Aiming for the Stars: United’s Polaris Lounge in San Francisco (SFO)

Nov 2, 2018

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To The Point

At 28,120 square feet, United’s SFO Polaris Lounge is the largest in the world. Pros: tons of space, great food and drink options, super-speedy Wi-Fi, fantastic tarmac views, friendly staff. Cons: puzzling wait in the dining room, access limited to business and first-class passengers.

Following months-long delays, United finally opened the doors to three new Polaris Lounges earlier this year: Houston (IAH), Newark (EWR) and the largest location to date in San Francisco (SFO). Those three US-based lounges join the first (and since expanded) lounge at Chicago O’Hare (ORD), which opened in December 2016.

While I did have an opportunity to tour the SFO Polaris Lounge a few days before it opened in April, I’ve been hoping to return for a full review. As a Polaris business class passenger joining United’s inaugural flight to Tahiti (PPT), I finally got my chance at the end of October.

Location and Access

United’s SFO Polaris Lounge serves as the main pre-departure hangout for all passengers traveling in business or first class on long-haul Star Alliance flights.

The lounge is located in the international departures area, near gate G93, just on the other side of the security checkpoint. It’s open from 6:30am until 1am every day.

Note that as with all other locations, Polaris Lounge access is restricted to passengers traveling in the following cabins:

You’ll need to be ticketed for long-haul intercontinental travel — if you’re flying between the US and Canada, Mexico, Central America or the Caribbean, you won’t be able to get in. Passengers arriving in Polaris and connecting to another United flight will have access as well, while those flying into SFO on another Star Alliance carrier do not.

Currently, United operates four Polaris Lounges, in Chicago, Houston, Newark and SFO. The Los Angeles location is expected to open later this year, followed by Washington, D.C. (IAD), Hong Kong (HKG), London (LHR) and Tokyo (NRT) in the future.

Seating Areas and Amenities

The SFO Polaris Lounge spans two floors, with the main level being considerably smaller than what you’ll find upstairs.

There’s one main seating area just past the ground-floor entrance, with a small drink and snack station at the far end of the room.

The lower level is also home to eight shower suites.

I had no problem getting into a shower right away when I arrived around 11am.

The room was very clean, with plush Saks Fifth Avenue towels and Cowshed products. The water pressure and temperature were great as well, though I did have a small issue with the shampoo dispenser — the nozzle fell off the moment I pressed down on the pump, but I was able to reassemble it quickly.

Other amenities are available as well, including shaving and dental kits. I requested a toothbrush, but oddly there weren’t any water bottles, or even cups for water from the tap. I’m an expert at cupping my hands in a pinch, but some water bottles would be a big help.

After my shower, I went over to check out the daybeds — water bottles are available there. Only one of the five rooms was occupied.

My next stop was the… upper deck. If you visit the lounge and don’t make it upstairs, you’re really missing out.

Naturally, the views are much better from the second floor.

It’s really a gigantic space, with countless tables and chairs and other seating areas throughout.

The individual work pods did seem to be in short supply, though — almost all were occupied throughout my stay, though I did manage to grab one after lunch.

Some of the seating areas are arranged around tables, while others are clearly a better fit for doing some work.

Speaking of work… the Wi-Fi is outstanding. I’m dreaming of these speeds as I struggle to be productive in Bora Bora, where my connection’s roughly 1/200th of what I experienced at SFO.

Meanwhile, if restaurant-quality food is what you’re after, there’s a dedicated dining room at the back as well, with a small selection of a-la-carte items.

There were a couple of tables open when I arrived, but oddly I was told there would be a 10-minute wait. At that point I needed to be at the gate in about 20 minutes, so I asked if it was possible to take a seat at one of the open tables.

The staff obliged, though they continued telling other guests to wait — the wait eventually dropped to five minutes, though there were five tables free at that point. The wait was typically far less than estimated, though — within a minute or two, the hostess began shouting out names into the buffet area. I really don’t understand why they weren’t able to accommodate passengers right away.

Food and Beverage

United offers waiter service in the main dining room, and it’s fast. You could enjoy a multi-course meal in 20 minutes if you want.

The food menus are fairly limited, but the drink options certainly aren’t — you can of course request any other cocktail you’d like, too.

I decided to start with the crispy shrimp cake, which was delicious — it reminded me of the fried shrimp balls I’ve had at dim sum restaurants, though this one really packed a punch.

Next I had the San Fran-style, a local fish stew with mussels, shrimp and chunks of fish. I wasn’t planning to drink, but I saw a bloody Mary on another table and asked to have one myself. It was at the table in less than two minutes.

The bread was a bit stale, though I loved the rest of my stew — the broth was especially delicious.

Passengers with even less time to spare can opt for the buffet, instead.

There are a variety of build-your-own salad items, including mixed greens with toppings, along with a platter of fruit.

I did get to try some sushi — while flavorful, the pieces were a bit too large to eat in one bite.

There are also a few hot entrees, such as the fried chicken with tomatoes pictured here.

At the opposite end, in an area called “The Studio,” United was offering up some Tahitian dishes in honor of the new flight.

There were a mix of veggie and seafood options, including some poisson cru tacos — a Tahitian take on Hawaiian poke.

Servers wander the lounge with passed items as well — within a minute of sitting down I was offered a small plate of mahi mahi with chunks of mango on top. They certainly make it difficult to save your appetite for the flight.

Overall Impression

As a young(ish) adult of reasonably good fitness, there’s not much not to love about the SFO Polaris Lounge. I suppose if I were digging for criticism, I might emphasize that the lounge is huge, which means you could end up doing quite a lots of walking if you’re hoping to experience everything. That’s not a terrible thing just before you park yourself in a lie-flat seat for half a day (or longer), though.

In total, I spent about an hour in the lounge, and found that to be enough — you could certainly spend more time there if you have a long layover, but if you’re beginning your trip at SFO, I wouldn’t budget any more than 90 minutes to try out the dining room, bar and even have time for a shower.

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