Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Dining on the Rails

This Christmas, Mr. Comma and I traveled from LA to Michigan, where he grew up, to spend the holidays with his family. For adventure’s sake, we decided to take the train, and because the trip is roughly 48 hours each way, we splurged on a sleeping cabin. The cost was exorbitant, but we figured it was worth it for the added comfort and private space; plus, it included meals, which I was predictably very curious about.

Dining car between meals

The dining car is not the classy, linen-tablecloth-and-fine-china luxury it evidently used to be. The decor was more like a Denny’s spruced up to look “modern”: curvy table edges and stainless steel accents and such. However, the menu graphics are well designed, evoking the streamlined elegance of rail travel’s golden age.


The first thing you should know about dining on the rails is that it’s “community seating,” meaning unless you’re already a group of 4, you’ll be sharing a table with strangers. I’m not a big fan of this practice, but I admit it did give us a chance to meet some interesting people.

For instance, our first dinner companion turned out to be a Michigan native; I’ll call him Barry. A somewhat serious middle-aged guy with a graying mullet and the deep, grizzled voice of a lifelong smoker, he and Mr. Comma bonded over their home state the way all Michiganders seem to. The lakes, the U.P., the “seasons,” et cetera. We were looking forward to seeing some snow, but it was sort of poetic the way Barry described how winter in the Midwest made him feel depressed after the fallen leaves had left the trees so bare and stark. The next morning, we ran into him outside during a stop in Albuquerque, where we chitchatted about this and that, like how he was finally able to get a cigarette break, and how badly Mr. Comma and I had slept our first night on the train, possibly because we’d tried to both squeeze into the lower bunk. Barry, on the other hand, told us he’d slept on the upper bunk and that he slept better than he does at home, even though the mattress was so thin, and he’s slept on some pretty thin mattresses, because he’s spent time in prison. I kind of wanted to ask what for, but I was also afraid to ask in case it was rape.

Clockwise from top left: New York strip steak; herb roasted half chicken; cheeseburger on a dinner roll; salad with Granny Smith apples, walnuts, and blue cheese

Then of course there's the food itself. Some was pretty good, some was not, but in general, at least it was a few notches above airplane fare. Here are just a few tips for a more rewarding railfood experience:

1. Get the steak. Our porter revealed to us that it’s the only thing that’s cooked to order. According to him, everything else is premade and simply reheated on board. I didn’t actually verify that, but judging from the dry, cardboard-like chicken I had the first night, I believed it.

2. Reserve an early seating. The dining car steward comes around to make reservations, that is, he or she is supposed to. On our outbound journey, Janine took our dinner reservation the first night but, for the remainder of the trip, sounded quite drunk every time she made an announcement over the PA. She would slur, “ThisisJanineinthediningcarthere’llbenoreservationsinsteadit’llbefirstcomefirstserve.” But if you do have the option, try to eat earlier rather than later because things tend to run out. One dinner, we weren’t able to get red wine, only white. At lunch another time, not only was Mr. Comma’s bacon cheeseburger served without the bacon, but it also came sans bun.

3. Wake up early. I chose poorly at the one breakfast service we managed to get up in time for (the quesadilla special, which was ice cold in the center), but Mr. Comma’s French toast was fine and it definitely beat the crappy microwave fare from the cafe car.

Quesadilla and bacon, French toast and pork sausage

4. Bring your own booze. At $13 for a half bottle, the wine served in the dining car (not included with the inclusive meal, of course) may not be marked up as much as at a restaurant, but it still feels like a rip-off. If you do bring a bottle aboard, you can consume it only in your own room, but you can also order your meal to be delivered there, which as an added benefit gives you a break from having that same old conversation in the dining car (“Is this your first time on the train?” etc.).

The holiday turkey special with stuffing and gravy: processed and oversalted but tasty in a TV dinner kind of way