We Dined For 35 Hours On Amtrak's Coast Starlight Train. Here's What You Should Know

Amtrak train on California coastline
Amtrak train on California coastline - Amtrak

There's just something about a train. Perhaps it's the throwback nostalgia of simpler times or the extended suspension of daily life. But the mesmerizing rhythmic motion of rail travel is an experience unrivaled by other modes of modern transport. That's especially true when the train traverses 1,377 miles in a span of 35 hours, gliding through surreal landscapes of America's West Coast. I'm talking about the overnight Coast Starlight sojourn from Los Angeles to Seattle, and vice versa, which makes daily departures on Amtrak's double-decker Superliner trains.

Also known as sleeper trains, these powerful, moving micro-bubbles serve as a curious mix of transportation, hotel, and restaurant for two days and one night, joined by fellow travelers from all walks of life. Encapsulated with strangers for daily routines such as sleeping and dining, travelers definitely step outside so-called comfort zones, but not necessarily in expected ways. Inklings of this extraordinary travel experience appeared the moment I stepped inside the massive and ornate Union Station in Los Angeles.

On a crisp post-holiday morning, I was embarking on the Coast Starlight journey to Seattle with the goal of discovering the delights -- or downfalls -- of formal dining in a speeding bullet. The white-linen, upscale food experience is a much-touted feature of Amtrak's first-class overnight rail journeys, but it was hard to reconcile that image with the bustling, leap-on-leap-off nature of standard train travel. That's why I'd soon be gliding through daylight and darkness, on a slow fork-by-fork unveiling of onboard rail dining.

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All Aboard The West Coast Superliner

Union Station in Los Angeles
Union Station in Los Angeles - Travelview/Getty Images

Any adventure requires first navigating the mechanics of transportation. I was more than pleasantly surprised by the inviting ambiance of Union Station in Los Angeles. Absent are the hurried crowds, stressful security lines, and tedious baggage checks of airports. There's also a private Amtrak lounge at Union Station, which provides eligible passengers with free snacks, drinks, and WiFi access, as well as dedicated attendants to help with reservations, ticketing, and any pertinent information.

While rolling my suitcase over polished tile floors domed by art-paneled ceilings and modern chandeliers, I accepted an offer of free golf-cart-style transportation to the train platform. Boarding is easy, and each passenger, regardless of the type of ticket purchased, can bring two bags and one personal item onboard, with an extra option of checking bulkier items such as skis, golf clubs, or baby gear for a fee.

Since I was there to experience traditional first-class rail dining, I found my way to the sleeper-car section, which comes with complimentary meals in the private dining car. These accommodations comprise two levels of private rooms in each rail car, with five sleeping setups: a roomette, bedroom, accessible bedroom, bedroom suite, and a family room. My car's room attendant, Santi, greeted arriving passengers, explaining the dining procedures and providing menus for those preferring to have meals delivered to their rooms. Some guests chose this option, at least occasionally, but most wanted the full experience of restaurant-style dining with rolling landscape panoramas.

Exclusive Dining On The Coast Starlight Journey

Amtrak steak dinner
Amtrak steak dinner - Amtrak

The formal, complimentary meal service for Amtrak's private dining car has been evolving for some time, but a recent post-pandemic refresh brought real-time chefs back onboard. There's a dedicated kitchen for meal prep and cooking, along with at least two dining-car attendants. For a mental picture, imagine white-linen tablecloths, fresh roses, glassware, real plates, and cutlery, and a constant but small flow of diners coming and going.

Daytime menus feature several specialties, including Amtrak's Signature Railway French Toast with thick-cut Broiche and seasonal berries. Lunchtime offerings jump from goat cheese salads to classic Monte Cristo sandwiches and vegan chili bowls. A thick and juicy natural Angus burger, as well as a plant-based version from Sweet Earth, got lots of love from me as well as fellow diners. But evening meals really shine as the sun sets over sweeping pasture lands, tumbling streams, and snow-clad mountains.

Onboard chefs cook to order from three-course dinner menus vying for diner's attention. Offerings include starters of coconut-crusted shrimp, caprese skewers, and mixed greens with baby brie, while mains range from oven-roasted salmon to rigatoni Bolognese, pan-roasted chicken, and flat-iron steaks. Personal attention from onboard chefs got authenticated when I dared to order steak extra-extra well done. This tends to elicit consternation from many professional chefs -- but sure enough, it arrived super-seared and still tasty. Desserts include Meyer lemon cake, chocolate mousse, and my favorite, a white-chocolate blueberry-cobbler cheesecake swirled with blueberry compote and vanilla bean chunks.

Shared Tables, Shared Spirits

Amtrak private dining car table
Amtrak private dining car table - Amtrak

When meals are included in the ticket, as they are with private-car Amtrak passengers, participation is pretty much a given. But make no mistake, dining inside a capsule of perpetual motion has its nuances. One of the most startling, for some passengers, is the concept of European-style shared dining. You're basically seated at any table with open space, regardless of never before laying eyes on the person with whom you'll share a meal.

