They were special places for special occasions: Harry’s Café, Charlies, the Criterion, Blue Horse, Gannon’s, Birch’s Café and more. It was the late 1940s and early 1950s, and I remember all of them because, at one time or another, I was there.
They were wood paneled, thick carpeted, white napery places, presided over by a formal, sometimes stern, maître d’. They were expensive. Reservations were difficult, and, even if you had a reservation and arrived promptly, you had to wait ten minutes to be seated. It was part of their charm. The dress was formal, with ladies in dresses and gentlemen in suits and, as my parents and grandparents reminded me, there were certain protocols to be observed about polite conversation and table manners.
I felt snooty and privileged in my Little Lord Fauntleroy suit, but it was the 1950s and I was an unapologetic, spoiled, only child who thought that was how things were supposed to be. I was a snob and a nerd, an attitude that got me locked in a coat closet in Sunday school and plenty of bullying and torture by my classroom peers at school. It was deserved and a learning experience, and I reformed and recovered — although I was never invited to join a playground team.
What I never recovered from were railroad dining cars. They, too, were special places. Where else could one enjoy fine dining while watching the cornfields and small towns fly by the window at 80 miles per hour?
I spent a lot of time on trains in that era. Dad’s job took us to Philadelphia —which meant regular trips to and from my grandparents house in St. Paul. Grandmother refused to fly and wouldn’t go coach. She compensated with a private room in a Pullman and breakfast and dinner in the dining car.
Between Philadelphia and Chicago, our trips were aboard the Pennsylvania railroad’s Broadway Limited, with occasional diversions via New York City on the New York Central’s famed Twentieth Century Limited. From Chicago to St. Paul, it was the Burlington Zephyr, the Afternoon Hiawatha on the Milwaukee Road, or the 400 on the Chicago and Northwestern.
Each railroad, and its trains, had their own personality and dining car services. What they had in common were white linen tablecloths, custom china, crystal, flowers and heavy flatware at every table, along with a steward in morning coat, attentive waiters and a chef and kitchen staff who cooked everything to order in the dining car’s kitchen. Nothing was precooked or prefabricated. It was a total experience. It was the best of everything.
Unfortunately, dining cars and Pullmans lost gobs of money — almost $2 for every dollar taken in. At the end of World War II, their rolling stock tired and worn from the Depression and wartime service, the railroads spent millions on new passenger cars and diesel locomotives. The Pennsylvania and New York Central completely re-equipped the Broadway Limited and Twentieth Century Limited. Dome cars appeared on the west coast streamliners — even dome dining cars on the Union Pacific’s City of Los Angeles.
It was an all-out effort to rebuild and reconstitute passenger services, but the people didn’t come. Postwar prosperity brought new automobiles and Stratocruisers. Transit systems withered and streetcars disappeared. Railroads began discontinuing local, intercity passenger and commuter trains.
I began noticing this in junior high, circa 1957-58. Grandfather pointed out that the Milwaukee had dropped its secondary transcontinental streamliner, the Columbian, between St. Paul and Seattle. Other railroads were combining passenger trains to save money. The ICC and state commissions were seeing more and more “train off” petitions. There was a passenger train “problem.” It was then that I resolved to ride as many passenger trains and cover as many miles as I could in the time remaining, before they were gone.
All through the 1960s whenever and wherever I could, I traveled on trains. In college when others went to Florida on “spring break.” I bought a ticket and Pullman space and rode somewhere, usually to the coasts and back.
Near the end in 1970 there were railroads still keeping the traditions alive and carrying on in the grand manner, notably Twin Cities based Great Northern and Northern Pacific (later Burlington Northern) along with the Santa Fe and its Super Chief to Los Angeles and the Union Pacific’s city streamliners. On these trains the finery was still there, but others, like Southern Pacific, had replaced dining cars with automat cars and microwave ovens.
Amtrak came along in 1971 and tried its best but eventually succumbed to Congressional budget cutting. The grand dining cars of my youth and experience are forever gone — though still alive in Europe.
Sixty some years later, as I write and reminisce, my train travels must seem terribly strange and “geeky,” and they probably were, but that was me. I wanted the experience and now, as a septuagenarian, I don’t regret one mile of it.
There’s $80 billion for rail infrastructure and services in the President’s plan. Will it bring back the “good old days?” My age and experience say, “probably not,” but the memories remain.