Food and Beverage
The highlight of my visits to this lounge was the food. Oakland chef Chris Pastena of Lungomare and Chop Bar in Oakland designed the menu, and the Escape Lounge's investment paid off. The buffet was expansive and delicious, much superior to a domestic airline's own lounge. In my opinion, it was even better than what you'd find in a Centurion Lounge.
My favorite was the prosciutto cotto-and-cheese sandwich on a fresh, warm pretzel roll.
Half of these tiny cast-iron pots were filled with mushroom-and-tomato polenta, the other half with mac and cheese.
The soup was a vegetable minestrone and there was an assortment of bread loaves and bagels.
Another highlight was the Mediterranean section of the buffet (yes, a whole Mediterranean section). There were dolmas, tomato-and-mozzarella salad, fruit salad and a variety of olives and hummus.
Cured meats, assorted cheeses and sauteed mushrooms rounded out perhaps the tastiest section of the buffet.
In the salad bar, you could make your own spinach salad, with mildly adventurous fixings like roasted chicken and roasted cauliflower. Other options were a farro salad with Brussels sprouts, black quinoa salad and green-bean salad.
Alongside more bread, pastries and crackers was buttermilk vanilla panna cotta for dessert.
But the dessert highlight was a chocolate budino with caramel sauce.
It had been many years since I'd had cookies and milk, but I couldn't turn down this presentation.
The coffee was from RoastCo in Oakland, and the tea was the Numi Nspire brand. A cappuccino machine handled any other requests.
The bar housed the only TV in the lounge and a full selection of beer, wine, liquor and soft drinks, though only certain beers, wine and liquors were complimentary.
All premium choices were set at normal bar prices.
I haven't visited the lounge during breakfast hours, but here are some menu items to expect: coddled eggs with salsa verde, hot black quinoa with sweet cream, assorted fresh fruit and mixed berries, yogurt, granola, assorted pastries and muffins.
The Wi-Fi was plenty fast on both of my visits, even when it was busy.
Oakland Airport wouldn't let Escape Lounge install a bathroom or a shower, but there was a bathroom outside, directly opposite the lounge. Unfortunately, the upkeep was far inferior to what the lounge standards would have been.
This was a small touch, but I was happy to see hand sanitizer at the end of the food buffet.
The service started with Jerry at the top, and the entire staff was friendly and attentive. The lounge was kept decently clean even through the evening rush.
Overall, I'd place this lounge firmly between a domestic airline lounge and a Centurion Lounge. Although the delicious menu beat out a Centurion Lounge's, the modest size and lack of a full, premium complimentary bar, cocktail menu and bathroom brought the lounge down a notch. Still, the fact that I'm even comparing this to a Centurion Lounge shows that this lounge is legit.
I would argue that it's more important to have a good lounge option when flying a budget carrier than when flying in a premium cabin. A good free meal is more valuable before a bare-bones transatlantic flight on Norwegian than before a premium-cabin long-haul where you'll be wined and dined the whole way. This is part of what makes the Oakland Escape Lounge such a gem.
The Bay Area already has a Centurion Lounge at SFO, giving Bay Area Platinum cardholders two great lounge options, while cities such as Chicago still have none (I will continue to point this out until Amex fixes this). But this lounge is enough to make me consider flying oft-overlooked airlines out of an oft-overlooked airport.
All images courtesy of the author.