By Leyla Hamedi
The Golden Age of Railroading refers to the late 1800s when the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad led to easier, more comfortable, and quite dignified train travel. Travelers used to have to leave trains at designated water stops if they wanted to get something to eat and more often than not, they were greeted with meager selections that were often spoiled. Because it was so hard to get a good meal on the road, most people didn’t travel much. In 1868, when Pullman Co. introduced the Delmonico – a dining car named after the famed New York restaurant – it set off the trend of the dining car. As more and more railroads started offering meals on board trains, competition grew which led to elegant dining cars, each boasting better food and more amenities than the other.
While trains did not rely on the dining car to earn much money, their existence would encourage ridership from which they could make their profits. The Super Chief was one of the named passenger trains of the Santa Fe Railway and introduced the concept of private lounge cars in 1951. These cars, named the Pleasure Domes, boasted the only private dining room in the world on rails called the Turquoise Room. It could be reserved for private dinners or cocktail parties or any special events and as celebrities and dignitaries used it often, its reputation spread.
Besides being opulent and comfortable, with impeccably dressed waiters and good service, these dining cars boasted delicious meals. Fresh ingredients and chef-made dishes were the standard. Some examples of meals served onboard were Curry of Lamb Madras, Braised Duck Cumberland, Hungarian Beef Goulash, and even lobster.
A dining car is set up so that one end contains the galley, the area where the food is cooked and prepared, with an aisle passengers can walk by to get to the other cars. The other end usually contained tables or booth seating book-ending a middle aisle for service.
Though most train services no longer include such lavish dining spaces, vintage dining cars have been set up as stationary restaurants people can visit and enjoy. They can eat off menus from long ago and imagine what they were like back in the days of elegant and luxurious train travel.
If you like trains, be sure to stop by the New-York Historical Society to see our special exhibition Holiday Express: Toys and Trains from the Jerni Collection.