Brian’s Travel Spot: Amtrak’s Full Dining Service

The black bean and corn veggie burger, from Amtrak's lunch menu, served on the California Zephyr, April 2019, en-route to Chicago.Two months ago, Amanda and I caught Amtrak’s Crescent service from New York to Atlanta. As fans of Amtrak’s dining cars, we were keen to see what the new “upgraded” dining service was like. Suffice to say we were disappointed, prompting me to write about the demise of Amtrak’s full dining service.

The good news is that this only applies to services east of the Mississippi, including the City of New Orleans, which runs between Chicago and New Orleans. Further west, Amtrak still offers its full dining service, a major plus when travelling by train. Having recently written about my journey last year from Los Angeles to San Jose on the Coast Starlight, and the trip Amanda and I took on the California Zephyr from Emeryville to Chicago a few weeks later, I’ve been inspired to write this as a counterpoint to the demise of Amtrak’s Full Dining Service.

For now, at least, the dining car, with its full dining service, is alive and well west of the Mississippi. Although the COVID-19 pandemic has robbed us all of the joys of communal dining for now, I look forward to when I’ll be eating in the Superliner dining car again.

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Brian’s Travel Spot: California Zephyr to Chicago – Day 3

Amtrak Locomotive No. 161 at the head of the California Zephyr, eastbound for Chicago, standing at the platform at Grand Junction, Colorado, with Locomotive No. 19 behind it.Welcome to the third and final part of my bonus Travel Spot, telling the story of the journey that Amanda and I took from California to Chicago this time last year. We travelled on the California Zephyr, a daily service between Emeryville (just across the bay from San Francisco) and Chicago, with a scheduled journey-time of 51½ hours. Along the way, it crosses roughly two-thirds of North America, over two mountain ranges and through an array of amazing, contrasting landscapes.

Our first day on the train was covered in Part 1 of this Travel Spot, when we travelled across California’s Central Valley, over the Sierra Nevada Mountains via the Donner Pass and down into and across Nevada following the Truckee and Humboldt Rivers. The following day, covered in Part 2, saw us going to bed in Nevada and waking up almost all the way across Utah. We then followed the Colorado River through Ruby Canyon before climbing into the heart of the Rockies, through the Moffat Tunnel and down to the other side to Denver.

In this final instalment, you can follow our progress through Nebraska, Iowa and Illinois, crossing the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers on our way to Chicago.

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Brian’s Travel Spot: California Zephyr to Chicago – Day 2

Amtrak Locomotive No. 161 at the head of the California Zephyr, eastbound for Chicago, standing at the platform at Grand Junction, Colorado, with Locomotive No. 19 behind it.Welcome to the second instalment of my bonus Travel Spot. Just over a year ago, Amanda and I left Emeryville Station onboard Amtrak Train No. 6, the California Zephyr. A daily service between Emeryville (just across the bay from San Francisco) and Chicago, the California Zephyr has a scheduled journey-time of 51½ hours as it makes its way west-to-east across roughly two-thirds of North America. The first part of this Travel Spot covered our first day on the train, travelling across California’s Central Valley, over the Sierra Nevada Mountains via the Donner Pass and down into and across Nevada following the Truckee and Humboldt Rivers.

In this instalment, we pick up our journey with our first of two nights on the train, which saw us going to bed in Nevada and waking up almost all the way across Utah. We followed the Colorado River for most of the day, crossing into Colorado along to 40 km long Ruby Canyon before climbing up through the Rockies, descending again into Denver as night fell. You can read about the third day of our journey, from Denver to Chicago, in the third and final instalment of this Travel Spot.

