Dinner in the diner, nothing could be finerChattanooga Choo-Choo song
There’s something soothing about train travel. The unhurried pace, scrolling scenery and colorful characters accessorize a rail journey. Most memorable is enjoying a meal aboard a dining car. It’s a throwback to an earlier era – a chance to practice the lost art of conversation while swapping travel stories with fellow passengers.
During the golden age of rail travel, streamlined trains like America’s Twentieth-Century Limited wooed industrialists and celebrities. Deluxe dining cars were a big draw. Paul Theroux’s 1973 travelogue The Great Railway Bazaar lauded that “The Indian Rajdhani Express serves curries in its dining car; the Meshed Express serves Iranian chicken kebab, and the train to Sapporo in Japan smoked fish and glutinous rice.”
I understand changing cultural tastes. Amtrak, America’s passenger railroad, decided to end traditional dining car services on some East Coast trains in 2019. The move was not only to save money but also to cater to younger customers wanting more privacy. This saddens me somewhat.
There’s a time for peace and quiet. I enjoy curling up with a good book, especially on a long-distance train. But meals are meant for fellowship. In many cultures, guests are welcomed and even esteemed enough to be given a place of honor at the table. Growing up, my family ate our evening meal together and shared about the day. Even the youngest was given a turn to talk.
Thankfully, Amtrak hasn’t ended dining cars on all routes. Many international trains still serve their unique cuisines onboard. This post shares some personal favorites from five decades of train travel.
5. Kazakhstan Talgo Train – This experience stands out not for the meal, but instead for our dinner companions and an unexpected twist. We supped on borscht, which is not a beetroot broth, but a hearty vegetable soup chock full of potatoes, cabbage, carrots and beef. A side of local apples, or so we thought, added extra spice. Click here for the funny story. Click here for my guest post about Kazakhstan train travel.
4. Amtrak’s Breakfast – When traveling southbound to Florida, Amtrak’s three Silver Service trains (the Star, Meteor and Palm) arrived in Jacksonville in the early morning hours. I stumbled from my seat into the dining car for the signature French toast, juice and coffee. Soon after I would hop off at the tiny whistle-stop of Palatka, where my parents met me for the short drive to St. Augustine. This favorite item remains on the new Flexible Dining Menu, and even got an upgrade in Traditional Dining with fresh berries and cream!
3. Europe’s Venice Simplon Orient Express – A classic experience, this legendary train takes dining to a luxurious level. Restored vintage coaches harken back to the golden age of rail travel. While the overnight journeys are beyond many travelers’ budgets, the company offers less expensive day excursions. My wife and I enjoyed an elegant three-course lunch on a long loop around greater London in 2006. A highlight was chatting with a fellow guest who, like the children in The Chronicles of Narnia, escaped the wartime bombings of London to live on a farm in the English countryside.
2. Australia’s Queenslander – I took this overnight train in 1995 from Brisbane north to the Great Barrier Reef gateway town of Cairns. The excitement of heading toward the tropics was accented by the fabulous food, especially the evening meal of fresh seafood brought aboard in Bundaberg that afternoon. The menu featured Barramundi fish and Moreton Bay bugs (small lobsters). Eating with the lounge car singer, who broadcast me on the radio, was another highlight. The Queenslander has been replaced by the modern Spirit of Queensland train, which travels the same route four times a week.
1. South Africa’s Rovos Rail –Dubbed “the most luxurious train in the world,” this dining car went beyond a five-star experience. I traveled with my mother on South Africa’s Garden Route from Cape Town to Knysna in 1996. We dined across from singer Lou Rawls who was traveling through Africa at the time. Flooding in 2006-07 washed away sections of this route, but hopefully, it will be restored in the future. Rovos Rail offers other epic journeys including train safaris to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe.
Honorable Mention: I couldn’t end this post without mentioning a delightful picnic aboard a regional train in Turkey between Ephesus and Pammukale, an inexpensive and scenic three-hour run. The kind conductor let us eat our simple meal of boiled eggs, fresh bread, cheeses and fruit. Train meals do not have to be a luxurious splurge to be enjoyable!
Bon voyage and bon appetit!