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Dining on the Train

Before dining cars in passenger trains were common in the United States, a rail passenger’s option for meal service in transit was to patronize one of the roadhouses often located near the railroad’s “water stops”. Fare typically consisted of rancid meat, cold beans, and old coffee. Such poor conditions discouraged many from making the journey.

Most railroads began offering meal service on trains even before the First Transcontinental Railroad. By the mid-1880s, dedicated dining cars were a normal part of long-distance trains from Chicago to points west, save those of the Santa Fe Railway, which relied on America’s first interstate network of restaurants to feed passengers en route. The “Harvey Houses”, located strategically along the line, served top-quality meals to railroad patrons during water stops and other planned layovers and were favored over in-transit facilities for all trains operating west of Kansas City.

As the competition among railroads intensified, the dining car service was taken to new levels. When the Santa Fe unveiled its new Pleasure Dome lounge cars in 1951, the railroad introduced the traveling public to the Turquoise Room, promoted as “The only private dining room in the world on rails.” The room accommodated 12 guests, and could be reserved anytime for private dinner or cocktail parties, or other special functions. The room was often used by celebrities and dignitaries traveling on the Super Chief.

A dining car on the Union Pacific’s City of Denver, ca. 1950s. Edwin Kachel was a steward for more than twenty-five years in the Dining-Car Department of the Great Northern Railway. He said that “on a dining car, three elements can be considered — the equipment, the employee, then passenger.” In other words, “the whole is constituted by two-thirds of human parts.”[1] As cross-country train travel became more commonplace, passengers began to expect high-quality food to be served at the meals on board. The level of meal service on trains in the 1920s and 1930s rivaled that of high-end restaurants and clubs.

Elegance is one of the main words used to describe the concept of dining on a train. Use of fresh ingredients was encouraged whenever possible. Some of the dishes prepared by chefs were: Braised Duck Cumberland, Hungarian Beef Goulash with Potato Dumplings, Lobster Americaine, Mountain Trout Au Bleu, Curry of Lamb Madras, Scalloped Brussels Sprouts, Pecan and Orange Sticks and Pennepicure Pie to name a few items.

The Christmas menu for the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway in 1882 listed the following items: Hunter’s Soup, Salmon with Hollandaise Sauce, Boned Pheasant in Aspic Jelly, Chicken Salad, Salmis Prairie Chicken, Oyster Patties, Rice Croquette, Roast Beef, English Ribs of Beef, Turkey with Cranberry Sauce, Stuffed Suckling Pig with Applesauce, Antelope Steak with Currant Jelly, potatoes, green peas, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, Mince Pie, Plum Pudding, Cake, Ice Cream, Fruits and coffee.

In one of the most common dining car configurations, one end of the car contains a galley (with an aisle next to it, so passengers can pass through the car to the rest of the train) while the other end has table or booth seating on either side of a center aisle.

Trains with high demand for dining car services sometimes feature “double-unit dining cars” consisting of two adjacent cars functioning to some extent as a single entity, generally with one car containing a galley plus table or booth seating and the other car containing table or booth seating only.

In the dining cars of Amtrak’s modern bilevel Superliner trains, booth seating on either side of a center aisle occupies almost the entire upper level, while the galley is below; food is sent to the upper level on a dumbwaiter.

Dining cars enhance the familiar restaurant experience with the unique visual entertainment of the ever-changing view. While dining cars are less common today than in the past (having been supplemented, or in some cases replaced altogether by other types of food-service cars) they still play a significant role in passenger railroading, especially on medium- and long-distance trains.

The Nevada Southern Railway has a former Union Pacific dining car #4813 that is a part of our regular excursion train consist. The car is used for regular seating, as the car for our StoryTime trains, and for our Santa Trains. The car may also be rented for private parties, birthday and anniversary parties, and retirements.

1. Further Reading: Fried, Stephen; Appetite for America: Fred Harvey and the Business of Civilizing the Wild West–One Meal at a Time.  This is a book about Fred Harvey and the Harvey Houses built along the Sante Fe Railroad from Kansas to California.

Text: Wikipedia; Railroad Dining Car