Amtrak Simplified Dining Service
Report by Matthew Melzer
I recently ate a total of 11 meals aboard Amtrak diners operating under
the Simplified Dining Service regime on trains 20, 29, and 5. Of the
three menu rotations, trains 20 and 29 were on cycle 2, and train 5 was
on cycle 3.
This was my first exposure to SDS since its introduction. The variety
and quality of the food remains laudable as compared to 'traditional'
service, especially considering the controversy over SDS as a step
backwards. In fact, the meals I ate rivaled or surpassed previous meals
I've had aboard Amtrak. Comments from other passengers were also very
positive. The SDS of today is apparently much evolved from its humble
beginnings in December 2005.
Although, the perspective might be different for a vegetarian or vegan,
as there remain few meals on any part of any of the three menu cycles
that meet those criteria, especially the latter. (For vegans, there is
Gardenburger for lunch, and a Stir Fry Vegetable Mix dinner only on
cycle 3). Some may scoff, but this is an important segment of the
traveling public. SDS menus are still evolving, and I eagerly await
future additions. I especially look forward to new specials: Every
night, the dinner special was country fried steak, which was also the
only item for which I overheard negative reviews.
I did not mind the disposable plates, bowls, and tablecloths. But the
plastic cups are very chintzy and flimsy. In general, Amtrak should be a
beacon of environmental stewardship and I certainly hope that all of
these materials are being recycled. My understanding is that recycling
has been phased in since the beginning of SDS. But if not, that should
change immediately. As it is, Amtrak is exposing itself to more
criticism. Ironically, Amtrak is being less environmentally sustainable
simply as a consequence of following Congressional mandates.
Micromismanagement strikes again.
One change that I consider positive is that all tables now have baskets
with a variety of salad dressing packets (although one could again
criticize the waste from the packaging). But allowing self-service for
dressing not only frees up the reduced crew for other duties, it's a
good step towards sensitivity towards portions and dietary restrictions.
The brands of dressings I saw were a variety of mostly T. Marzetti's
with some Kraft and Cardini's.
There were two servers in the diners on all trains, and they did not
seem overstretched in the least. The stewards also seemed to have a more
active role in handling orders, not just reservations, seating, and
transactions. I was expecting reservations for all meals, but apparently
Amtrak retracted breakfast reservations (a good move; it seems
inconvenient to force passengers to pick a meal time the night before).
Lunch reservations on train 5 were done without slips. There was a form
for the steward to record each party's name and size, and patrons were
expected to go when their respective times were called. Their names
would be called if they failed to show within 10 minutes. Names were
recorded for dinners on train 5 as well, but slips were also
Here's a rundown of each of the meals:
My first meal was dinner on train 20. The roast half chicken was
extremely juicy and flavorful, as good as it ever was. Accompanying rice
and green beans were excellent. I was disappointed to learn of the loss
of ice cream as a dessert item, but the cheesecake was excellent.
Three-cheese quiche breakfast with potatoes and turkey sausage was
lively. The potatoes were well seasoned and the eggs did not seem soggy
at all. Croissant was provided by default (SDS apparently features no
There was a Customer Service Manager who traveled the whole distance on
train 29. She was very friendly and proactive, assisting passengers with
problems and helping the diner staff with their duties. She told me that
her duties were not limited to overseeing SDS, hearkening back to the
days of Chiefs of On-Board Services.
The dinner rolls on train 29 were warm, which was a nice touch. The
ravioli was zesty and rich, but parmesan cheese was unfortunately not
stocked (the Customer Service Manager said she was already aware of the
problem and indicated that the Chicago commissary should be stocking it
for outbound and inbound trains). I consider the lack of parmesan a
major sin for any restaurant that serves Italian food. On the other
hand, now that Amtrak offers bar service in the diner, I was able to
order a can of club soda (my beverage of choice) as my complimentary
drink. At every table were wine lists and bar menus, which I did not see
on the other trains. I had the Mississippi Mud Cake to finish, another
fine dessert item, along with Bigelow Lemon Lift tea.
For breakfast, the Southwestern Omelet was substantial and tasted
fresh-cooked. Amtrak seemed to have gotten its act back together with
My first dinner on train 5 was the seared salmon filet, which was tender
and flaky and the portion generous. The rice was slightly undercooked
and the green beans were not as flavorful as the ones I had on train 20,
but still a good meal overall. The Chocolate Bundt was colossal; I could
only finish half of it! I was pleasantly surprised with the availability
of green tea, which I had never seen on Amtrak before. Unfortunately,
the diner was not stocked with club soda for this trip. I did notice
that wine was being served in real wine glasses!
Breakfast unfortunately featured paper napkins (and, as I would learn,
so would subsequent breakfasts and lunches on train 5). I had the French
toast, of which there were four thick slices. The crust was slightly
hard, but it was much better than French toast I've had on Amtrak
before. The tea was also a step up from the usual Lipton: It was
Maryland Club Orange Pekoe Cut Black Tea.
I had the buffalo chicken pizza (apparently a Wolfgang Puck product). It
was quite spicy, which I didn't mind at all. It also came with a side
salad, which was fine. I had fruit for dessert, which I knew would be
sub-par since Amtrak now only ever serves canned, pre-sliced, mixed
fruit pieces. A young man across from me had a hot dog, which I noticed
came with onions, lettuce, and tomato slices. Onions, I can understand.
But who puts lettuce or tomato on hot dogs, especially children? Amtrak
could save money by scaling that back.
I had the roast half chicken for dinner, which seemed about as good as
the one on train 20. The rice was done just right, as compared to the
night before. I had left my camera behind my seat when I left. As soon
as I returned to my room, the steward made an announcement asking me by
name to return to the diner! Her swift rectification of my carelessness
was greatly appreciated.
For breakfast this time, Tuscan Omelet was even better and tasted
fresher than the Southwest variety. The only problem was that my sausage
My lunch of Gardenburger with cheddar cheese on a kaiser roll was hard
to mess up, but was excellent nonetheless.
Due to the lateness of our train, dinner was served over Donner Pass.
Sleeper passengers were offered a handful of seatings of full diner
service (with the only available sides being rice pilaf and broccoli,
and the only dessert being the Chocolate Bundt). Paper napkins were used
one again, and salad forks and plates for the rolls were missing. I had
the roasted chicken pizza, which was much better than the buffalo
chicken pizza, especially with the garlic and onion toppings and whole
grain crust. Coach passengers were served complimentary beef stew or
rice pilaf and broccoli from the upper level of the lounge (the steward
led the service with help from the LSA and the two coach attendants).
My overall verdict from this week of Amtrak Simplified Dining Service
food? SDS passes the test. The program got off to an apparently shaky
start, and the service remains far from perfect. But Amtrak has
demonstrated that it can indeed listen to customer feedback, and has
already made great strides to improve its long-distance food service
while keeping the micromismanaging Congressional financiers at bay.
Nostalgia dictates that things were much better 'back in the day', or
even just last year when none of the wares at the dining tables were
disposable. But given the perverted political climate of politicians
dictating business decisions, Amtrak is doing the best it can with what
it has. Let's continue to hold Amtrak accountable for the service it
provides, while keeping in mind that the greatest energies should be
channeled to educate Congress why quality food service is a top loss
leader, and that Amtrak will become Greyhound on rails if these
necessary (and still attractive) amenities are decimated.
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