|Westin Bonaventure Hotel’s LA Prime Restaurant.|
La belle vie by private rail cars—Los Angeles to Chicago on only two cases of Moet-Chandon Imperial Brut.
GUEST BLOG / By Eric Peterson, novelist, travel/wine writer and dining critic with PillartoPost.org--Readers of my latest novel, The Dining Car, often tell me the book makes them want to take a long trip by train. Earlier this month, the stars aligned, and Teresa and I took just such a trip—a chartered, one-of-a-kind journey I decided would commemorate my 60th birthday. Come, travel with us on two vintage private railroad cars, which industry insiders call “private varnish.”
Wednesday, Oct. 4
As with most of our cross-country train trips, this one originated at Los Angeles Union Station. To increase our odds of making the train, we traveled to Los Angeles the day before. We checked in to the Westin Bonaventure, a circular, vertically sprawling, and contemporary hotel at 404 South Figueroa Street, in the heart of downtown. The compact rooms were clean and comfortable. In our nest on the 28th floor, I stood at the window in the late-afternoon sun, transfixed by the sweeping view of gridlock in every direction. It reminded me how lucky we were to be boarding a train.
It was here at the Bonaventure that Teresa and I met up with our three traveling companions: my brother, Chris, an avid reader on all things food and, in a past life, a trencherman of legendary proportions; Pat, an entertaining, quick-witted, long-standing friend who is a recovering attorney; and Pat’s tall, prepossessing companion, Susan, who has made a name for herself as a Silicon Valley consumer research brain—and beauty.
I confess to being somewhat apprehensive about traveling with this particular crew. Their penchant for fine dining, storytelling, and laughter was surpassed only by their predilection for bottle waving, and I wondered if we could get through two nights and two days on a moving train without any broken bones.
It was worth the chance.
To begin, the Bonaventure has an award-winning steak house on the 35th floor. When was the last time you took an elevator up to dinner?
LA Prime uses the Bonavista Lounge, a bar one floor down, as its cocktail lounge, so it was there that our party shifted into high gear. Drinking stout martinis in the snare of a corny revolving bar, being surrounded by tattooed sightseers in cargo shorts and baseball caps, paying inflated prices for cocktails—despite the questionable surroundings, our time in the lounge passed quickly. An hour later we settled around a comfortable table in LA Prime’s dining room, which has equally panoramic views of downtown Los Angeles but doesn’t turn like a cheap carnival ride. If we want the room to spin, we have a better answer: add more gin.
We put LA Prime’s kitchen through its paces: We started with the escargot in shell, of course, pairing the buttery snails with the loudmouth of a chardonnay that Teresa had been drinking in the bar. An order of the baked bluepoint oysters Rockefeller gave Chris an excuse to call for two bottles of a light-bodied pinot grigio. In time we moved on to Caesar and wedge salads, both safe bets in a primo chophouse.
The crispy, roasted Brussels sprouts didn’t disappoint, and the au gratin potatoes were satisfactorily cheesy and creamy. For the main entrée, Teresa, Pat, and Chris opted for the prime beef—the various cuts of steak, perfectly cooked, came out sizzling. Susan ordered the Chilean sea bass. In a nod to Horace Button, the fictional, curmudgeonly food writer and social critic who serves as The Dining Car’s central character, I opted for the free-range, grilled Colorado double-cut lamb chops. The bold cabernet—inky, black cherry, with a hint of vanilla—flowed. It was a wonderful, gleeful kickoff dinner.
Thursday, Oct. 5
The next day at 5:00 p.m., traveling in a taxi van bursting at the seams with luggage, we arrived at Los Angeles Union Station. When they announced our train, we negotiated the throng of commuters in the main tunnel, my black roller-bag doing the work of a deliveryman’s hand truck. Perched atop my suitcase was a case of wine, the bottles hand selected only a few hours earlier from the tastefully stocked shelves of Gourmet Wine & Spirits, a glittering fine-wine shop in the ground-floor of a downtown high-rise.
I confidently led our band of travelers up the ramp to Track 12, where Amtrak’s Southwest Chief was slated to board. We found the track empty. An affable, bearded Amtrak agent in a golf cart spotted us lingering like lost souls on the station platform near the track’s terminus. Hearing that we were traveling “private,” he tried sending us forward. “The private sleepers are all at the head-end of the train,” he says. “Back here is coach.”
I explained our accommodations in more detail. His face lit up.
