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TRAVEL

White-tablecloth service has come back to Amtrak. Here’s what it’s like

I hopped aboard the Empire Builder for a ride from Seattle to Chicago, some great views, and lots of good food.

Guests aboard the Empire Builder, on a trip from Seattle to Chicago.
Guests aboard the Empire Builder, on a trip from Seattle to Chicago.Carol Band

I hadn’t seen my son who lives in Bellingham, Wash., since before the pandemic, and I had never slept on a train, so I decided to visit my son and then take the train from Seattle to Chicago on the way back to Boston. My romantic visions of “North by Northwest” and “Some Like it Hot” were fueled when I learned that Amtrak was returning some trains to white-tablecloth dining — a glamorous alternative to the prepackaged meals that have been standard fare since 2019.

The Empire Builder is one train that has reinstated chef-prepared meals. It travels from Chicago to the Pacific Ocean, wending its way along the Mississippi roughly following the route of Lewis and Clark across the North Dakota plains, through the Wisconsin Dells, and dipping into Glacier National Park. It crosses a bit of Idaho and traverses the rugged terrain of Eastern Washington before it splits at Spokane, where some of the cars head to Seattle and others leave to go through the Columbia Gorge and onto Portland. According to Amtrak’s Ridership reports, it’s the most popular long-distance route, and many experienced riders claim that it is also the most scenic. Sold!

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After a great visit with my son, I booked a roomette on the Empire Builder headed from Seattle to Chicago. I dropped off my rental car in downtown Seattle and walked a few blocks to King Street Station.

A burger aboard the Empire Builder.
A burger aboard the Empire Builder.Carol Band

The Amtrak crew made sure that everyone with sleeping cars got on first (they really do say “All Aboard!”), and as I collapsed into my tiny roomette, I heard the two whistle blasts signaling that we were on our way.

A roomette is more private than a coach seat and less expensive than the slightly larger bedrooms. It’s big enough for one person; cramped if there’s two. There is a seat that transforms into a lower bunk and a narrow upper bunk that pulls down. Restrooms are shared and there’s a shower stocked with towels and soap and with surprisingly good water pressure.

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Trains are all about schedules, and my car attendant, George, booked me for lunch in the dining car at 12:45. All meals are included with every sleeper car ticket.

At the designated time, I walked down the length of the dining car and peeked at the burgers and Caesar salads on other people’s plates. Our server, Lori, seated me at a table with another single woman. It was nice to have company.

The baked potato topped with vegan chili looked good, and it was delicious. The only disappointment was that it was served on a plastic plate, with ice tea in plastic cups.

White tablecloth service has returned to Amtrak.
White tablecloth service has returned to Amtrak.Carol Band

“They are working on transitioning to china and glassware,” Lori assured me. “Come back at the end of the summer!”

After lunch, I took my book and another glass of ice tea to the Lounge Car, but with the breathtaking beauty of the Cascades and the chance to chat with fellow travelers (through masks), I never read a word.

George took my dinner reservation for 6:45 and, as promised, there were white tablecloths, blue cloth napkins and fresh flowers on every table. I was seated with a couple from Fort Worth, Texas. We hit it off and all ordered a glass of wine (one is included with every meal) and it was served in real stemware. I ordered the crab and lobster cake for an appetizer. It’s Amtrak’s signature appetizer for a reason — it’s delicious. For an entrée, I picked grilled Atlantic salmon, which was perfectly cooked and nestled on a bed of farro. My tablemates got the signature flat iron steak and the tortellini with pesto cream. Both were fabulous, they said. For dessert we passed around slices of flourless chocolate torte, cheesecake, and carrot cake. These were not made in the kitchen downstairs, but they were rich and wonderful.

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After dinner we headed to the lounge car, played cards, and watched the sunset over the farms and hills of Central Washington.

