My mother and I took the Zephyr train for their dinner service last weekend. The train goes very slowly over an eight-mile track from Stillwater to White Bear Lake, then reverses itself back to the Stillwater depot, located on the northern edge of downtown on main street. Boarding for dinner began about 6:30 and we returned to the depot at about 10:30. Dinner service lasts for most of the four hours.
Diners order when they make their train reservations one of any four different entrees. The prime rib seems to be popular, although I had the stuffed Cornish game hen, which was tender but very bony, so with the romantic dark lighting one had to be very careful. It was topped with a tangy orange and sage glaze. The stuffing was appopriately moist.
Entrees are preceded by shrimp with cocktail sauce and then a salad. I forget the choices for dressing, but my salad had a viniagrette (sp?) dressing that was way too tangy.
The beer list is very limited and very banal (Beck's Dark, Heineken), and the wine list is only modest in size. The pacing of the dinner is so laidback that it was possible for me to sip, not guzzle, two glasses of wine (I suspect they were not six ounce pours) before the main course was even served. Since two glasses is usually my limit, I had nothing I felt like pairing with the game hen. Interestingly, the server was clueless about what to pair with the game hen anyway, and simply asked what kind of wines I usually liked to drink. In any event, the waiter never even asked if I wanted a third glass of wine to have with my main course. Perhaps this is an intentional policy to discourage drinking too much.
The bill which the server presents you with at the end of dessert (a New York style cheesecake with drizzled chocolate, barely thawed at the very core) is confusing, and we were not the only table scratching our heads. You prepay $68 per person over the phone when you reserve a seat. Then after the meal, you receive a bill for the drinks, and tacked on is a $4.50 service charge for the food portion which does not go to the server, but to the dishwashers, etc. Tacked on is also a service charge which is 15% of the costs of the drinks, which also does not go to the server. You have to add extra if you want anything to go to the server. Our bill, which I picked up, totaled $27 in drinks, tax, and those two service charges. I left $10 extra for a tip to the server. I still don't know what was fair.
A note about the configuration- there are about ten tables per dining car, and four seats at each table. Don't be surprised when you go as a couple to have strangers seated across from you. We were lucky; our companions were very amiable.
The train service is year round, and if you want the dome car you have to reserve well in advance. I would recommend the experience regardless of the dining car.
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