U.S., Passenger Train Dining Car History: Food Sustains Life. Good Food Makes Life More Pleasant.

By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; March 3, 2021

The year is anytime between 1947 and April 30, 1971. You are traveling on any number of good streamliners in the continental United States. It’s time for dinner, and you are hungry. You and your spouse decide to enjoy a pre-dinner libation in the lounge car before making your way to the dining car. No reservations are necessary.

You are traveling in one of the Pullman sleeping cars in a drawing room because you choose to have two lower berths instead of climbing into an upper berth.

You and your spouse “freshen up” in your drawing room before leaving for dinner. The uniform of the day is “casual travel” which means a jacket and tie for the gentleman and a traveling attire dress for the lady. The lady may or may not don her hat when leaving the room, as she always wants to maintain certain etiquette and attire standards, as one doesn’t wish to appear uncouth, even when traveling amongst strangers.

The Pullman lounge attendant offers a full range of libations; each spouse chooses their favorite. After a leisurely drink and cigarette each, the couple moves into the nearby dining car.

The dining car is not quite full, and two chairs (this is before the Federal Railroad Administration abolished all moveable furniture in dining and lounge cars) are available at a table where a couple from the coaches has just been seated.

The coach passengers are similarly attired as the couple from the Pullman car.

The dining car steward, attired in the standard three-piece suit and tie most stewards wear (the extra pockets in the vest are very handy for the steward) hands menus to each passenger as they are seated and wishes them a pleasant meal. Before leaving the table, the steward enquires if anyone would care to begin the meal with a carafe of wine or perhaps something stronger?

A friendly conversation ensues and both couples enjoy small talk about travel, their destinations, and remark how convenient and pleasant the train is as they speed along at nearly 80 miles per hour.

The table has been set for the meal. There is a white linen tablecloth, white linen napkins at each place setting, a bud vase with flowers, a silver sugar bowl with the railroad’s name engraved on the side (there are sugar cubes in the bowl, not paper packets), and glass and silver salt and pepper shakers.

The plates are glass, the drinking glasses and coffee cups are all glass, and the eating utensils are silver. Plates and all serviceware are custom patterns for the railroad, and each eating utensil has the railroad’s name or initials engraved. There may be a discreet candle burning, as well. Not a piece of “plastic anything” is visible; nothing other than the flowers is disposable.

Everyone reads the extensive menu and come to a joint conclusion: tonight’s Table d’Hote offering is the choice of everyone. A Table d’Hote menu offering is a complete meal with everything include appetizer, soup, a main course with side dishes and dessert. Non-alcoholic beverages are included.

The gentleman in each couple writes their order on the meal check the steward has provided. The steward will pick up the completed checks, place the order with the kitchen and inform the waiter of the meal choices.

Customary water glasses are an “automatic” for each patron, and two have chosen coffee with their meal and two have chosen tea. (Depending on the individual railroad and its customs…) A pot of steaming hot water is provided along with a tea bag for each patron’s order, and coffee is served by the cup by the waiter. Cream for the coffee and those using it in tea is served in a small silver pitcher.

As each course is served, if the proper, unique eating utensils for the course are not already on the table, they are provided by the waiter. The food for the table arrives uniformly so no one at the table is waiting to eat while another’s food has not arrived.

The courses served are similar to those of a good restaurant. All freshly prepared onboard, and cooked to order. All menu items are common and popular for their time, but often reflect regional favorites for the particular railroad. There is an acknowledgment tastes differ for dining car patrons in the northeast versus the south, and the northwest from the southwest. The dining car departments pride themselves on providing popular and tasteful menu choices, as well as meeting the various dietary needs of passengers, such as providing Kosher meals and special children’s menus.

Time has gone by, punctuated by pleasant conversation and our four dining car patrons are nearing the end of their meal. Dessert is served, possibly followed by cheese and crackers. After dinner coffee has changed to caffeine-free Sanka as the hour is growing late. Cigarettes are lit as companions to the Sanka.

The meal is complete, the dinner checks are paid, the tip for the waiter is placed on the table, conversations are pleasantly concluded by wishing one another a pleasant and comfortable journey.

The couple traveling in coach return to their reclining seats with legrests. The overhead lights in the coach have been dimmed for the evening, but various passengers are reading and smoking courtesy of the individual seat lighting.

The couple in the drawing room return to their accommodation; the porter has changed the room from daytime travel to overnight travel. The beds are turned down and made with classic Pullman sheets and blankets with the Pullman logos along with three feather pillows for each bed.

The four well-fed passengers eventually fall asleep to the rhythm of the train and spend a comfortable night being refreshed for their morning destinations.

In this modern day of government-run passenger trains, some question why food service on a train is so important. They believe passengers should either provide their own food for enroute consumption or simply be happy with some sort of minimum service from a stand-up counter in a café car.

In a civilized society where basic courtesy is still important, where basic table manners are still important (in spite of the infestation of smartphones as part of a table setting), and basic nutrition is still important to the general well-being, suitable food service is required. While “a meal” has taken on a variety of modern definitions, people – whether traveling or at home – still require sustenance. Those who attempt to deny this to the vast majority of people who seek actual meals versus occasional bouts of caloric intake are unable to realize their unfortunate ideas are not universally accepted.

Food sustains life. Good food makes life more pleasant.

Please share with others