As Amtrak eliminates white-tablecloth dining on Charlotte train, a reminder to make ‘someday’ plans now

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Photo via Malcolm K./Flickr/Creative Commons
The dining car of Amtrak's Capitol Limited near Connellsville, Pennsylvania.

I’ve never ridden across the United States via train, though I’ve always said I would — one of these days. You know, when I have the time.

My experience with white-tablecloth-sterling-silver-fresh-flowers dinners with the rolling countryside as a backdrop has been relegated mostly to movies and books. I’ve done plenty of short train travels here and in Europe, but I’ve never slept on a train and never been served a meal on a train (unless a breakfast sandwich ordered at the café car between here and Raleigh counts).

So then, why was I so sad to hear that traditional dining is gone on Amtrak’s Crescent train? The Crescent is the one that travels from New York to New Orleans, with a stop in Charlotte. I’ve never even tried the Railroad French Toast with powdered sugar that travelers rave about. Did I miss out on a cultural moment?

Not exactly.

All is nowhere near lost, if a fine-dining experience aboard a vessel moving 100+ mph is a dream of yours, too.

Here’s the important part: traditional dining is not going away everywhere, just on the aforementioned routes. The fine-dining service will continue to be offered on overnight routes that travel west (California Zephyr, Coast Starlight, Empire Builder, Southwest Chief, Sunset Limited, Texas Eagle)  and the Auto Train.

Starting this month, sleeping car passengers on the Crescent (and Cardinal, City of New Orleans and Silver Meteor) were instead given access to a new flexible-dining service. The Silver Star will convert from traditional to flexible dining in 2020. More on flexible dining in a minute.

But to experience traditional dining, we’ve got to get on one of those trains heading west.

You know what this means, right? It’s time to plan a trip.

Traditional dining

To partake in traditional dining on a train, you’ll make a reservation once you board the train. You’ll eat in a dining car, where communal seating is offered. It’s the perfect chance to meet a stranger. With menu items including beef petite tender filet, lemon pepper cod and more, it’s fine dining at its — well, finest.

“Those in Charlotte who want to experience traditional dining would have to make a number of connections to head West,” Kimberly Woods of Amtrak Corporate Communications told CharlotteFive.

If you’ve booked a sleeping car, your meals are complimentary. If you’re riding coach, you can purchase a meal.

Here are some menu options:

  • Breakfast: Amtrak signature buttermilk pancake trio, cheese quesadillas with eggs and tomatillo sauce or a three-egg omelet.
  • Lunch: Black bean and corn veggie burger, steamed mussels or baked chilaquiles.
  • Dinner: Black Angus flat iron steak with a premium lump crab cake and optional Bérnaise sauce; seared Norwegian salmon fillet with sauce of the day, rice pilaf and baby green beans; or al dente rigatoni pasta with oven roasted tomatoes, mushrooms, peas and vegan soy sausage.
  • Dessert: Vanilla pudding, flourless chocolate tart or New York-style cheesecake.

Note: different trains may offer different menus. Check out menu items available on traditional-dining trains here.

What is flexible dining?

Courtesy of Amtrak
Creole Shrimp and Andouille, part of Amtrak’s new flexible-dining menu

The new flexible-dining concept is part of Amtrak’s long-term strategy for evolving train travel.

“Traveling on one of our trains has never been just about the destination – the journey is part of the adventure,” Amtrak President and CEO Richard Anderson said in a statement. “We continue to evolve our onboard accommodations and dining experience to meet the needs of today’s customers.”

As of Oct. 1, Sleeping Car customers on available routes (including the Crescent) now get complimentary flexible-dining meals, which include: 

  • A new menu with hot choices for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
  • Wine, beer and spirits (the first one’s free), plus unlimited soft drinks.
  • Complimentary room service. 
  • An onboard lounge space exclusively for Sleeping Car customers to dine and socialize — or you can eat in your room if you prefer.
  • Unlike traditional dining service, flexible dining times are available without reservations. Eat when you’re hungry.

Here are some menu options: 

  • Breakfast: Deluxe Continental Breakfast, served buffet-style. Choose muffins, yogurt, fresh fruit, hard-boiled eggs, cereal, oatmeal, breakfast sandwich.
  • Lunch & Dinner: Asian Noodle Bowl, Red Wine Braised Beef, Chicken Fettuccine with Broccoli, Creole Shrimp and Andouille. Pasta and meatballs option available for children.
  • Dessert: Blondies and Brownies.

