What to Eat on America's Most Beautiful Amtrak Ride
The California Zephyr is much more than a gentle breeze—it's a haven of comfort food and intimate conversation with strangers.
All photos by the author
The California Zephyr is a champion of train travel. Flying past the sort of idyllic scenery that screams “desktop background,” it offers striking views of Colorado’s Gore, Glenwood Springs, and High Sierra as it delivers passengers to 35 stations between Chicago’s Union Station and Emeryville, California. So proud is Amtrak of the route that it even provides “on-board narratives” from volunteer park rangers between certain stops, thus ensuring travellers are fully informed on all the #nature passing them by. It’s that good.
Between the sleeper cars and the sightseer lounge (a magical place with oversized windows and swivel chairs that are never not occupied once you pass Denver), the service allots a carriage dedicated exclusively to dining: eight tables accessorised with blue leather seating for 32 hungry passengers at a time, helmed on my 52-hour trip by a king-like figure named Gary.
Gary and I are first introduced just two hours after we depart the Windy City, as he walks through the carriage to take people’s dinner reservations. Eager to embrace this initial culinary episode of my voyage, I go for the uncharacteristically early time of 5:30 PM.
I’ve heard the dining cart is the social hub of this kind of railroad, with Gary’s posse placing you with a new stranger-cum-BFF at each sitting, and certainly from the excited chat across the room, this is true for my neighbours: a four-piece that includes a gentleman who’s apparently travelled on the Amtrak more times than I’ve caught the King’s Cross to Leuchars service (my primary previous experience of long distance train travel—at six hours, measly in comparison—and a route I’ve taken numerous times to visit my grandpa), and a guy who doesn’t speak much English but is clearly having a whale of a time and enjoying his dish.
“This is just a train,” a blonde woman reminds him, dismantling any fantasy that meals on the Amtrak could actually be something special. “This is train food.”
While my own company—a nameless man with a single blond eyelash who eats his Griddle Seared Norwegian Salmon in double-quick time—fails to ignite conversation, I’m feeling pretty content with my “Vegetarian Pasta,” limp salad, and prime eavesdropping spot; by the time my red wine and cheesecake arrive (the latter a heavenly measure of soft, rich, and creamy) I’m pretty much living my best life. This is reaffirmed, post-decadence, when I stop in the sightseer lounge and discover the rumours about the big windows are true and the next 47 hours are probably going to be a bloody treat.
My newfound fondness for early meal times continues the following morning, when I decide Cheese Quesadillas, Eggs, and Tomatillo Sauce—a dish apparently inspired by chef Paulette Shane, a member of Amtrak’s Culinary Advisory Team, which meets annually to discuss the menu and whose members extend to restaurateurs and award-winners no less—is a good option at 6:30 AM.
Despite the 985 calories before midday, the slightly dry tortilla, and the fact I can feel the cheese sticking to my insides as we pass through Yuma, the meal stands up as something of a grade higher than any usual “train food” (which on the London to Leuchars line, admittedly, is rarely more than an overpriced chocolate bar).
While the views don’t get old and the novelty of being on a train remains high, as a solo traveler, I rapidly begin to prioritise the time I spend eating. Come lunch—12:30 PM—I’m placed with Glen and Josh, who are both traveling the distance to San Francisco; Glen, with his 93-year-old mother, is en route to see his brother and niece, while Josh, who loosely resembles Patrick Stump, just really likes trains.
We opt for burgers; Josh and I both decide to sample a Black Bean & Corn Veggie Burger I was first made aware of by a poster in Illinois. I’d initially wondered if this was indeed a strong choice (it looks kind of parched), but the patty turns out to be a joy, the side of pickle a fitting complement, and the bun respectably moist. Another 928 calories (according to the menu), but delicious regardless.
A more formal affair greets us for dinner (at which I slip into the later shift of 7:15), with side salads and a basket of bread occupying the table for serious fine dining vibes.
Glen—who this time, secures the slice of pecan pie he was denied post-meal some hours earlier—returns, as does the chattier of the two nondescript women with whom I enjoyed breakfast, and a third character who says little apart from, upon discovering that I’m from London, recalling a recent statistic that the city’s murder rate has risen above New York’s.
Not sure quite what to make of the remark (my thoughts center on the fact the “biggest royal baby for 100 years” has just been born and how surely that would have been politer table talk), I tend to my Butternut Squash Risotto—a step down from last night’s pasta—and admire the view outside, currently blushing a glorious shade of pink. No dessert for genuine fear of bursting.
Gary seems on edge on our last day, and slightly more tense—he’ll rebuke me for being tardy come lunch—but for breakfast I join Jean and her husband, who find great delight in recollecting their previous British travels of some years earlier. To eat: the Three-Egg Omelet, served with roasted potatoes and a flaky croissant. There’s little flaky about the croissant and the advertised side of salsa is initially forgotten, but the pair are so warm that the food is just an afterthought at this point.
For my final meal on board, a kind of culinary beige paradise, as my late arrival and vegetarian stance results in a lunch borne from the kid’s menu: a grand portion of mac and cheese, two white bread rolls, and a cheesecake to close (because #vacation).
It’s comfort food, and it performs as one might expect, leaving me bloated but pleasantly satisfied, and far more fulfilled than any half-assed, extortionately priced British snack has ever done before.