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Feature Thu Aug 28 2008

Eating on the Empire Builder

Several years ago I took a train from Moscow to Beijing. The eight day ride made me fall in love with train travel, but not with the train food. The dining car served primarily cabbage and salted cod, which they stored under the dining car seats. I survived on vodka, pickles, salty mineral water and, thanks to the samovar on our car, tea and ramen.

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My cousin was married in Portland, Oregon a few weeks ago. While the rest of the family bought their plane tickets, my boyfriend Nick and I decided to pay a bit extra and reserve a "roomette" on the Empire Builder Amtrak line. Any private room reservation on Amtrak includes local newspapers and coffee in the morning, bottled water, bed linens and towels, shower access, and breakfast, lunch and dinner.

I'd spent my fair share of time on Amtrak, visiting Nick at the University of Illinois and eating rubbery bagels and burnt coffee when the train would stop for hours. I wasn't sure what to expect from the dining car on this 46 hour trip.

We arrived at our cabin to find a small bottle of cheap champagne waiting for us. It was a nice touch, that would have been ever nicer had we actually left on time. Instead, we sat on the track in Union Station for over an hour. Amazingly, this was the one and only delay.

The first-class car attendant came by to take our dinner reservation shortly after we departed. At 6:30 we made our way through half a dozen train cars to find our seats. The dining car is made up entirely of booth seating and, as a result, we were seated with a different couple at each meal. Nick and I often find that our travel pursuits put us in the company of primarily middle-aged couples. This was no exception. We met some wonderful people, but we were the youngest pair in the cabin area by about 30 years.

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The tables were set with Amtrak service-ware, menus, and a basket of rosemary rolls. I ordered the "Vegetarian Pasta Special" and Nick ordered the salmon. Each entree comes with a small side salad, which very obviously comes from a bag.

pasta copy.jpg

The pasta was a cheese tortellini covered in a creamy pesto sauce with vegetables. It tasted pretty good and the generous portion size was quite filling. Nick said the salmon was ok, but that he wouldn't order it again.

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For dessert we had our choice of a chocolate torte, strawberry cheesecake or Häagen-Dazs ice cream. I ordered the ice cream, but snagged a taste of Nick's torte. It was good, but sickly sweet after more than a bite.

We watched the scenery pass until the sun set. The attendant took our breakfast reservation and assembled our bunk beds while I used the shower. I was very impressed to find that it had excellent water pressure and hot water.

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We went to breakfast at 7:30. Nick ordered French toast and I ordered a Greek omelette with feta and spinach. The omelette was fairly bland and dry. I'd recommend the French toast.

omelette copy.jpg

The distance we had traveled over night was beginning to pull us out of the plains and into the beautiful pines and rolling hills of Montana. The train goes directly through Glacier National Park, stopping at East Glacier Lodge in the summer.

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At lunch Nick ordered a hamburger and I ordered a Gardenburger. I was very disappointed to find that they were out. I ordered the only other vegetarian option instead, a Caesar salad, which ended up being a slightly larger version of the side salad they serve with dinner.

bigsalad.jpg

I left lunch slightly annoyed and quite hungry. As we settled into our cabin our attendant made the rounds to ask if we would like to attend a wine and cheese tasting when the lunch traffic ended. We agreed and I dove into the bag of stadium peanuts I had packed along.

cheese.jpg

The tasting is a nice event reserved for first class guests. We sampled four cheeses from Wisconsin and Minnesota and four wines from Oregon and Washington. We didn't sample anything to write home about, but it was all higher quality than I expected.

steak.jpg

That evening at dinner I ordered the "Vegetarian Pasta Special" to find that it was the same meal as the night before. Nick ordered the "Flat Iron Steak" which received a better review than the salmon. We both left with ice cream for dessert.

During the night the train splits in Spokane, Washington. Half of the cars head to Portland and half head to Seattle, along with the dining car. We received a boxed breakfast that left a lot to be desired. After a gorgeous ride along the Columbia River Gorge we pulled into Portland ahead of schedule. Nick and I promptly headed to my favorite Portland bakery to find a real breakfast.