As a frequent international traveler, I was largely unfazed, but some travelers spoke of discomfort with the arrangement. Tables are cozy four-seaters, so it's a roll of the dice for timid travelers. However, in the spirit of communal train travel, sharing that space with strangers can be illuminating or even life-changing. At the very least, you'll have some laughs and stretch a few preconceived boundaries.

I shared a lunch table with an elderly man and grandchild, who take train adventures as a way to bond, with room to roam and play. As a food critic in the making, the young train enthusiast contemplated the merits of Amtrak's kid's menu. The white mac & cheese and Hebrew National hot dog got an enthusiastic thumbs-up; the grilled cheese sandwich, not so much, as his instincts surmised it had been reheated. An evening meal placed me at the "fun table" with a full-time cruiser that journeys from seaport to seaport via Amtrak, regaling table-mates with stories of love lost and gained on the high seas.

Cooking And Serving Meals On A Moving Train

Amtrak dining room attendant
Amtrak dining room attendant - Wendy Leigh/Tasting Table

Highly trained chefs dish out meals for hungry long-distance train travelers, but dining car stewards set the ambiance. It takes a delicate balance of care and control to keep things humming while juggling plates of food and myriad personalities. Gabrielle, a loyal 19-year Amtrak employee based in Long Beach, California, whizzes through the dining car with gregarious charm and expertise. He undoubtedly harbors more stories than I could ever coax from his covey of Amtrak secrets, but he nonetheless humored me with reflections on his journey from home-appliance salesman to rail sage. The coastal trip can be draining, with an overnight sleep in Seattle before the 35-hour journey back to Los Angeles -- but riding the rails in a food-service job you love is something I'm beginning to understand.

As for cooking food on a rumbling train, Amtrak Executive Chef Priscilla Lupar explains that Amtrak hires chefs and food specialists with extensive experience. It eventually becomes second nature, she tells me. When asked about the rewards of being a railway chef, Lupar sums it up with a single memory. "I had the honor of serving Joseph Eskenazi — the oldest Pearl Harbor survivor — traveling for his 105th birthday. Being a part of a historical route with a hero of influence was truly special. Although we may spend most of our time in the galley, it is amazing knowing that our food is part of the memories made on each train trip."

Casual Food And Onboard Libations

Amtrak casual cafe food
Amtrak casual cafe food - Wendy Leigh/Tasting Table

It's important to note that dining onboard the Coast Starlight journey isn't only about the private dining car. A small lower-level cafe offers walk-up casual fare, snacks, and drinks at set prices. Travelers find morning breakfast sandwiches, muffins, coffee cakes, and oatmeal, while lunch brings various cold and hot deli sandwiches. There's always the option for hot foods such as Angus and vegan burgers, hotdogs, and noodle cups. Snacks include typical candies and chips but also nuts, cheese plates, and hummus dips.

Plenty of nonalcoholic drinks keep passengers hydrated, while spirits run the spectrum from beers and wines to pre-made cocktails. Alcoholic options in the Coast Starlight cafe differ from those served in the private dining room, generally providing more varied selections such as Prosecco, White Claw, and Cavit or Line 39 wines. Spirits bear notable brand names such as Jack Daniels, Tito, Tanqueray, and Bacardi. The cafe menu also offers a Cayman Jack Margarita and Crafthouse Moscow Mule. The cafe is open to all train travelers.

Upstairs in the formal dining car, the first alcoholic drink is complimentary with meals, and per-pay extras are available. Bar selections feature five beers, and three regional wines native to the Coast Starlight route: Kendall-Jackson from California, and Chateau St Michelle, and Dark Harvest of Washington State. Spirits include the likes of Maker's Mark bourbon and Tito's handmade vodka, and attendants are happy to make basic cocktails on request, such as a Bloody Mary or Bacardi and Coke.

Observatory Views Through California, Oregon, And Washington State

Amtrak Coast Starlight observation lounge
Amtrak Coast Starlight observation lounge - Wendy Leigh/Tasting Table

It's almost impossible to describe the surreal experience of the observation lounge. Enormous floor-to-ceiling windows create a film-like sweep of American life, from rolling hills to wind turbines, majestic mountains, towering forests, and bucolic farmlands filled with laborers tending strawberry fields, vineyards, and endless rows of citrus trees. As if suspended in time, surfers, fly-fishers, graffiti artists, snowmobilers, picnicking families, iconic cityscapes, a distant SpaceX complex, and even the California Men's Colony appear and disappear on the other side of the glass, like ghosts suspended in time. That goes double in the quietest hours as the train barrels through dewy daybreak and starlit darkness.

This observation room perches adjacent to the dining car, but it's open to all passengers, regardless of tickets purchased. Large, comfy chairs encourage lounging, and that's exactly what happens. In fact, you have to practically stalk the area to snag a seat as it opens up. It's common to find sojourners reading, drawing, journaling, working on laptops, and, especially, swapping stories with fellow travelers.

Eating in this area seems tricky at first, as Amtrak typically allows personal food consumption only in ticketed seats or sleeper cars. But as a Superliner, Coast Starlight is an exception, welcoming personal edibles in the sightseer lounge. Alcohol, however, won't fly in this moving theater of nature.

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