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Amtrak again (or is that agony) - as long as the trip

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Amtrak again (or is that agony) - as long as the trip

Stanley Stephan | Dec 5, 2002 12:27 AM

Mr. Chino Wayne wrote an amusing account of his mostly Southern journey on Amtrak in July. I say mostly Southern because with Amtrak, all tracks eventually lead to Chicago. Given that, if you decide to ride the rails across the USA, here’s a link to the Chicago board where I asked for recommendations for eats near Union Station.

[BROKEN LINK REMOVED]

If you missed Mr. Wayne’s account, the link is at the end. Here is my odyssey along the northern route from New York to San Francisco.

Let me say up front that Amtrak is not the most chow-centric experience. Somewhere in the Rockies when we passed bald eagles and a herd of elk, I wondered how fast those critters were and if they’d make good eating.

Oh the humanity, or really, oh the LACK of humanity.

There is no way that I’ve figured out to speak to an ACTUAL person at Amtrak. If you call the 800 number the chirpy and pre-recorded Julie gives you a choice of options to repeat.

I tried the word “Help” a number of times without luck. Julie patiently explained that when I said help, she would repeat the options. I needed to say either “schedules“, “reservations” or “train status“. Good luck if your English isn’t that great. I finally booked through a travel agent.

The trip started promisingly enough at Penn Station where, to my delight, I discovered that my sleeping car ticket allowed me to wait in the first class lounge. There I was treated to complementary coffee, tea, soft drinks, juice and fruit (well, one granny smith apple was left). There was a business center with free computers and access to the internet. Business travelers could use the conference room. I overlooked the genteel shabbiness of the lounge area.

My trip would take three days with me arriving Thanksgiving evening. Friends asked if I wanted to be included in Thanksgiving dinner plans. I demurred. I’ve been on Amtrak before. I knew I might arrive any time from Thanksgiving to Monday … given all went well.

The promised dining car was not available on the first train to Chicago. Meals are included if you buy a ticket with either the standard or deluxe (ha) sleeping cars.

I made my way to the lounge car for dinner where I had the choice of lasagna or chicken and noodles.

There has been a discussion on Chowhound about the best color for dinnerware. Black is the color that most dramatizes food presentation. I am sure that was what the chef at Amtrak was going for when my lasagna was served in a stunning black plastic dish that was also cleverly microwavable.

In playful contrast to the black dish, cutlery was white plastic. White paper napkins were tastefully monogrammed with the navy blue Amtrak logo. “Amtrak” was etched on the crystal clear plastic glasses. The luxury of train travel.

The server slit the plastic film covering the lasagna for my dining convenience. I could see the dish aspired to be as good as Stouffers. The single noodle was covered with a meat based tomato sauce. Italian, I assume, cheese coated the dish with a yellow sheen.

This seemed an occasion that begged for wine. Lots and lots of wine.

I chose a split of vintage 2000 Merlot from Castoro Cellars of Paso Robles. Alcohol is not included in the fare. The half bottle was $8. It was drinkable, if not memorable. Well, there is also bad memorable.

“Do you want the lemon bar with that?” shouted the server.

Not one to turn down dessert and doubting that the smallishly chic entrée would get me through the next twelve hours, I nodded. The apparently crumb covered bar was indeed lemony and served in a clear crystal cut plastic tray.

Wanting to sample different Amtrak accommodations, I chose the standard bedroom for the one night trip to Chicago and the deluxe (ha) bedroom for the two day trip from Chicago to SF.

All I can say is that if you ever are thinking of any criminal activity, take an overnight trip on Amtrak and choose the standard bedroom. This is what prison must be like, only a prison cell doesn’t move.

Instead of boot camp, all those daytime talk shows should make troubled teens spend a night on the train, threatening to leave them there until they reform. Those kids would turn around overnight.

The seats fold down to a futon like bed. The toilet is right next to the foot (thank heavens) of the bed. No space between. The air in the cabin has a certain perfume of public rest room. There is literally only enough room to stand up. Not a step to the right or a step to the left.