When I returned to my roomette, George had made up the bed with sheets and a blanket. I climbed in and slept fitfully through the night. Sleeping on a train is not easy. There are lights and bells and whistle stops and some rough tracks. I woke up early and was delighted that there was a coffee station near my roomette. Fortified with caffeine, I lurched my way to the dining car. I was eager have breakfast and find a good seat to view Glacier National Park.

Breakfast on the Empire Builder.
Breakfast on the Empire Builder.Carol Band

Breakfast options ranged from yogurt and oatmeal to omelets. I opted for scrambled eggs. Alas! The cloth napkins were replaced with paper and the coffee served in paper cups, but the food was good and I tipped Lori and found a place in the Lounge Car where I could watch Glacier’s snowcapped mountains and rushing streams. I saw a moose.

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By dinnertime, we were entering North Dakota and I could tell that the staff was feeling stressed. The train had picked up more passengers in White Fish and was full. They had run out of some menu items and were completely out of dessert. My hips were grateful, but some passengers weren’t as gracious. I ordered the crab cakes again and the chicken breast with wild mushroom risotto. My appetizer never came, and when I mentioned it to the server, Carl from the kitchen appeared with a double portion and an apology. These folks work hard.

Chicken and risotto aboard the Empire Builder.
Chicken and risotto aboard the Empire Builder.Carol Band

The next morning, after breakfast, I spoke with the chef and her two-person crew. “We have a 4-foot-by-3-foot grill and some steam trays, and we cook everything from scratch,” she explained. While lunging along at 70 miles an hour, it can’t be easy.

Lunch was the last meal aboard. I sat with a college track coach who had great stories and a restrained appetite. He had a salad and I had a grilled cheese with turkey and bacon. We exchanged cards and promised to “friend” each other.

With Chicago just a few hours away, I packed up my clothes, took a quick shower (still amazed at the water pressure!), tossed my book into my suitcase, and sat down to watch a little more of America pass by.

The view from inside the Empire Builder.
The view from inside the Empire Builder.Carol Band

If you go . . .

These are the room options on the Empire Builder

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Coach — The most economical choice. No meals are included, and you sleep in your seat. You can walk around the train, buy food from the café car (or pack your own), and enjoy the view from the lounge car.

Roomette — Sleeps two people compactly. The upper bunk is bare bones with no windows and a strap so that no one falls out when the train lurches. There are shared lavatories and a shower in the hallway. All meals, a complimentary coffee station, and water are included with a roomette. Also included is access to the lounge at major train stations.

Bedrooms — Larger than roomettes, bedrooms have a slightly larger bottom bunk as well as a private toilet with a tiny shower and sink. Meals and access to station lounges included.

Superliner Bedroom Suite — Two connecting rooms that sleep 3-4 people with twice the room of a regular bedroom and two private restrooms. Meals and access to station lounges included.

Family Bedroom — Sleeps up to two adults and two kids with a private restroom and shower. There’s room for luggage, too. Meals and access to station lounges included.

Accessible Bedroom — Wheelchair accessible with a private restroom and can sleep two people. Meals and access to station lounges included.

Where to eat . . .

Looking to return to the golden age of rail travel? These six long-distance trains have reinstated white-tablecloth dining. Dinner jacket optional.

California Zephyr — Travels between Chicago and San Francisco. Sights include: the Rocky Mountains, Mississippi River, and canyons.

Coast Starlight — Travels between Los Angeles and Seattle. Sights include the Pacific Ocean, vineyards, and the Columbia River

Empire Builder — From Chicago to Seattle or Portland. Sights include: Glacier National Park, the Mississippi River, and the Cascades.

Southwest Chief — From Chicago to Los Angeles. Sights include: Route 66, the Mojave Desert and the Mississippi River.

Sunset Limited — From New Orleans to Los Angeles. Stops include: Houston, El Paso and Phoenix.

Texas Eagle — Service between Chicago and Los Angeles. Sights include: the Gateway Arch, Ozark Mountains and the San Antonio Riverwalk.

Carol Band can be reached at carolband2008@gmail.com.