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Contemporary Dining

December 18, 2018

Does Amtrak Deliver What It Advertises?

By Bruce Becker, Rail Passengers Association

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines ‘contemporary’ as: ‘marked by characteristics of the present period’.

So how does Amtrak’s use of the words ‘contemporary’ and ‘dining’ stand up to this definition? This past weekend I rode the Lake Shore Limited from Boston to Buffalo in a roomette and had the opportunity to see for myself.

Lunch was served to the sleeping car passengers about 45 minutes after leaving Boston, with the available selections being from the ‘Contemporary Dining’ menu and with the additional choice of either a cheeseburger or hot dog. The sleeping car attendant came around to each passenger to explain the process; take orders and determine if you would like to be served in your room or go to the adjacent café car to eat. He noted that unlimited complimentary non-alcoholic beverages would be available through out the trip and that each passenger was also entitled to one alcoholic beverage selection.

About 15 minutes after taking the orders, the attendant delivered the meals to those choosing to eat in their rooms and then announced that the meals were available in the café car for those electing to eat there.

I had selected the Chicken Caesar Salad and an iced tea, which the café car attendant had ready at the counter for my pick-up. I sat at a table and opened my meal box which contained the advertised marinated grilled chicken breast, baby kale, romaine lettuce, grape tomatoes and parmesan cracklings in an attractive black plastic bowl, accompanied by a side cup of caesar dressing. There was also a small orzo pasta side salad and a toffee crunch bar for dessert. The chicken and salad greens were fresh & the orzo side salad was particularly flavorful.

The attendant promptly came by to inquire if I needed anything else and to remove my now empty box; she checked back a couple more times also. As a nice touch, the attendant had decorated the service area of the car for the holidays.

Upon our arrival into Albany-Rensselaer, our sleeping car attendant explained the process for the dinner service, which would again occur either in your room or in the dining car on the New York section of the train. For those electing to eat in the diner, as soon as the New York section of the train arrived we were encouraged to cross the platform to the now adjacent diner, in order to avoid the long walk back through the train once the two sections were combined; this was a nice customer-focused touch. The attendant on the diner welcomed us on board as we took our seats, though he noted that service wouldn’t start until the train was ready to depart Albany.

Promptly upon leaving, the attendant first took our drink orders at our tables, delivered these quickly and then took our meal orders, which were all delivered within about 10 minutes. I started with my complimentary alcoholic beverage; a half bottle of cabernet and I ordered the Slow Braised Beef Short Rib with polenta and mixed baby vegetables in a red wine and beer sauce. This was served with a small mixed lettuce salad with julienne carrots, grape tomatoes and balsamic vinaigrette dressing; a dinner roll & butter and a toffee crunch bar for dessert.

The entrée was very hot, the beef was very tender & flavorful and meal size was perfectly sufficient, but the overall presentation could use some enhancement. The attendant repeatedly checked on everyone, cleared the empty boxes and served additional beverages as requested; I had a cup of decaf coffee with my dessert bar. He noted that the car would be available for the use of all sleeping car passengers for the duration of the trip and that the complimentary non-alcoholic beverages would be available all evening.

My fellow passengers were a typical mix of long-time and first-time riders. Those with past Amtrak travel experience (including myself) generally lamented the loss of traditional dining service on the Lake Shore but no one I spoke with said they wouldn’t ride again in the future due to the change to ‘contemporary dining’. My tablemate was traveling from Boston to Seattle and the couple at an adjacent table were on route from Boston to Los Angeles (so much for 'No one takes the train cross country'). A couple coming from up New York, had just flown from Hong Kong to JFK and were on route Cleveland ("we always take the train; it helps us get over the jet lag"). The new travelers all seemed to enjoy their meals and several commented positively on the quality of the food & service. Enjoyable conversation flowed freely even under 'contemporary dining'.

I arrived back into (snowless) Buffalo only a few minutes behind schedule. It had been one of my best Lake Shore Limited trips in recent years.

So, was my experience ‘marked by characteristics of the present period’?

  • Consumers today want quality – All of the food was all fresh and flavorful.
  • Consumers today want options – I was readily offered the opportunity at both meals to eat individually in my room or to dine with others.
  • Consumers today expect good service – The café car, dining car and sleeping car attendant were all top-notch; welcoming, friendly and informative!
  • Consumers today want value – The inclusion of the unlimited non-alcoholic beverages, along with the one alcoholic beverage is a welcome amenity and a tangible value.

Did Amtrak deliver me ‘contemporary dining’? I would say YES!