Amazingly this room accommodates two with a fold down upper berth which can be reached by stepping first on the toilet and then the sink. I shudder to think of the etiquette involved if one of two roomies needed to use the loo during the night.

Also, never walk the rails. The trains still seem to dump waste directly on the tracks. There is a certain breeziness to using the john.

For breakfast, Smuckers breakfast syrup and Land O’Lakes butter enhanced the flavor of the three pancakes served steaming from the microwave. It seemed a more prudent choice than eggs and sausage. Canned OJ and coffee rounded out the breakfast. We passed through Midwest farms lightly dusted with snow looking like the frosting on shredded wheat.

I will say one thing about the coffee, this IS a place for Starbucks. Really, to anyone at Starbucks, you’ve plastered yourself all over America. Here’s a place where you actually are needed. ANY quality coffee would do. Peet where are you? Someone bid on this contract, PLEASE.

All these delights for only $194, excluding the additional fare of $90. That was ONLY the NY-Chicago charge.

We arrived at Union Station only four hours late. Given the food experience, I asked where I could get a good meal near Union Station.

It is many years since I lived on the East Coast and I forgot that when the outside temperature goes down, indoor heat rises. It must have been over 100 in the Amtrak lounge. Hyper tots with colds, laughing, coughing and sneezing, raced around the room with noses dripping.

The computers were broken here and the staff said they gave up trying to fix them. Same tired chairs and couches as in the NY lounge.

I boarded the California Zephyr for the final leg of the trip. The difference between the standard and deluxe (ha) rooms had to do with more space and an enclosed toilet with a shower. It was not “ultimate in sleeping car travel” that the Amtrak web site promises.

The shower doled out water in 30 second bursts. There was no choice of temperature. You took what you got. If you are a large person, the shower is almost unusable. By large I would estimate over 100 pounds.

Amtrak describes it thus “You also have a private sink, vanity, fully enclosed private shower and toilet” Yeah, the instructions in the shower/toilet advise you to sit on the john while showering.

A sliding door separated rooms and there was a slight space that allowed you to see into the adjoining room. The sliding door was for those who wanted to convert the deluxe (ha) bedroom into a deluxe (ha, ha, ha) suite.

I guess a peek into the adjoining room was the entertainment because the promised “private video entertainment” was not working. There were only four tapes available and they kept breaking, so the discouraged crew stopped trying to fix them long ago. And they were just MUSIC tapes, not video.

The room screamed of the 1970’s with it’s orange seats and curtains and brown carpets. I don’t think they were cleaned since then either as there was a visible grime that clung to everything. It was making motel 6 look good … very. very good. Amtrak describes it as “By day, our Deluxe Bedroom provides a comfortable, cushy sofa and arm chair”.

Come on folks. It was your standard coach seat that converts to a futon-like bed at night. And the barely secured upper berth squeaked as it bounced around.

Also the old fashioned concept of an honor system was in play. If you left your room, there was no way to lock the door. You had to rely either on the honesty of your fellow passengers or the vigilance of the sleeping car attendant. No verbal comment on either.

I gave the room attendant a twenty dollar bill and asked him to bring me as much wine as that would buy. I had 2 days and 2000 miles more ahead of me in my deluxe (ha) accommodations.

Now you may think I’m being petty, but Amtrak is charging over $400 a night for these accommodations. That doesn’t include the additional fare of $169. How DARE they call the meals complementary. And Amtrak is LOSING money. How incompetent are they?

There was a dining car on this train and my experience was pretty similar to Mr. Chino Wayne’s. Think Denny’s or Sizzler.

The menu changes ever so slightly every few months. The steak was now a filet mignon and I will suggest that this is the best choice. The same green beans accompanied all meals. The baked potato was good if slightly gummy. A green salad with greens similar to the standard bag you can buy at the market. Of similar quality was the dinner roll which you can buy bagged at any market.

All the beef and egg dishes had an asterisk next to them.