The train ride was beautiful, and overall I was impressed with the food. Though the days of luxurious train travel are largely gone, Amtrak still runs a nice service that I highly recommend. (Though, I will admit that our stomachs were a bit out of whack for the following days.)

Walt / August 29, 2008 11:28 AM

I have made several "1st Class" (what Amtrak actually calls "Sleeper Class", "1st Class" is only on the Acela) trips on Amtrak.

I find sharing a booth in the Dining Car with my fellow passengers one of the great highlights of the trip. I have met many interesting and nice people over the years.

As to the food, my major memory is always arriving at my final destination STUFFED. By my last meal onboard, I would be overly happy if I was only offered a package of saltine crackers.

Matt B / September 2, 2008 1:06 AM

I just took my very first "Sleeper Class" train ride last week from Chicago to New Orleans. I had three meals while aboard; two of the orders came back incorrectly, but I thought it best not to complain.

At my first meal, I had the flat iron steak, medium, which was quite honestly one of the best steaks I've ever had. I was pleasantly surprised. It was better than dishes I've received from some restaurants. The veggie (cheese-covered broccoli) tasted a bit "off", and the cake was so sweet, I couldn't take more than a couple bites worth. (I had ordered ice cream, but none was available.) But I'll always remember that steak.

We had breakfast in the diner car, and we were seated with a stranger. I'll admit, it was awkward at first, but once we all warmed up over conversation, it wasn't so bad. The omelets were dry and bland, and the grits had a texture I had never encountered before, but I did enjoy the coffee. (I had ordered bacon, got sausage.)

Lunch was a simple burger, which had some good seasoning on it. All in all, the trip provided much better food than I had anticipated.

We were, however, royally SCREWED when it came to evacuation for Hurricane Gustav, but that's another matter entirely.

Logic / September 6, 2008 3:28 PM

So the lesson to be learned here is: don't be a fucking vegetarian.

Terry B / September 18, 2008 12:01 AM

Gemma, I love this post! Train travel has been a big part of my life since I was a kid. This sounds like a lovely trip, and the food sounds better than I imagined it would be.

Mike / October 1, 2008 1:03 PM

Thanks for the review. Next summer my family and I have reservations on the California Zephyr (Chicago to Sacramento) and then the Coast Starlight (up to Seattle) and, after reading some awful reviews of the food I was wondering if I needed an extra suitcase or six just for survival rations.

Reviews like yours are saving me a fortune in extra baggage charges on the airline portion of our trip.... :)

Bill / November 1, 2008 12:00 PM

Thank you for taking the time to provide such a detailed and accurate review. I especially appreciate the pictures of the food reviewed. I must congratulate you on a review that is superior to all of the other reviews that I have ead on AMTRAK dining services.

If we want improved rail service we all need to contact our Congressmen and support AMTRAK. Amtrak may not be up to European standards however; it is way ahead of what is in second place.

Fortunately our rail service, even in it's current state, survived the onslaught of the last 8 years. One head of Amtrak was quoted as saying he was not on the job to destroy Amtrak. Evidently the White House thought he would do that job for them. One candidate has mentioned Amtrak during his campaign in a positive manor. Did you know that Phoenix, the 5th largest metro area in the country, is the largest city in the United States that does not have Amtrak service? Trains #1 and #2 go to Maricopa, about a 30 mile drive from downtown Phoenix. In fact, Phoenix is the largest city in the world that does not have passenger train service. Phoenix has a short light rail line recently went into operation. Both Senators from Arizona do not support rail transportation, passenger or freight.

This web site: ” http://www.amtrakdelays.com/index.php ” is a good way to check on time train performance. It is a private site that only checks the on time performance by train number. There is up to 4 weeks of stats. if the site is checked regularly.

Amit Tonse / November 30, 2008 5:08 AM

Thanks so much for this review. My cousin and I took the Capitol Limited from Washington, D.C. to Chicago and then the California Zephyr to San Francisco and it was the best trip I have ever taken. I loved it so much that I am taking the train next Sunday from Washington, D.C. to Chicago and then the Empire Builder all the way to Seattle. I can't wait!! I've met some fascinating people on trains.

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