Review: Air Canada's Signature Suite Lounge, Vancouver
Updated: Jun 14, 2022
Launched in 2017, Air Canada’s Signature Suite remains one of the most exclusive and talked-about premium airline lounge concepts in the industry. With special a-la-carte menus designed by renowned Vancouver chef David Hawksworth, the Toronto and Vancouver Suites offer something quite different than Air Canada’s already-solid international Maple Leaf Lounges.
On tonight’s trip to Australia, I’m having dinner at the Vancouver Suite before boarding, and I’ll be happy to share the experience.
Getting In The Signature Suite is located on top of the International Maple Leaf Lounge between Gates 52 and 53, with the Suite’s entrance located up a staircase just inside the lobby of the Maple Leaf Lounge itself.
Along with another level of dining experience comes another level of access control. No level of (published) airline status will get you in the door here, nor any form of upgrade; only a paid business- or first-class ticket on an Air Canada-operated flight to another continent will do the job. Unlike United’s renowned Polaris lounges, even full-fare business-class on a Star Alliance partner doesn’t count here. There’s one small loophole; regular business-class and first-class Aeroplan awards do not qualify, but the more-expensive, fully-refundable “Business Flexible” award type does; to bump up to this tier from a "Business Lowest" award, you’ll need roughly 15,000 additional Aeroplan points - which I’d value at around $250-300 CAD - per person. This will also make your award ticket more flexible in terms of change and cancellation fees, so if that's something you already needed, this is just a nice bonus!
The Space It’s a beautiful lounge-and-bar setup, with a commanding view of the Star Alliance long-haul departure gates. A tasteful marble, brass and black-leather combination gives a premium Mid-Century Modern feel, without trying too hard to be cool.
While there’s a buffet off to one side that would rival any premium airline lounge, the layout of the room is definitely focused on the a-la-carte dining experience for passengers flying alone or in pairs, with most of the space devoted to dining tables for two, rather than the couches and recliners providing a large portion of the seating in the Maple Leaf Lounge downstairs.
I’ve seen a few complaints that the Signature Suite doesn’t include shower rooms, but since those are available right downstairs at the Maple Leaf Lounge, it seems like a pretty small absence.
Earlier in the week, we had dinner at Forage, a longtime favourite of mine in Vancouver, where the staff are both ridiculously experienced and thoroughly passionate about the food. I’d expect both of any proper fine-dining establishment, and both are highly visible here. From the bar to the table, the staff are clearly well-educated on the menu, and well-qualified to offer recommendations to taste and to pairing.
During my visit, a new bartender was on his first shift in the Signature Suite, and being run through his paces on product knowledge and pairings, down to which wines need to be double-stocked before which flight departures, precisely how many bottles of each can expect to be poured each night, and how to inspect a bottle that’s been sitting longer on the shelf to ensure a quality pour.
The premium-business-lounge concept was effectively pioneered in North America by United’s Polaris lounge series, which are especially noted for their list of creative bespoke cocktails, and on this count the Signature Suite meets the standard set by Polaris. All the expected top-shelf names are here, anchored by Don Julio and Johnnie Blue, but the custom cocktail list is particularly thoughtful. I particularly enjoyed an Old Fashioned highlighted with maple syrup and smoked mandarin.
It’s in the bar, however, that my only real disappointment appears; the relative lack of Canadian and especially local product on the bar. For its in-flight catering, Air Canada struggles to find Canadian wine producers that can meet the demand necessary for thousands of premium-cabin passengers each week, and as a result it’s understandable that the in-flight menu features options from around the world.
However, for a Vancouver venue with only a few dozen seats, and consumption measured in bottles per night rather than cases per night, there’s a tremendous opportunity to showcase local product, particularly the long list of world-class wines from British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley; I don’t need a glass of French wine to watch the sun set over the Salish Sea.
During my visit, champagne was entirely out of stock, apparently due to supply-chain issues; normally, the in-house bubbly would be Moet and Chandon’s brut and rosé. I’d have thought they’d have pulled in a few cases of the Laurent-Perrier champagne served in flight, particularly since the lack of champagne took a few of the more interesting-looking cocktails off the menu, but now I’m getting picky.
The dining room includes both a buffet and an a-la-carte menu, with each covering a combination of local flavours as well as dishes reflecting the variety of destinations served from YVR. Siu mai, har gow and a pork-belly bao sit side by side with foie gras and a falafel formed of English garden peas and topped with a lemon cream. The result is a bit of something for everyone, which probably makes more sense than a tightly-focused regional menu that may not resonate with all passengers on a route map spanning the globe.
I enjoyed a truly creative yellowfin sashimi, paired with puffed black rice and a lemongrass sorbet, followed by a conservative but well-executed herb-crusted salmon, and finished off with a small salted-caramel pot-de-créme.
I could have sat all evening and worked my way up and down a bit of each item on the menu, but as my boarding time approached, I reluctantly declined a second scotch and headed for the gate.
Air Canada set out to create something special with the Signature Suites, and I think they've succeeded. I've heard people I respect in the industry refer to them as "the best business-class lounges in North America", and the only reason I'd disagree is that this really feels less like a lounge and more like a private supper club. I don't want to come up here to relax and watch cartoons on a long layover, I want to come and have an incredible meal before a 13-hour flight.
Thankfully, I'm able to postpone dinner on my upcoming flight until about halfway across the Pacific - I really can't see being hungry before then!