Some Things Could Be Finer in the Amtrak Diner
Very excited to bring you the first of two guest editors during my mini-moving sabbatical: My friend and Urban Studies professor Max Grinnell (better know as @theurbanologist).
Max just returned from a train trip across America. When he told me he had some thoughts about dining on Amtrak (informed by five years he spent as a waiter on a train) I almost tackled him asking him to write something up.
Where I the editor of a fancy food site or magazine, I would consider seeing if Max could expand his thoughts here for a longer feature on Amtrak food. If you don’t have a fancy food website, you should follow Max on Twitter and sign up for his newsletter, which is a lot more whimsical and delightful than this one.
Last month, I set out on 4000 miles of long-distance Amtrak travel as part of the work on my next book. When I told a friend from Tokyo about this trip, she said, “The United States has passenger trains?”
I don’t blame her for being a bit incredulous, but I’m an unrepentant fan of America’s rail network. By the time I was 18, I had traveled over 40,000 miles of Amtrak’s route map, including multiple trips on the Empire Builder, the Sunset Limited, the California Zephyr, and the late and sort-of-great Desert Wind. Hell, I enjoyed it so much I worked on-board as a Service Attendant (read: dining car waiter) for five years.
My rose-colored glasses don’t blind me to reality. Outside of the Northeast Corridor, passenger rail in the United States is a modest affair, subject to the whims of major freight carriers who seem to delight in holding up trains for hours on end. Part of this trip was to see how much my love of rail is colored by my early experiences.
Here’s what I learned from 4000 miles, 12 meals, 40 plus dining companions, and several spilled glasses of wine:
1. You will group chat.
I remember watching “North by Northwest” growing up and thinking, “Could I pull a Cary Grant and be sitting next to Eve Marie Saint on some cross-country journey?”
It doesn’t quite work that way in today’s Dining Car.
The dining car steward is responsible for filling up eight compact tables with four bodies at every single meal service. Sure, you might get there early at breakfast and have a table to yourself for a bit as people in the coaches crack their backs, readjust their neck pillows, and gravitate to the smell of the coffee urn.
Your early morning solitude won’t last. You’ll soon you be at a full table.
2. All walks doesn’t begin to cover it.
Outside of sitting in the observation car late at night, sitting together around the dining car table is one of the best ways I know to learn about These United States. People don’t usually have their phones out, which is a bit of a refreshing change. It’s not like every conversation was meditations on Moliere, but you do get to learn a bit about your traveling companions.
As a retired Penn Central railroad employee told me somewhere west of Minot, North Dakota, “Max, everyone has to come through the dining car. You can’t eat those damn lounge car hamburgers for two days straight”
When you sit down at these snug tables (four to a side, in case you’re wondering), what usually happens is a quick round of introductions and the requisite “Why the train?” query. It sounds a bit odd, but after the number one with a bullet “To see the country” response, the second most popular answer is something akin to “Well, after 9/11, you know….”
Once the pleasantries are out of the way, conversation is a bit of a crap shoot. However, all the awkward introductions that go no where and mutual email checking are made up for by truly memorable moments.
On the Sunset Limited I sat down with a couple of Aussies obsessed with visiting the highest elevation in each state and a former prison warden-turned anti-death penalty advocate. We talked from Lafayette, Louisiana all the way until the conductor made the call to New Orleans.
A three hour conversation and I didn’t look at my phone once.
3. Hey, what about the food?
Once upon a time in the BA (Before Amtrak) days, major railroads in the United States had elaborate commissary facilities that drew on local produce, meats, and other raw materials to create menus that changed with the seasons.
Those days are a faint memory, a fact that is made most clear when opening the garden-variety menu on any of the long distance trains.
Amtrak made great hay about their “Amtrak Culinary Advisory Team” (ACAT), which includes haute cuisine luminaries like Jamie Bissonnette, Matthias Merges, and Roberto Santibanez.
Not a one of this terrific troika is downstairs in the kitchen cooking up your surf & turf, cage-free omelet, or Thai-spiced pulled coconut pork sliders.
All of the meals came up very, very quickly, which reminded me of the “nuke it” philosophy that held sway when I worked onboard as a waiter. If the kitchen was slammed, the microwave became the chef’s best friend and magical expediter of many meals.
On more than one occasion, the ACAT dinner specials were not available. The casual explanation offered by my waiter of “Who knows?” seemed almost metaphysical rather than offering any type of solace or solution.
It’s also not cheap to eat in the dining car. If you’re in the sleeping car meals are included (please tip, friends), but if you’re coming from the coach cars, you’re going to pay $25 for a steak at dinner, $12 for a modest Southwestern style salad at lunch, and $12.75 for aforementioned omelet with roasted potatoes and a croissant.
My recommendation for folks traveling in coach is to munch on the cafe car offerings during breakfast and lunch and go for a splurge during dinner. Curiously, the mussels are actually quite good. They are also more likely to accommodate folks with food allergies at dinner.
If I were redoing Amtrak’s menu, I’d dig deep into the trove of classic dining car recipe books from trains like the New York Central’s 20th Century Limited and the Illinois Central’s Panama Limited.
“Bring me a cup of hot consomme, then the Lobster Newburg,” I’d shout. “My new Australian friends will have iced celery hearts, followed by roast prime rib au ju! But first, Martini cocktails!”
Far better we go back to basics than try to create a fleet of 79-mph Faux-lineas. After all, the nostalgia factor looms large when folks step on the train.