California Zephyr: The Dining Car Experience, Meals and Customer Service
When I called Amtrak’s customer service to inquire about their Kosher meal options and whether or not I could request for them, the nice lady cheerfully informed me that it was indeed possible and that she’d be glad to assist me. “Just let me know what you would like to have for breakfast, lunch and dinner, okay?” she said, patiently reciting every single item available on the menu. “Oh, there’s no need for that,” I interrupted her, “I already know what to order.” There was a three-second pause, after which she promptly resumed reading out the entire menu to me.
I waited for the lady to finish reading the menu, told her what passenger number one (me) and passenger number two (Masood) wanted for each meal, and waited some more as she typed in our selections. Fifteen minutes later, her computer screen apparently froze so she couldn’t proceed with our requests. Thirty minutes later I was finally told, with profuse apologies, that she couldn’t process my request due to an error in their system.
Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are all included in the sleeper tickets, but not for coach.
Our Superliner Bedroom accommodation is inclusive of meals, juice and coffee. Meals on board are white-tableclothed affairs, a sit down service with a waiter; however, these days food is served on plastic replicas of Amtrak’s former china.
Reservations are always required for dinner, sometimes required for lunch. No reservations are necessary for breakfast, just show up. Someone from the dining car always came to our room several hours before a meal with a pen and paper in hand, taking note of the time of our reservation.
When it’s time for our seating, we would head to the Dining Car and wait at the entrance to the car until one of the dining car staff directed us to a table. As soon as we sat down, one of the servers would hand us an order form and, since we were traveling in a sleeping car, would ask us to write down our car and room number and then sign in the spaces provided at the bottom. There were little boxes on the form for the various menu items, but we did not check those. The servers checked the boxes themselves and made notes on the form.
The downside to the meals aboard Amtrak is the very limited menu that doesn’t change much from route to route.
We eventually had the menu memorized and got bored with it.
Freshly scrambled eggs offered with breakfast potatoes or grits, whole wheat biscuit, croissant or cinnamon raisin bread. Egg substitute available upon request. For coach passengers, this costs $7.50.
The menu listed Omelet Selection—freshly made three-egg omelet served plain, topped with cheese, filled with today’s fresh vegetable filling or with both—however, it wasn’t available on both mornings that we had breakfast on the train.
Made to Order Buttermilk Pancakes
Trio of buttermilk pancakes, served with syrup and fruit compote. This was surprisingly good. $9.00
Chipotle Black Bean & Corn Veggie Burger
A spiced, full flavored veggie burger, served with or without cheese on a sesame bun with lettuce, tomato, red onion, dill pickle and kettle chips. $9.75
This was the only vegetarian option for lunch, and we got so fed up by it that on our third and final meal aboard the California Zephyr, we remained in our room, refusing to be subjected to another dose of the veggie burger. We ate bananas and made simple peanut butter sandwiches with the bread we brought along with us. The server, who became our friend by then, got worried when we did not show up at lunch time. Such a sweet person!
For dinner, we had tofu Pad Thai one evening and salmon fillet the other. For dessert the options were Tiramisu, vanilla pudding (sugar free), and ice cream.
The staff working in the Dining Car were all so friendly, funny and nice! On our way back to our room after lunch one afternoon, the door that connects the Dining Car to the Sleeper Class Car got stuck.
While waiting for the door to open, we were told that Amtrak is a privately held company, but its single shareholder is the US Government. It was created in the early 1970s as a temporary solution (for a couple of year at best) to save passenger rail in the US. Despite this, Amtrak—with this stuck door that refused to open—hung on by a thread for 40 years and is heavily subsidized.
One of the staff had to call in the conductor. They struggled, pushing and pulling the door, and finally managed to open it.
Meals with a view and a chance to make new friends.
After climbing thousands of feet from Reno, Nevada, we saw the ice breaking up on Donner Lake. I took this picture from the window of the Dining Car as we had lunch.
