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Railroaders' Nostalgia > In the dining car

Date: 04/21/17 00:39
In the dining car
Author: aronco

Before Amtrak took over all passenger trains on May 1, 1971, dining cars on passenger trains were operated by the railroads. Every customer who ate in a dining car was supposed to have his or her own ticket or "check", and the passenger was supposed to write their orders on that check. Stories from the past describe this system as evolving to prevent dining car crews from serving food that wouldn't be listed on the check and paid for. As a young punk brakeman working for Southern Pacific in the 60's, I would eat in the diner whenever I could. I have fond memories of many fine meals such as lunch in the diner of the Northbound Daylight between Santa Barbara and Surf, perhaps with SP's famous "ragout of beef" accompanied by special rolls and butter, and ice tea, which included a pot of hot tea, and a large glass filled with ice cubes to chill the freshly made tea.
The dining car steward would place my check on the table - sometimes he would write "coffee" on it, and other times he might use the employees ticket which gave us 50% off the menu price. I really didn't care if I was charged for the meal or not - it was just a neat thing to do while rolling along the coast line. The dining car crews were always wary of "spotters", who they said would ride the train and eat in the diner and report any discrepancies. Often, crew members never saw a check, they just merely left an unusually large tip for the waiter.
In March, 1965, I was on vacation, so I chose to ride the SP - Rock Island Golden State from Los Angeles to Kansas City. Leaving LA at 800pm, I was seated in the lounge car when the dining car steward walked through on his way to the diner. When he saw me, he paused. He was a very well dressed man, with perfectly coiffed silver hair and a very distinguished mustache. "Where are you going, Norm?" he asked.
"Kansas City" I replied.
"Well, I do hope you will dine with us as my guest" He said with a grin. "just take care of the waiter".
That was a fine ride to Kansas City. I ate 5 meals as his guest, and the food was of course, excellent.
In that same era, I was working as the brakeman on the Westbound Sunset/Golden State ( the trains were combined beginning April 20, 1964 between Los Angeles and El Paso). Leaving West Palm Springs about 600am, the Conductor suggested we have coffee in the diner during the ride over Beaumont Pass. The dining car steward seated us at the small two-person table nearest the galley entry. I was facing the rear of the car. A well dressed businessman entered the diner from the sleepers and was seated at a table. The steward placed a check on the table, and the fellow wrote out his order. In moment, the waiter picked up the check, and apparently discussed the order with him. I couldn't hear their conversation. The waiter took the order past us to the kitchen, and in a few minutes, returned with a plate on a serving tray. When he placed the plate before the passenger, the man shook his head, pointed at the plate, and apparently took exception to something. The waiter nodded his head, picked up the plate and returned to the kitchen. A few moments later, he returned the plate to the man, and again, the man shook his head and gestured and pointed at the plate. Again the waiter returned the plate to the chef. After a few minutes, here it comes again! This time the passenger smiles, nods his head, and picks up his fork and knife to dig in. The waiter turns about and walks just past us and stands with his hands behind his back, next to one of his fellow waiters. They are both very aware of this little scene. The service waiter watches his guest eat for a moment, then grumbles "Wow! He ate them!".


Norman Orfall
Helendale, CA
TIOGA PASS, a private railcar

Date: 04/21/17 14:07
Re: In the dining car
Author: KeyRouteKen

Hey Norm--  Did the Waiter also give you a # 2 pencil to write your order down, that was about 2 1/2-inches long ?


Date: 04/21/17 14:55
Re: In the dining car
Author: czephyr17

Great story!

Having the passenger write out the check was not universal. On the Northern Pacific, the dining car steward took the passenger's order. Since that was the only railroad I had experience with prior to Amtrak, I was a bit surprised in the early to mid-1970's on Amtrak when I was handed that short little 2 1/2 inch pencil and an order form to fill out.

Date: 04/23/17 13:57
Re: In the dining car
Author: NCA1022

RE: Passengers writing their own meal order on the check

I was under the impression this railroad practice started very early on in dining car service where all the wait staff were black men. Since this was in the mid-1800's many (if not most) of the black men employed in the dining car were not able to read or write, so the meal orders were either written by the passengers themselves or the steward (who needed to be literate to run the dining car and settle accounts).

Like most traditions on the railroad whose origin was lost in time, they carried on long past the original reason. Certainly by the post-WWII era, the railroads would not have had trouble finding literate black men to staff their dining cars. And Amtrak and Via still make passengers write their own checks while Applebee's and Olive Garden seem to be able to find wait staff capable of correctly taking a customer's dinner order.

Or is the above a bunch of hogwash?

Personally, I find this quirky dining car practice one of the fun aspects of rail travel that let's you know that your not just in any old restaurant somewhere.

- Norm

Date: 04/24/17 00:21
Re: In the dining car
Author: rabidcats

I remember the stubby pencils quite well... and the notation on the guest check reading, "WAITER'S ARE NOT PERMITTED TO TAKE VERBAL ORDERS." I enjoyed many SP meals whether in the triple unit diners or hamburger grill cars. I recall one morning catching the San Joaquin Daylight at Glendale and soon afterward heading for the diner. What a surprise as it turned out to be a very old true heavyweight car borrowed from the Santa Fe. The glass water pitcher was engraved "Santa Fe" and the ambiance was what it would have been like to dine in the 1930" or perhaps even the 'twenties. I was in my mid-teens and did not fully appreciate the occasion - and wish I had taken photos or snagged a menu (which was a SP breakfast menu.) I didn't ask why a Santa Fe car had been pressed into service. Probably a last minute B/O of the SP diner and one was hastily borrowed from Santa Fe. Diners can be very problematic (even in those "good old days") and I couldn't begin to count the number of times I've gone trackside at LAUPT to work Amtrak 4 -- only to have the depot carman come by and say, "Four is still at the yard -- they're changing out a diner."

Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 04/24/17 00:28 by rabidcats.

Date: 05/01/17 15:50
Re: In the dining car
Author: MEKoch

As a retired D. C. Steward I heard many different explanations about the meal check, but no consistent answer.

Posted from iPhone

Date: 05/03/17 16:41
Re: In the dining car
Author: SanJoaquinEngr

I remember riding the SJ Daylight, Shasta, Owl, Sunset. The meals that were prepared on the diners were amazing. The cramped kitchens, wood fired stoves ( as I remember), the amazing smells that permeated the diner.. Several years ago purchased an old SP diner receipe book. I have prepared many of the recipes but can't match the ambiance of an SP diner..

Posted from Android

Date: 05/20/17 22:32
Re: In the dining car
Author: ConductorsSon

My late father was a Pullman conductor on all the U.P. "City' trains, the Builder and the Super Chief. I was fortunate to ride with him on several occasions and was treated like a young prince. The deal as I understood it was that my dad and other PC's would sleep the white stewards in a roomette if he had the space to avoid them having to use the dormitory car and in turn my dad ate for free. So the steward would come by and pick up our order which we had filled out with the short pencil and would simply double it to cover us both and my dad would tip the cook. The UP dining car crews were the ones I remember the most as they were hard working, entertaining and very good at what they did.

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