The menus, china, and other dining memorabilia showcased aboard Amtrak's exhibit train, which rolled into town this weekend, are easy fodder for romantics who glamorize earlier eras of dining on the rails. But Amtrak executives and frequent riders say the current decade may represent the heyday of the 40-year-old passenger railroad's food-and-beverage program.
"They've really got their act together," says Ross Capon, president of the National Association of Railroad Passengers. "The last dining-car experience I had was in August, and I believe the comment was 'That's the best steak I ever had.' " Capon couldn't vouch for his tablemate's critique, since he's not a red-meat eater, but says, "I think if you ride now, you'll have a good experience."
Three years ago, Amtrak began revamping its food-and-beverage program to address complaints concerning quality, selection, and cost. "Passengers wanted healthy options, passengers wanted fresher options," says Tom Hall, chief officer of food-and-beverage services. "They wanted almost like a home-cooked meal."
A consortium of culinary advisors—including Tom Douglas, who last month hosted a biannual meeting of the committee—was recruited to help Amtrak regionalize its menus. Each long-distance route now has a menu to match its scenery: First-class passengers aboard the Empire Builder, which travels from Chicago to Seattle, are invited to wine-and-cheese tastings featuring products from California, Oregon, and Washington, including Beecher's cheese. "I don't know Seattle, but I understand Beecher's is an institution," Hall says.
Douglas is working with Amtrak to develop a "salmon prepared on an alderwood plank, onboard," Hall says. The dish will be added to the Empire Builder's dinner menu in the spring.
Yet while Hall describes the galleys on Amtrak's aging fleet as kitchens "any restaurant chef would envy," Douglas says the cramped quarters aren't ideal cooking spaces. "The trains and their incredibly small galleys are a tough challenge for any chef," he says. "Cooking on the trains puts you in a unique environment dealing with track delays, weather, constant movement, and ever-changing passenger load." Still, Douglas is gung-ho about train dining. "Both my grandfathers are retired train men, so this offers me a peek into what their day-to-day work life must have been like," he says. "I love it."
Amtrak has also focused on improving its meatless meals, and plans to introduce new vegan dishes next month. Starting Nov. 9, passengers on long-distance trips can request spicy udon noodles with coconut curry vegetables and dolmas with tomato couscous.
Hall credits the upgrades with helping to improve sales. During the fiscal year which ended Sept. 30, food-and-beverage revenue was $109 million, exceeding the system's goal by $5 million. "It broke our wildest expectations," Hall says.
Still, the category wasn't profitable, which is why Congress periodically calls for Amtrak to eliminate its dining program. Capon thinks the proposal is shortsighted, arguing that onboard dining helps lure travelers off buses and planes. "If you're running a cruise line, you could say food runs at a loss because people don't pay for it," he says.
Hall is sure the dining program's viability will be questioned again as the federal government casts about for potential budget cuts. A House appropriations subcommittee last month passed a bill providing Amtrak with $227 million for operations in 2012, or less than half of what the system has received in each of the past two years, although advocacy group Transportation for America reassured its members that "It's unlikely that this appropriations bill will make it through the full process to passage anytime soon."
"We anticipate it will come up in the not-so-distant future, but I feel we have a very strong argument in defense of food and beverage," he says.