For me, “dinner train” conjures visions of the Orient Express: mustachioed men in spats smoking cigars and drinking cognac and quietly efficient, uniformed waiters serving caviar on mother-of-pearl spoons to women dripping with diamonds...
Yes, I have an overactive imagination. But when I first heard about the Cincinnati Dinner Train, I immediately started searching for my cummerbund.
Our Saturday night date begins surprisingly early. Our food will be prepared in BBQ Revue’s kitchen and loaded onto the train just before departure, so we have to order entrées and desserts for our four-course, fixed-price ($69.95) dinner on Thursday. We’re offered chicken, salmon or prime rib; dessert choices include cheesecake and chocolate cream pie. We skip the boneless chicken breast in white wine sauce (it sounds like something easily made at home) and order one of everything else.
When Saturday rolls around, the parking lot is packed and a 40-year-old GP-30 diesel locomotive looms over Madison Road. We’re given tickets from a windowless trailer, then hurry past smokers frantically finishing a final cigarette before the smoke-free, three-hour trip.
An eager conductor in dark-blue cap and uniform with shiny brass buttons greets us beside an orange-and-maroon 1947 dining car and arranges for us to be photographed ($10). We’re ushered up several steep steps to find our table set for four. Luckily, the train isn’t sold out, so we command the entire table, moving from side to side depending on the direction the train is moving.
Photos by Eamon Queeney
Our appetizer (Crudités with a Sundried Tomato Basil Spread) is just a scoop of whipped, barely flavored cream cheese with some mini carrots, sliced cucumbers, red grapes and whole wheat crackers. It’s innocuous, but we eat it while awaiting two very stiff cocktails ($6 each) — Jim Beam with ice and a Gin and Tonic — from the “Queen City Tavern,” an un-air-conditioned 1953 bar car. Two sips in, my wife confesses that she’s already drunk and proves it with an enjoyably sloppy kiss.
We rumble away right at 6 p.m. while perusing a handy guide to the trains and the evening’s route. Looking around, I realize I’m the only man wearing a tie, and — except for a large party celebrating a birthday — the average age onboard appears to be in the low seventies. Many are clearly train buffs reliving trips they likely took 50 years ago or more, yet the youthful anticipation of a rail journey still touchingly shines in their eyes.
An iceberg lettuce “wedge” arrives, slathered in Ranch dressing. My wife wishes the dressing was served on the side like the crumbled bleu cheese and bacon, but she admits it’s consistent with the period theme and delicious.
Trundling along toward Sawyer Point, we glimpse Cincinnati anew from between breaks in the overgrown foliage, seeing the backs of homes and warehouses, crumbling cemeteries, the glistening river and the remains of Torrence Road Station razed in the 1940s, its historic frieze vandalized by generations of bored kids. (Some things never change: On our return, we pass six maliciously grinning children boldly throwing rocks at the train windows!)
A parade of servers appears with our main courses. Cooked in the BBQ Revue’s hickory smoker, my prime rib is moist and juicy with a hint of pink at its center. It’s so flavorful it doesn’t need the accompanying horseradish sauce. A fluffy baked potato and side of green beans cooked with corn and bacon are old-fashioned and satisfying.
My wife’s salmon is beautifully moist and hot — no small feat given the kitchen’s limitations. Unfortunately, its “spicy hoisin” glaze lacks intensity, though it maintains sufficient Asian flavor to make it enjoyable.
Our souvenir color photo arrives along with dessert; it’s a nice keepsake but should really be printed in black and white. My cheesecake with a graham cracker crust is lush and creamy, topped with strawberry sauce and served with a cup of coffee. But my wife has the better dish: A chocolate cream pie that reminds me of desserts my mom assembled long ago with Jello pudding and ReddiWip. (Tasting it, my own eyes likely betrayed a misty touch of nostalgia.)
Returning to the station, pedestrians and stoop sitters along the way break into wide grins and wave unselfconsciously. We consider how we’ll review the evening. While the food is good, it’s not gourmet. And it’s an expensive outing — especially with drinks and a bottle of wine ($22)!
Yet the staff is warm and accommodating, including our waitress, who never gets annoyed though we pepper her with questions; that conductor, Mackenzie, who eagerly shares his passion for trains; and even the train’s owners, who temptingly promote their luxury private rail excursions to Chicago, Washington D.C. and beyond.
So, bottom line: If you can afford the freight, climb aboard the Dinner Train. It’s a unique experience that’s nostalgic, romantic … and utterly Cincinnati.
CINCINNATI DINNER TRAIN
Go: Departs from BBQ Revue parking lot at 4725 Madison Road, Oakley
Hours: Three-hour trip departs every Saturday at 6 p.m.
Entrée Prices: Fixed-price four-course meal costs $69.95 per person
Red Meat Alternatives: Chicken and salmon; vegetarian plate upon request
Accessibility: This beautifully restored, historic train is boarded via steep steps from track level, and passing between cars while moving will doubtless prove challenging for some