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History of Railroad Food: Dinner on a Train

Posted on March 15, 2017

Train travel was once the elegant way to get from place to place across the U.S., boasting opulent interiors, plush seats, porters for your every need and gleaming dining cars. The dining car was a place for passengers to relax and enjoy a delicious meal among good company.


Before the 1870s, passengers were generally expected to bring their own food or eat at boarding house restaurant along the line. Fare typically consisted of rancid meat, cold beans and old coffee.

Isolated stops were frequently targets of attack by robbers, so the creation of onboard dining was likely primarily adapted to keep passengers safe; however until the late 19th century, opulent dining cars were nonexistent west of Omaha because they were too costly an asset to chance on dangerous, isolated Western rails.

Around 1870, the Transcontinental Railroad stretched all the way to California, and with it came a new era of railway dining. An article in Harper’s Magazine published in 1872 wrote of train dining in glowing terms: “The cooking is admirable, the service excellent, and the food is various and abundant.” A passenger could dine on broiled muttonchops, breaded veal cutlets and freshly hunted buffalo, washing it all down with a glass of real French champagne. As cross-country train travel became more commonplace around the turn of the century, passengers came to expect the highest quality food to be served; in fact, by the 1920s and 1030s, railway dining rivaled that of high-end restaurants and clubs with dishes like Braised Duck Cumberland, Lobster Americaine, Mountain Trout Au Bleu, Curry of Lamb Madras and Scalloped Brussels Sprouts.


While opulent, early-era dining cars are part of days gone by, one can still savor the nostalgia and public fascination of the dining car at places like our Essex, CT where the elegant Essex Clipper offers seasonal lunch and dinner excursions. Multi-course meals are made fresh and include sophisticated, vintage favorites such as Prime Rib, Chicken Francaise and Seafood Newburg, and diners will enjoy fresh, warm rolls topped with sweet honey butter and lavish desserts. The beautifully restored 1920’s Pullman diners are pulled by a vintage diesel locomotive, and as diners are enjoying the rhythm of the rails, the attentive staff transports them back to the day when rail was king and “dinner in the diner” was a delicious special occasion.

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