In the preparation for this trip, I spent a lot of time researching my routes and asking questions in online forums. A lot of the more informed forums were discussing an imminent change which will affect many Amtrak routes, and which will shift the method of food preparation in the diner towards off-train cooking and on-train reheating. So far, I've only traveled on one route that this has started on (the Lake Shore Limited) and even then I didn't really notice any difference to my breakfast. However, as one attendant explained to me when asked, not all trains on these certain routes have implemented the changes.
The California Zephyr is, however, still doing things the old fashioned way. I had often seen the Amtrak menu that offered steak for dinner, so was very interested to give it a go. We walked down to the dining car at seven thirty, as the attendant made the third call for supper.
The restaurant car of a Superliner train is an attractive place to dine: there are spaces for 72 people at any one time, although I suspect that even in high season that's a rare sight. All the tables are on the upper level: dumb waiters bring food up from the kitchens below. At this time (and this will change with the new food service) the train employs three people on the upper level to serve the food and two chefs downstairs to prepare the food.
I ummm and ahhhh and eventually decide on the steak, proudly listed at the top of the menu and a juicy cured piece of meat that goes for $21. Why not, I'm on holiday, and there isn't much else than food to spend money on when you're on a train. We're brought a salad, served with a puddle of our chosen dressing on top. A big blob of blue cheese dressing will surely undo any good that having a salad might have done. I accompany the meal with a bottle of Samuel Adams beer - a pleasant discovery on this trip - American beer can have flavour (sorry, but I can't help going on about it...).
We eat our salad as the sun sets on Uath. Although it's not quite so rugged and alien, I can't help remembering the Road Runner cartoons of my childhood. Every part of this trip has exposed me to a new kind of scenery, but of course it is always recalled somewhere deep down inside by a film or television programme that I saw years ago. The USA is the country that has exported it's landscape on film, and doubtless many visitors make a point of searching out something or somewhere they first saw on the silver screen.
The main courses are delivered - I don't recall exactly which dish my dining companion chose, so I won't pass specific comment except to say that her impressions were not that great. My steak was fine - cooked medium rare as I like it and tender to the mouth. But the overall meal was disappointing. The baked potato had been baked for too long, and the two strands of brocolli served with my steak did not give me the impression of a $21 dish. As grateful budget travellers, we both cleared our plates and sat there contentedly, but I was somehow disappointed. If there is one thing that you expect to be done well in America, it is the food. And this was overpriced, underwhelming and just disappointing.
We passed on desert but I took a decaf coffee to try and round off the meal. I was feeling bloated and heavy inside. The staff was friendly, but not exactly inspiring. Serving the same six or seven meals every night must have a depressing effect on them, especially as their days are now numbered in charge of a real restaurant. If this is the quality of the evening meal service before the cut backs to staff and the introduction of extension off train food preparation, I hate to think what it's going to be like after they've been introduced. So far my impression is that breakfast and lunch offer much better value than the evening meals on Amtrak.
We have another beer from the cafe and chat in the lounge car attendant. He's a charming and engaging man who serves me throughout the trip with a friendly smile and light conversation. I ask him his opinion of the evening meals served in the next car, and he hesitates.
"They're a little overpriced for what they are, you know..." he summises. "But I always say that everyone should do it at least once."
I agree completely. I think we've chosen a good night for it as well, bounding across Utah towards Salt Lake City, the scenery more than compensated for the uninspiring meal. As I drink my beer and chat in the lounge car with Fleur, I can't help feel saddened that every time a small cut back affects a service like this, we get one step closer to the complete eradication of what makes traveling by train so enjoyable.
Our attendant tells us that his father and his grand father worked on the railways, and he had decided that that was what he wanted to do by the time he was ten years old. He's worked every route except those based in California, and even has fond memories of the now discontinued Montrealer, which ran overnight from Montréal to Washington DC. It's a train I would have loved to have taken, and which would overshadow the minimal three coach service that now runs only as far as New York, and not overnight. Our lounge car attendant remembers the north bound runs when a pianist would get on board at New York and play for the people in the lounge car.
"It's all changed since then."