* FDA Consumer Advisory. If you are especially vulnerable to food bourne illness you should only eat meat, eggs and seafood that has been thoroughly cooked.

Yum

I do have to agree with Mr. Wayne that the Amtrak signature dessert is the winner on the menu. A chocolate pyramid with cake, cream and mousse. Skip the deep dish apple cherry cobbler which was just a slice of gluey pie. Ice cream and a fair cheese cake was also available.

I had the seafood selection which was a decent enough piece of salmon and had the unremarkable whipped mashed potatoes. Remember that unremarkable and unmemorable can be a good thing. Same beans, salad and roll came with dinner.

Wines were either Gossamer Bay or Castoro Cellars.

They DID provide real dinnerware, silverware (so to speak) and cloth napkins.

I enjoyed the continental breakfast the best with oatmeal, yogurt, and a bowl of fruit (under ripe cantaloupe and honeydew). The breakfast bread was either a croissant or a biscuit. I liked the biscuit better.

The bacon and eggs with gummy cubes of lukewarm potatoes wasn’t a pleasant thing to wake up to. The bacon really is wretched, as stiff and dry as cardboard. You could call it the pig’s revenge.

For lunch my Black Angus Steak burger was indeed black and really dry. It was served on a supermarket quality Kaiser bun. I really did like the oil and vinegar cole slaw that came with it. Sort of like a fresh kraut.

To celebrate Thanksgiving I had the turkey sandwich which was the better selection. Decent enough turkey on a nice wheat bread. Swiss cheese, lettuce, tomato and the dreaded bacon were included.

The soups, a vegetarian vegetable and clam chowder, tasted like Progresso. Other than the soup, vegetarians only had the choice of a grilled vegetable lasagna which I didn’t try.

I also passed on the chicken pot pie, chicken Caesar salad, roasted chicken with barbeque sauce and “home style” roast pork. If ever a dish probably needed a warning asterisk, it had to be the pork with the “tangy ranchero sauce”.

There WERE videos in the lounge car. The first night offered “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and “Spiderman”.

The next night, the first movie was something like “Alligator wrestler, part 2” followed by “The Age of Innocence”. I guess the early movie was for the action/adventure crowd with the next movie for the artsy group.

The scenery is lovely. There sure is a lot of mid west out there. I was suspecting that somehow Dorothy made a mistake by not remaining in OZ.

The Rockies were, well, rocky. The trip through the Sierra Nevada mountains was the prettiest part of the trip, in my opinion. But I’m a city person and I have to admit I’m not anxious to see another pine tree for quite a while. Also, there were long, long, …. long stretches when even my cell phone wasn’t working.

No TV, radio, cell phone for three days. Only scenery. Lots and lots of scenery.

The complimentary newspaper was delivered two mornings out of three, so I had some contact with the world. The complementary bed time chocolate never did show up, however.

I do think Amtrak is making a mistake. Upgrade those deluxe bedrooms and make them truly comfy. And why not have special food train trips across the country. Get good guest chefs from the major cities to put together meals. There could be a taste of New York, Washington, Miami, New Orleans, Chicago, Denver, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, etc, etc.

I’ve take trains across Europe and some of the food on them is truly impressive. One of the best meals I had was on the train from Barcelona to Madrid.

I’ve now crossed the country by plane, car, bus and train. I have to say that the Amtrak experience was only slightly better than Greyhound.

We actually arrived in Emeryville 15 minutes early. The freight trains were not running on Thanksgiving, so there were no delays. There is a connecting bus to get to SF.

Mr. Wayne first ordered room service and then took a shower after his trip. I felt a shower was really more important than food.

Too tired from my relaxing trip to dress up for Thanksgiving dinner, I found that it was not the best night to arrive back in town food-wise. The cupboards were bare, the markets closed and even McDonald’s was shut down. I finally located a pizza place that was open on Thanksgiving and delivered (the quality was what one might expect of a pizza joint open on Thanksgiving).

However, during my new traditional dinner of pizza and tiramisu I gave thanks for arriving home at last. Amtrak will do that for you. Make you glad you are home.

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