“Oh,” he said. “Then, you’re definitely in the right place!”
|The vista dome car Warren R. Henry and sleeping car Evelyn Henry bring up the rear of an Amtrak train|
We mounted the open platform of the vista dome car and entered the lower lounge. It was like stepping into a tycoon’s study: mahogany paneling, plush burgundy carpeting, wine-colored sofas and lemon chiffon barrel chairs grouped in inviting seating arrangements.
A solidly built trainman sporting Amtrak credentials boarded behind us. He was the locomotive engineer, hoping for a souvenir wine glass to replace one from a previous trip that had broken. Jeff, the Warren R. Henry’s talented, low-key executive chef (he wears chef’s whites), graciously acceded to the engineer’s request.
For this trip, in addition to Chef Jeff, our two private railroad cars came staffed with Kashleigh, the onboard service manager. Kashleigh quickly spotted a man on the open platform looking for his seat on the Amtrak train. Lithe, well-spoken, and tactful, she deftly steered the interloper to general boarding. Kashleigh could easily have passed for Halle Berry. Her sense of humor was as natural as her sense of service.Teresa and I made our way through the vista dome car, past the elegant, formal dining room, to the Evelyn Henry, where we found our assigned stateroom, the Grand Canyon suite. This master suite had a queen-sized bed, double closets, and a full bath. We hurriedly dressed for dinner and returned to the lower lounge in time to watch our 6:10 p.m. departure from the open platform. The hazy Los Angeles sky was tinted fire engine red. We stayed on the open platform until the train’s speed—and the dusty, swirling winds—drove us indoors.
By the time our train turned east toward Riverside, our party had settled upstairs in the sumptuous vista dome lounge, which is topped by curving panes of glass that afford 360-degree views. Kashleigh poured out crystal flutes of champagne from a 750ml bottle of Moet & Chandon Imperial Brut.Jeff came up the stairs and set out a plate of crab crescent cups to accompany a cheese platter and crackers with a spinach-artichoke dip.
That was how our trip began—basking in the exalted luxury of a bygone era, sipping champagne, watching twilight fall over the shantytowns, industrial yards, and suburban sprawl that constitute the heart of the City of Angels.
Our observation post high above the Warren R. Henry afforded an unobstructed view of the train to which we were coupled: six double-decked Superliner cars, a baggage car, and two chugging locomotives.
Rising dead ahead, glowing gloriously orange, was a full Harvest Moon.
We ate dinner two hours later in the comfortable upholstered leather booths of the vista dome lounge. The tables were draped in starched linen. Each place was set with fine china and Waterford Crystal. Jeff’s ample cuts of filet mignon roast were topped with a creamy chanterelle mushroom sauce, accompanied by tarragon green beans and baked potatoes in miniature. A Wabash pumpkin cream pie, served in mini-pumpkins, was dessert.
After dinner, at Kashleigh’s suggestion, we went to the open platform and sat on folding chairs under heavy woolen blankets, gazing hypnotically at the receding track, savoring our meal. Pat sipped Jack Daniel’s from a solo cup. A startling number of freight trains passed us in the opposite direction, the cabs of their locomotives dark as death. We all saw Barstow, at 9:51 p.m., but soon after that our heroic travelers began peeling off for bed. Pat and I were sorely tempted to remain on the open platform until Needles, at 12:18 a.m., but good sense prevailed. We retired in favor of an early wake-up call, when we’d have daylight again.
Sleeping aboard the train was like sleeping on a platform wedged between the branches of a tree that’s being buffeted by a fierce storm. You have the sense that there is little other than air beneath your bed. The howling, swirling winds shift in direction and change in velocity. So it went throughout the night. According to the speedometers in the Warren R. Henry, the Chief often surpassed speeds of 90 mph. I had a fitful night, worrying that the constant motion might be keeping Teresa awake. I was wrong. She slept just fine.
Friday, Oct. 6
I awoke in the darkened stateroom at 5:35 a.m., keenly aware that our train had stopped. Eager to greet the day, I left our warm bed, gathered my clothes, and dressed in the brightly lit bathroom. Latching the stateroom door behind me with a soft click, I made my way down the sleeping car’s narrow corridor. I crossed the vestibule to the Warren R. Henry, where for a few minutes I had the vista dome lounge—and a dramatic desert sunrise—to myself. Checking the timetable, I learned that the stop that had awakened me was Winslow, Arizona.