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Brian’s Travel Spot: California Zephyr to Chicago – Day 1

Amtrak Locomotive No. 161 at the head of the California Zephyr, eastbound for Chicago, standing at the platform at Grand Junction, Colorado, with Locomotive No. 19 behind it.Welcome to today’s bonus Travel Spot. Exactly a year ago today, Amanda and I left Sunnyvale in the Bay Area, California, to catch Amtrak Train No. 6, the California Zephyr, at Emeryville Station. Roughly 60 hours and 4,000 km later, we reached our destination, Buffalo Grove, in the Chicago suburbs. This was part of a much larger, five-week trip that began in New Orleans, then saw me fly to Los Angeles so that I could take the Coast Starlight along the Pacific Coast to San Jose. From Chicago, I (eventually) flew home. One day I hope to write up the entire trip, but for now, I hope you enjoy the train ride!

The California Zephyr is a daily service between Emeryville (just across the bay from San Francisco) and Chicago, a scheduled journey of 51½ hours that crosses the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountains as well as both the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers as it makes its way west-to-east across roughly two-thirds of North America. It’s the longest I’ve been on a train, beating the 47 hours I spent on the Empire Builder from Chicago to Portland (Oregon) in 2015.

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Brian’s Travel Spot: Coast Starlight, Los Angeles to San Jose

The glorious, vaulted ceilings of one of the old waiting rooms at Los Angeles' Union Station.Welcome to this, today’s bonus Travel Spot, covering a journey I took exactly a year and one day ago, when I boarded Amtrak Train No. 14, the Coast Starlight, at Los Angeles’ Union Station. This was part of a much larger, five-week trip that began in New Orleans, then saw me travel to Los Angeles, San Jose/the Bay Area and Chicago (on the California Zephyr), from where I (eventually) returned home. One day I hope to write up the entire trip, but for now, I hope you enjoy the train ride!

The Coast Starlight is a daily service between Los Angeles and Seattle, although I was only going as far as San Jose, an all-day journey that departed Los Angeles at 10:10 and arrived in San Jose at 20:11, ten hours and one minute later! It was also very cheap, a one-way advance fare in coach class costing just $60, although since I was going to be on the train for 10 hours, I’d decided to spend the extra $30 for a seat in business class. Along the way, I saw a lot of the Pacific Coast as well as some awesome mountain scenery, plus I had two excellent meals in the dining car!

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Brian’s Travel Spot: The Demise of Amtrak’s Full Dining Service

Amtrak's new "contemporary" menu on its Viewliner sleeper services: prepacked meals, delivered in a paper bag, a far cry from the full service dining cars it replaced. Bottom, my vegan Asian noodle bowl, and top, Amanda's red wine braised beef.One of the great pleasures of taking Amtrak’s long-distance trains used to be the dining car, where you could enjoy three hot meals a day, cooked to order from a varied menu, along with dessert and full table service. While this is still true on services running west of the magical line from Chicago to New Orleans, since the start of October last year, Amtrak has replaced its full dining service on all other sleeper services (except the Silver Star from New York to Miami, which is due to move to the new service on 1st May this year).

Although the new service is touted as an “upgrade” by Amtrak, it’s anything but. Having experienced (and loved) the full service dining car, what’s replaced it is vastly inferior, as Amanda and I discovered when we took the train from New York to Atlanta at the start of this month. Instead of a bustling dining car, full of happy passengers, we found a near empty carriage, grumpy staff and, while the food was good, the menu was limited (particularly if you don’t eat meat). As an experience, it was an immense disappointment, fundamentally detracting from the enjoyment of our journey.

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Brian’s Travel Spot: Portland to Atlanta by Car & Train

Locomotive 608, hauling Amtrak Train 19, The Crescent, from New York Penn Station to Washington DC Union Station before it is switched out for two diesel locomotives which take the train on to New Orleans.Welcome to the second instalment of this, the second Travel Spot of 2020. The first part covered my journey to Boston, flying in economy with British Airways, before catching the coach up to Portland, where I spent the next two weeks with Amanda. This instalment involves our journey down to Atlanta to see Amanda’s mother, while the next two parts cover my onward journey to Chicago and my return home from there.

