Condé Nast Traveler

On Its Sleeper Routes, Amtrak Is Making Its Dining Car Part of the Experience

The highlight is the dinner, for which a white tablecloth comes out. The meal is served in three courses: appetizer, entrée, and dessert. My favorite appetizer was the pan-roasted lobster crab cake, served over a farro, butternut squash, and craisin salad with Sriracha cream on the side. It was delicious and lightly spiced, although I was amused to see its crispy coating incorporated the crushed Terra chips that sat alongside my sandwich at lunch. The other two appetizers were a green chile cheese tamale and a mixed green salad with baby brie.

There were four entrées, and my daughter and I preferred two. Amtrak’s signature flat iron steak was an 8 oz Black Angus steak with a Cabernet reduction, served with baby green beans, Parisian (small, spherical) carrots and either cheddar polenta or a baked potato. The steak was perfectly cooked each time, and the sauce was crave-worthy. The grilled Atlantic salmon was served with a miso soy beurre blanc sauce, the same vegetables, and ancient grains. I will note that the same dish wasn’t always consistent: for instance, an over-soft salmon on the eastbound leg, and a wonderfully forthright, textured version on the westward trip. On the Zephyr, a chef prepares dishes like the steak and salmon to order. The other two mains were a pan-roasted chicken breast and tortellini with pesto cream.

To close the night down before retiring to the sleeper with turndown service, we had all three dessert options: Philadelphia cheesecake, carrot cake, and the standout flourless chocolate torte.

The next morning, we rose to contemplate four breakfast choices; the favorite was the Amtrak signature railroad French toast made with Texas toast and adorned with mixed berries and whipped cream; bacon or sausage sides were available. But a particular pleasure was seeing lead service attendant Darrell Bennett, 54, who on a previous trip had mixed me an elaborate and exquisite eight-step Bloody Mary. He’s worked 18 years with Amtrak and says that “the dining car is the heartbeat of the train.”

At all times, dining car staff are friendly, alert, and bent on making the experience fun. Dinner reservations are in half-hour increments. You are never hurried, but there’s a clear sense that service will be brisk: the pre-ordered appetizers arrive almost as soon as you sit down, and each subsequent course comes before the previous is finished. But you feel part of the team; you want to surrender your seat to the next passenger so everyone can be fed.

The Zephyr goes through four climates in a single journey. As Bennett says with clear pride: We traversed the Rockies freshly layered in snow, while down the track we followed the twisting Colorado River and saw herds of elk, then the stark beauty of the Nevada desert. We climbed into the Sierra range with its historic snowsheds and views of Donner Lake, then back into Sacramento, green and lush with April rains.

Amtrak is clearly doing its best to attract long-distance riders by enhancing the onboard experience. (At the height of the pandemic, a train that could carry 200-300 passengers might have only had eight or so, according to Bennett). The attention paid to the dining experience is palpable. There are murmurs of a menu update now that supply chain issues are resolving. While menus used to change quarterly, this will be the first adjustment since June 2021—even more reason to ride.

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