Check out other menu items available on flexible-dining trains here.

In addition to flexible dining, travelers should expect to see these additional features being rolled out over the next few months: upgraded bedding, towels and linens; new seating cushions, carpets, curtains and LED reading lights; and new Viewliner II sleeping cars for trains on the East Coast.

“Whether it’s a full sit-down meal or more informal food service, we’re giving customers the ability to set their dining preferences. Upgrading equipment and enhancing the onboard experience represent an investment in improving the travel experience,” Kimberly Woods said.

Amtrak / Doug Riddell
The Piedmont travels between Charlotte and Raleigh. The Carolinian covers the same route, with service extending up the East Coast to New York City. The Piedmont and Carolinian trains are sponsored by NCDOT and operated by Amtrak.

Where should we go?

Ok, now that we know what we’re eating, where should we go? If you’re looking for the most scenic route, you may want to check out Amtrak’s sightseer lounges.

These are part of the double-deckers that run on some long-distance trains. They offer floor-to-ceiling windows on the second floor of the train. There are tables for card games or remote work, single and family-style seating and a cafe car for snacks.

We decided to ask Woods for a little trip-planning help. Here are some of her suggestions:

Charlotte to Seattle

  • Take the Crescent to Washington, D.C. (about 8 hours)
  • In Washington, D.C., transfer to the Capitol Limited to Chicago (about 18 hours).
  • In Chicago, transfer to the Empire Builder to Seattle (about 47 hours). 

Dining: Crescent and Capitol Limited offer flexible dining. Empire Builder has traditional dining. 
Views: Empire Builder has a sightseer lounge.

Total train time (one way): 3+ days*

Charlotte to San Antonio

Photo courtesy of Amtrak
The Sunset Limited train travels from New Orleans to San Antonio and then onto Los Angeles
  • Take the Crescent to New Orleans (about 18 hours). 
  • In New Orleans, transfer to the Sunset Limited to San Antonio (about 15 hours). 

Dining: Crescent offers flexible dining. Sunset Limited has traditional dining. 
Views: Sunset Limited has a sightseer lounge.

Total train time (one way): 1-2 days*

Charlotte to Chicago

Photo courtesy of Amtrak
On the Capitol Limited, customers will follow the historic B&O line through the Potomac Valley, past historic Harpers Ferry and the Allegheny Mountains into Pittsburgh. Cross into Ohio heading north to Cleveland, then across Ohio and Indiana into the center of Chicago.
  • Take the Carolinian (about 10 hours) or Crescent (about 8 hours) to Washington, D.C.
  • In D.C., transfer to the Capitol Limited to Chicago (about 18 hours). This train travels through West Virginia.

Dining: Crescent and Capitol Limited offer flexible dining. 
Views: Capitol Limited has a sightseer lounge.

Total train time (one way): 1+ days*

Charlotte to San Francisco

Amtrak/Phil Gosney
Amtrak’s California Zephyr runs daily between Chicago and San Francisco, coursing through the plains of Nebraska to Denver, across the Rockies to Salt Lake City, and then through Reno and Sacramento into Emeryville/San Francisco.
  • Take the Crescent to Washington, D.C. (about 8 hours).
  • In Washington, D.C., transfer to the Capitol Limited to Chicago (about 18 hours). 
  • In Chicago, transfer to the California Zephyr to Emeryville (between Berkeley and Oakland) (about 52 hours).

Dining: Crescent and Capitol Limited offer flexible dining. California Zephyr has traditional dining.
Views: Capitol Limited and California Zephyr both have sightseer lounges.

Total train time (one way): 3-4 days*

[Related: Dream job? She travels via train across the U.S., stopping to eat]

Other scenic routes

If you don’t want to go that far west but you still want beautiful views, Woods recommends these trips (Note: these do not include traditional dining.):

Charlotte to Vermont

  • Take the Carolinian (about 10 hours) or Crescent to Washington, D.C. (about 8 hours)
  • In Washington D.C., transfer to the Vermonter to St. Albans, Vermont (about 13 hours), where you’ll travel through New England.

Dining: Carolinian has a café car. Crescent offers flexible dining. Vermonter offers café service.