Rats, I thought. I wanted to see that.
The Southwest Chief pressed relentlessly east. The sun climbed, the morning brightened, and our family of cheery voyagers gathered topside in our familiar buffalo wallow. Kashleigh kept our coffee mugs filled. Sometime after Gallup, New Mexico, she served a signature breakfast from Jeff’s kitchen: Fred Harvey French toast; eggs to order; supersized breakfast sausages sliced into manageable bites. Jeff’s Bloody Marys were garnished with chorizo sausage and celery stalks. Affixed to this critical substructure, impaled on picks, were green olives, slices of lime, gherkins, cheese wedges, jumbo shrimp, and filet-of-beef burgers the size of chestnuts. An accompanying slice of bacon stood shoulder deep in each drink, casting big brown eyes at its flamboyant chorizo neighbor.
Our midday stop at Albuquerque lasted nearly 30 minutes—enough time to disembark the open platform of the Warren R. Henry and stretch our legs. Teresa and I hoped for the good luck of finding our daughter, Katie, and son-in-law, Lucas, waiting for us, but there was no sign of them. They live in Albuquerque. Ahead of us, people streamed from the Superliner cars. We walked the length of the train, falling in with the Amtrak passengers, many of whom looked sleep deprived and regretful. It made us wonder how different their trip was from ours.
Albuquerque sits at an elevation of 5,312 feet. The sky was blue and the sun was hot. Against a stucco wall, a line of Native American women sat at card tables, selling jewelry. We’d seen these same women—and their same wares—while staying at La Fonda on the Plaza in Santa Fe. Susan surveyed the merchandise but didn’t buy. We took advantage of the extended stop to snap pictures: Chris and Pat standing before the lead locomotive, the obligatory shot of me standing woodenly at the open door of the Amtrak dining car, all of us assembled on the Warren R. Henry’s open platform, waving.
As you might guess, our two private railroad cars drew a steady line of gawkers. Sadly, we never saw Katie or Lucas, but we couldn’t say we were surprised. Both work pressing jobs—Katie as an English teacher at Albuquerque’s Bosque School, and Lucas as an Air Force dentist. We knew it was a longshot that either one could get away to meet our train in the middle of a workday.
We left Albuquerque shortly after noon. Going east, the tracks skirt the dense cottonwood forests of the Rio Grande Valley, where Katie’s Bosque School is located. It was here that I felt a pang of melancholy. I imagined that Katie might’ve heard the sound of the air horn on our passing train as she was delivering an English lesson.
On the stretch of track between Lamy, New Mexico, and La Junta, Colorado, the BNSF Railway has discontinued freight service. Instead, they use the Southern Transcon railroad corridor, which goes south of Albuquerque and bypasses the steep grades of Raton Pass. But through a combination of political arm twisting, state funding, and federal transportation grants, Amtrak has stuck doggedly with the original, historic route of Santa Fe’s Super Chief, paying the track’s maintenance expenses. This was considerably to our benefit. Our train went much slower on this single track that meandered through rugged, rocky terrain. The creeks and streams, the trestles and bridges, the ranches and tree-lined pastures—it made for ideal watching from the open platform.
We were admiring the protected lands of the Santa Fe National Forest when we were called to lunch: cream of asparagus soup, lobster rolls, tater tots, and pickle spears. I can tell you from experience that the perfect wine pairing for tater tots and a lobster roll is a PlumpJack chardonnay, though Pat and Susan seemed partial to Pabst Blue Ribbon beer.
After lunch, Jeff found the Cleveland Indians game on the in-motion satellite TV for Teresa and Pat—both big fans. They watched the big-screen TV from the plush sofas of the lower lounge. Baseball was no match for the scenery, as far as Chris and I were concerned. We went out to the open platform, where the sun was warm on our faces. Susan soon joined us. She took a lot of pictures in panorama mode. There was a section of track where the previous day’s eastbound Chief had struck a boulder and derailed, making the train 20 hours late. The damaged locomotive was still there, parked on a siding. As our train crept past the accident sight, we got big smiles and a number of happy waves from the track-repair crew on the ground.
At Las Vegas, New Mexico, we passed the westbound Southwest Chief. It seemed a significant milestone in our trip, though I can’t articulate precisely why. I also can’t say why I found it so fascinating watching all those signal lights turn from green to red as we crossed their purview. Signal block after signal block, day or night, the sight of the changing lights pleased me immensely.
