Train Food Is So Much Better Than Airplane Food

·6 min read
White chocolate blueberry cheesecake with raspberry drizzle
White chocolate blueberry cheesecake with raspberry drizzle

The ongoing debacle has been thrumming at a low rumble all summer long: air travel sucks right now. You know it, I know it, The Atlantic knows it. Getting from point A to point B has become more arduous, not to mention more expensive, as airlines scramble to keep up with the rebound in demand following a devastating 2020. If you’d rather avoid this snarl, you can do so by riding the rails, where for roughly the same price you’ll get days’ worth of square meals out of the deal. Yes, I’m talking about Amtrak, the transit of choice for the hungry traveler.

Though I travel by plane often, it’s an experience I mostly associate with being underfed. The lines at the airport are always too long to grab anything before boarding, and airlines have increasingly moved away from offering food for purchase on board—a COVID-era measure that, like many such measures, seems like it’ll stick around for good. Who hasn’t found out the hard way that a body wasn’t meant to navigate itself around major metropolitan areas with only Biscoff and Diet Coke to sustain them?

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Amtrak, meanwhile, never lets you get hungry before taking your next meal order. I’m talking about the service in its roomettes, miniature sleeper compartments that you pay a flat fee for in addition to the fare for each of the two passengers in your party. This is, of course, more expensive than the coach seating option, but as airfare increases unabated, the price differential between flying and gliding continues to shrink. Plus, again, the train’s complimentary meals are a crucial bonus for someone who basically wishes to never not be eating.

The experience of eating every meal on Amtrak

My husband and I recently took the Coast Starlight, an aptly named line stretching from Los Angeles to Seattle. Throughout the 30+ hours of our journey, we had lunch, dinner, breakfast, lunch, and nearly caught the next day’s dinner (but hopped off in Portland). Featuring an all-new menu in 2022, each meal came with a selection of an entree, side, dessert, and beverage; alcoholic beverages were included at the roomette rate. Get sloshed! Who cares! Your porter won’t judge you.

With each meal, you have the option of eating in your roomette (where there is a fold-out table) or the dining car, for which you book an appointment. The dining car on the Coast Starlight is a white-tablecloth experience, complete with vases of red carnations at each table. As a group of two, we were paired with other diners at each meal, but this wasn’t the awkward situation you might assume. When in doubt, just let the conversation fall back onto trains. Everyone wants to commiserate about how trains are better than flying (especially these days, etc. etc.).

Left: a sandwich and potato chips; right: a slice of cheesecake
Left: a sandwich and potato chips; right: a slice of cheesecake

Lunch on the first day, which we ate in our roomette, wasn’t exactly gourmet—Amtrak serves the A material at dinner—but a satisfying and indulgent way to kick off the journey nevertheless. A rail kitchen is an operation constrained by space, inventory, and time, so I mostly appreciated the efficiency of serving this “croque monsieur” using the exact same french toast passengers can order for breakfast. (I’ll have to remember to repurpose my brunch leftovers this way sometime.) For dessert, I opted for the blueberry white chocolate cheesecake, which came with raspberry drizzle. Perhaps as a nod to the airline-beverage-cart experience, we both paired our lunch with a Diet Coke.

As soon as the porter took our dishes away, it was time to schedule our dinner reservations for that evening.

Chicken entree with green beans
Chicken entree with green beans

At dinner, we were seated with a quiet, pleasant couple who conversed in their language on the opposite side of the table while we conversed in ours—kind of a best-case scenario for anyone made anxious by dining with strangers. The three-course dinner menu offered many tantalizing options, but I opted for the rosé wine, the Coconut Crusted Shrimp (an app so tasty I forgot to photograph it), a thyme chicken breast with wild mushroom risotto and baby green beans (photo above), and a dense-as-all-hell chocolate mousse. The chicken was a little dry, but honestly, I was still too full from lunch to have cleaned my plate anyway. The green beans were a great touch, since it had been a solid two days since I’d eaten any vegetables.

Chocolate mousse cake with whipped cream
Chocolate mousse cake with whipped cream

Let’s talk about desserts for a second. This mousse is something I’d never imagine ordering for myself at a restaurant, where I’ve typically eaten so much by the end of the meal that I forego the final course entirely. But when it’s built into the ordering process, it’s a fun way to remind yourself that you are on vacation. You’re not just traveling to your vacation; you’re already here. The desserts were all served with your choice of chocolate, caramel, or strawberry drizzle. I went the simple route.

The first day of dining was admittedly better than the second, for a few reasons: for one thing, you can’t make breakfast all that exciting with limited pantry ingredients available, and for another, a few appliances in the kitchen were malfunctioning that day. The breakfast omelet was perfectly serviceable, loaded with a decent amount of veggies and paired with a nice warm, buttery biscuit. Opting for the salad at lunch would have been wise, but I was curious about the plant-based burger. Despite having to be microwaved due to technical difficulties, it was fine! Don’t be so freaked out by the microwave, guys.

Left: breakfast plate with omelet and potatoes; right: plant-based burger
Left: breakfast plate with omelet and potatoes; right: plant-based burger

While our dining companions at breakfast were of questionable politics and demeanor, they certainly added color to the trip. At lunch, I felt like we scored a ticket to the cool kids’ table: a retired grandma who rides the rails for fun and an Irish San Franciscan traveling to compete in a long-distance bike race across the Pacific Northwest.

We were still full from lunch by the time we disembarked in Portland—in fact, we didn’t eat our (light) dinner until close to 9 p.m. that night. It sounds like a small thing, but it can really make a difference when you arrive somewhere satiated. You’re ready to take in the new city around you, unimpeded by the frazzle of finding something, anything to calm your hangry body. Stretching our legs along the Willamette River, we started planning our next Amtrak trip.