Total train time (one way): 1 day*

Charlotte to New York

  • Take the Carolinian (about 14 hours) or Crescent (12 hours) to New York City. 
  • In New York, transfer to the Adirondack and travel through the state’s Hudson Valley and Adirondack Mountains. Stop at the last New York stop (about 8 hours) or continue through Vermont and all the way to Montreal if you’d like (about 11 hours).

Dining: Carolinian has a café car. Crescent offers flexible dining. The Adirondack offers café service.

Total train time (one way): 1 day*

Note: You will be crossing a border if you continue to Montreal.

For more route recommendations, try the Amtrak Vacations site, which can assist with trip planning (including stops in cities along the way).

But, train travel is so expensive.

It’s true, train travel is not the inexpensive mode of travel in the United States like it is in Europe and other countries. But, if you look at it like this: it’s your transit, your sleeping and largely your dining and entertainment (especially in the observation car), then it’s not so bad to do on occasion, right? Here are a few tips to help minimize that fare:

  • If you book 7-14 days in advance, you can save 20 percent on your ticket cost.
  • Take advantage of Amtrak’s BOGO sale (now through Monday) for travel on long-distance trains (including the Crescent) from Nov. 11, 2019, through April 8, 2020. When you purchase a roomette or bedroom, you can bring a friend for free.

Here are some sample fares: 

  • Charlotte to New Orleans: roomette: $303, bedroom: $390
  • Charlotte to New York: roomette: $303, bedroom: $476.

*Travel times are approximate.

5 COMMENTS

  1. The dining car is a big part of the overall experience and pleasure of train travel. To take this away from travelers who love trains and say it’s an improvement is an insult to those who travel this way. The “two million dollar” saving won’t happen, there will be much lost revenue from those of us who won’t travel on the train anymore. I feel sick about this bad decision. This is what happens when a former airline person is in charge of a Railroad. A train is not a plane, we don’t want microwave food on plastic plates. Boycott the train untill things are returned to normal.

  2. Melissa train travel via the California Zephyr, the Coastal Starlight, and the Sunset Ltd are prerequisites for appreciating USA rail travel, throw in the Pioneer. Naysayers always bemoan the deterioration of train travel but it isn’t necessarily so.

  3. The “new” menus on the western trains show the same offerings that have not been changed in over two years. While each offering is as good as it is expensive, I began to tire of them last summer when I traveled on six different trains between Chicago and points west. As for the “flexible dining,” I can only say that the first two generations of it have been served for a couple of years on the Capitol Ltd. and the Lake Shore Ltd. The first version was an offense to the eye and palate. Appropriately served in a green shopping bag, too. The unsightly garbage containers overflowed with unconsumed boxed food. The second version was no better even with one new option that was served “warm.” It was some kind of beef with a misleadiing name. Hot on the outside, cold on the inside, and tough as leather throughout. Ignore Amtrak’s euphemisms; “flexible” means cheap. You get what you pay for. Think, too, of the dozens of dining car chefs and servers who have lost their jobs so that passengers can picnic in a diner that no longer swims in the fragrance of fresh food being prepared for you.

  4. Traveling on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief as I write this. Dinner with my wife last night was delicious and met a young couple from India. The changes taking place on some trains by eliminating the diner cars is truly unfortunate. It is my hope that Amtrak finds a CEO with a railroad background who can enhance train travel, not destroy it!

  5. Amtrak is mandated by Congress to make food service break even by 2020 so instead of engaging all of its passengers to pressure Congress to rework that ridiculous rule (made only as part of an ongoing effort by some Republican lawmakers to destroy Amtrak) the currant CEO of Amtrak, former Delta Airlines CEO Dick Anderson, decided to make long distance train travel in the United States truly as miserable as possible in hopes that riders would disappear and he could declare long distance passenger rail service no longer needed. As far as I know, all passenger rail service loses money, all over the world but, most civilized nations believe passenger rail service to be an essential part of a balanced transportation system and accept the loss just as they do for highways, air traffic control, river dredging, port development, etc. Amtrak’s present management, most with zero past railroad experience, are very prone to use “weasel words” to describe downgrading of food service as if it were an improvement not the reality of what it is in fact. Too bad some writers accept their press releases as fact instead of fiction.

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