Late in the afternoon, I returned to our stateroom in the Evelyn Henry, showered, and dressed for dinner. Kashleigh served drinks in the vista dome lounge. Stops at Raton, New Mexico, and Trinidad, Colorado, were mere distractions to our cocktail party, which raged in the dome. I recall dramatic mountain scenery, several long tunnels, and at least two very dry gin martinis.
Dinner that night was served in the Warren R. Henry’s formal dining room. Jeff’s stuffed crouton Caesar salad and Copper River Salmon with butternut squash risotto hit on all cylinders.
I had a moment of panic when brother, Chris, waved a freshly opened bottle of an expensive California pinot noir in the general direction of Teresa’s nearly empty wine glass, insisting on filling it to the brim. My terror was for Chris’s notoriously poor aim and the Warren R. Henry’s pristine white tablecloth, but I’m happy to report that like Larry Bird ham-handing a three-pointer at the buzzer, Chris hit nothing but net.
Saturday, October 7
I was up well before our scheduled 7:24 a.m. stop in Kansas City, where tragically Chris was detraining to catch a flight back to Reno for a previously scheduled engagement. The skies were gloomy. Streaks of rain dappled the glass of our vista dome. Kashleigh brought coffee. The mood in the lounge grew bittersweet as we all realized our grand adventure was coming to an end.
Approaching the Kansas City yard, our train negotiated the labyrinth of tracks with reluctance, as though, like the rest of us, it wasn’t yet ready to drop Chris from the passenger manifest. Through sheets of rain beating down on the glass, the downtown high-rises got bigger. And then, at the bright red neon sign heralding Kansas City Union Station, we came to a stop. Jeff put several plastic bags of trash off the train. Our good-byes with Chris were necessarily brief. We left him standing with his duffle in the drizzle alongside the Warren R. Henry. As the station disappeared from view, Chris had his back to us; he was helping a maintenance worker load our trash bags into a waiting Taylor-Dunn burden carrier.
From there, time seemed to speed up. Kashleigh served a breakfast of bacon and eggs. Pat and I petitioned Jeff for Bloody Marys—Jeff brought them with chasers of Coors beer. At Fort Madison, Iowa, braving the rain and cold, Pat and I stood on the open platform as we crossed the Mississippi River. Traces of locomotive exhaust swirled through the open platform, mingling with the scents of fresh river water and rain.
The Chief was pulling out of Mendota, Illinois, at 1:19 p.m. when Kashleigh served our final lunch: beef and bacon sliders with french fries. We ate in the vista dome. The skies remained ominous. After lunch, Teresa and I took turns in our suite on the Evelyn Henry, packing our bags.
At 2:42 p.m., the four of us watched our last stop, Naperville, Illinois, from our accustomed swivel chairs in the vista dome. Downstairs, in the lower lounge, our small mountain of luggage was staged for departure. Though we knew it was coming, our arrival in Chicago seemed abrupt. One minute we were traversing the wide expanse of a railroad yard in broad daylight, admiring the dramatic city skyline, and the next we were surrounded by concrete pillars and shadow. Inching along, our train entered an underground world of perpetual twilight and came to a stop.
Rolling our suitcases down the long station platform, we made our way past the now-empty Superliner cars and the triumphant, idling locomotives. We entered Chicago’s Union Station through double-glass doors and took an escalator up to the street, where we found ourselves standing on a busy Chicago boulevard in the rain. We flagged down a taxi.
“The Four Seasons Hotel, on East Delaware,” I told the cab driver.
I have learned that returning to the real world after two days on a train is much like deep-sea diving. If you do it too quickly, it can come as a fatal shock to your system. ##
Eric Peterson's debut novel, Life as a Sandwich, was a finalist in the San Diego Book Awards. His most recent book, The Dining Car, won the IBPA Benjamin Franklin Gold Award for Popular Fiction, the San Diego Book Award Gold Medal for Best Published Contemporary Fiction, and the Readers’ Favorite Book Award Silver Medal for Literary Fiction. The story follows a former college football star who signs on as bartender and personal valet to a legendary food writer and social critic who travels the country by private railroad car. The Dining Car is available in bookstores and the more popular online book retailing sites.
The private railroad cars Warren R. Henry and Evelyn Henry are available for private charter. For more information contact Patrick Henry Creative Promotions at phcp.com/the-train
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