For those unfamiliar with dining aboard Amtrak, each booth holds four and if you have a smaller party, you will most likely be seated with other passengers. Some are uncomfortable with this, like how I initially was, but it turned out kind of fun.
My favorite meal aboard Amtrak would be breakfast; I’m fresh after a night’s sleep on the comfortable bed, the gentle rays of the rising sun pouring into the Dining Car through the huge windows, the aroma of coffee brewing somewhere, and the anticipation of having warm eggs and toast for breakfast.
We met so many wonderful strangers during our two-day trip from San Francisco to Chicago. There was a couple—middle-school teachers in their late fifties—who seemed anxious to know how we, as Muslim tourists, found America and her people. They felt relieved when we told them how much we’d enjoyed our stay.
We had lunch with a nurse and her husband. When they found out that Masood works in the IT industry, the nurse proudly proclaimed, “My son works for Google! He had even showed us where he works. But don’t ask me what he does there because I can’t seem to understand these things!” The husband chimed in, “He works with computers there. He’s very good with them.” They told us how the husband loved to collect computers and that they still have a dot matrix printer at home.
We shared a table with an elderly couple for breakfast one morning. They had traveled to Morocco and Egypt not too long ago, and were deeply fascinated by the Arab history, culture and architecture. They wanted to know what the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia were like for tourists.
A freelance writer was seated in our booth for dinner one evening. He was in his late thirties and was traveling alone. He was a shy gentleman who did not talk much at the start of the meal, but when I asked him questions about his work and what sort of articles he wrote and what he thought about bloggers in general, he began to feel comfortable with us and the conversation flowed. He never traveled outside North America, so we only talked about books and current affairs.
A large, middle-aged man and his extremely quiet male companion joined us for lunch the next day. The man was loud enough for the entire Dining Car to hear, and when he laughed the table shook. The conversation began with him asking us where the UAE is located on the map. He knew where Saudi Arabia and Iran were, but he didn’t know where Dubai is. Then he talked about his great interest in stars and, trying to impress everyone within earshot, named at least 20 stars in the galaxy.
There were certain things common among of our dining companions. They were almost always surprised to learn that I, as a Muslim hijabi woman living in the Middle East, can speak English fluently, have two college degrees, and work full time. They found it surprising that it was our third trip to the US, considering how the news is currently painting most Americans as anti-anything Islam related. And almost everyone we shared the table with hated the yellow-haired presidential candidate with a passion. Masood and I tried to steer clear of any political discussion, but it always came up. It was interesting to note that half of the folks we dined with had zero knowledge about international politics and current affairs but were expecting us, foreigners visiting their country, to be up-to-date with the American presidential race.
- It’s expected to tip the servers in the dining car and the attendants $10 to $15 per day.
- Bring fruits and snacks with you.
- Don’t bring pre-packaged meals that needs reheating because there’s no microwave for you to use aboard the train.
- Passengers riding in the coach section do not have their meals included but are free to walk to the dining car to make a reservation.
- Don’t dawdle too much. Enjoy your meal and take your time. But do understand that the servers need to prepare the table for the next seating.
- Room service, at no extra charge, is also an option. You know, just in case you don’t feel like socializing in the Dining Car.
- There is an endless supply of bottled water, coffee and ice outside your room at a central station.
- To reserve Kosher meals, I suggest calling Amtrak at least two weeks prior to your departure date, just to be sure. Likewise, you can view the menu ahead of time through the Amtrak website if you have dietary concerns.
- After boarding, a member of the dining car’s wait staff comes through each car to offer a choice of reservation times in 15 minute increments. You select a time and receive a confirmation slip for your reservation. You need to bring this slip to the dining car at your selected time. If the car is full and you don’t have a reservation, your name will be added to a wait list.
While the food served aboard Amtrak needs improvement and variety, the changing scenery outside the window, the strangers who share your table, and the conversations that ensue make dining in California Zephyr an interesting and memorable experience.