Amanda and I had plenty of options to get from Portland (Maine) to Atlanta, the most obvious one being to fly. However, neither of us is a great fan of flying internally in the US, and, since we had time, we decided to look at other options. One alternative was driving, something Amanda’s done before, although it’s a one-way trip of 1,200 miles, which amounts to about 19 hours behind the wheel, so I ruled it out.

That left the train, a mode of transport which we both enjoy. It wasn’t the cheapest, nor was it the quickest, but it definitely sounded the most enjoyable, so we booked tickets on Amtrak’s Train 19, Crescent, from New York to Atlanta, building our trip around that.

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Brian’s Travel Spot: Philadelphia & Beyond, 2016

A cappuccino in a classic white cup, sitting on a tree-stump table in the window, half in shadow from the sunlight.Welcome to the second part of the 2016 instalment of my occasional Brian’s Travel Spot series. I’m currently in America, doing a loop (of sorts) around the east coast. I started off last week, flying into Newark, spending a couple of day in New York then heading down to Philadelphia, all of which was covered in Part I. Part II covers Philadelphia, Washington DC and a brief return to New York, while Part III deals with my return to New England and flight home.

We start with this, my third visit to Philadelphia. I first went there in 2014, at the behest of my friend Greg, who writes Coffee Guru App. I met Greg in New York in 2013, over a brief coffee at the Ace Hotel, where he told me all about the Philadelphia coffee scene.

As a result of that conversation, Greg convinced me to visit Philadelphia the following year. Initially, I was a little sceptical, suspecting home-town bias, although, in fairness, Greg knows what he’s taking about when it comes to speciality coffee. Suffice to say that it didn’t take very long for me to be converted and I’ve been back each year since then. Philly has a great, and very underrated, coffee scene (as well as being a great, and very underrated, city). You can see what I got up to as follows:

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Brian’s Travel Spot: New York & Philadelphia, 2016

My coffee travel kit on my BA flight to Newark: mini Porlex grinder, Aeropress, plus funnel, metal jug and Upper CupWelcome to the second of my occasional Brian’s Travel Spot series (or the fourth, depending on how you count them!). The first Travel Spot recounted my adventures in the summer of 2015 as I flew to New England, travelled across America by train and then spent a week in the Pacific Northwest (the whole trip took three weeks, so I split the Travel Spot into three parts, hence this might be the fourth).

Semantics apart, the aim, as in the previous Travel Spots, is to provide a record of my travels, something a little different from posting the actual Coffee Spots I visit (which always takes place after the event). This trip took me to old stomping grounds: New York, Philadelphia, Washington DC, back to New York and then on to Providence and, finally, Boston. As I did in 2015, I flew with British Airways, while all the internal travel in the US was on Amtrak, the US national rail network.

I say old stomping grounds since this was (and I think I’ve counted correctly) my 13th trip to the New England/New York/DC area (and the fourth with my Coffee Spot hat on). While it will only be my third visit to the likes of Philadelphia and Providence, it’s easily 10+ for New York and Boston. The first part of my trip consisted of:

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Brian’s Travel Spot: The Pacific Northwest

The amazing Multnomah Falls in the Columbia Gorge. There are two parts to the falls, the larger one dropping into a pool before passing under a bridge and over the second, smaller falls.Welcome to the third and final instalment of Brian’s Travel Spot, following my three week adventure across the United States. The first instalment, imaginatively entitled New England, covered my time on the east coast in New England: Boston, Providence and Portland, Maine, to be precise. The second instalment, Heading West, covered my journey west, by train, from Portland in Maine, to Portland in Oregon, a total of just over three days on the train, although I had a couple of stop-offs along the way. This, the final instalment, covers my week in the Pacific Northwest and my flight home.

I wrote Brian’s Travel Spot to enable you to follow my adventures as they unfolded. Unfortunately, as the trip went along, the Travel Spot got further and further behind, so now you’ll be reliving my adventures. As with the first two posts, I’ll update this post every few days, in between my normal Coffee Spot posts, the idea being to capture the highlights, with the emphasis on the travel rather than the coffees shops (although they feature too).

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