Dining on the California Zephyr

Railway dining type cars for the use of passengers were first operated by the Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore Railroad (which became part of the Pennsylvania) between Philadelphia and Baltimore in 1863. Remodeled day coaches, 50 feet in length, there were two of these cars, each fitted with an eating bar, steam box, and "other fixtures usually found in a first-class restaurant." The food was prepared at the terminal station and placed on the cars immediately before the trains departed. These primitive "dining cars" remained in operation for about three years.

George M. Pullman, in 1867, then introduced "hotel cars" (sleeping cars equipped with kitchen and dining facilities), the first three of which were the President, the Western World, and the Kalamazoo. The first Pullman-built car devoted entirely to restaurant purposes was the Delmonico, operated in 1868 on the Chicago & Alton Railroad (which became part of the Gulf, Mobile & Ohio).

Dining cars on the California Zephyr were a far cry from those early variations of cars equipped with a steam box and fitted with an eating bar. Dining cars for the CZ were designed to serve an average of 58,000 meals per month. To do that, each diner starting out on its run was equipped with 800 individual pieces of chinaware; 350 individual glasses, from shot glasses to parfaits: 1,200 pieces of silverware; and nearly 150 miscellaneous items such as thermos bottles, wooden salad bowls, casseroles, flower bases, etc. During the trip some 2,500 separate items of linen were used. The 275 individual grocery items stocked ranged from deluxe sirloin steak to pickles. All of this stock and equipment, except the linens, had to be stored in the kitchen and pantry, an area measuring 30 feet long by 7 feet wide, which also included the range, boiler, four refrigerators, deep freeze, fish well, dish and glass washing machines, automatic toaster, coffee urn, and storage lockers for dry supplies. With all this placed in a compact unit, the four cooks were left to work in an area 20 feet long by 30 inches wide with the seven waiters working out of a pantry 10 feet long by 40 inches wide.

There were very good reasons why the California Zephyr's diner was one of the most popular dining cars ever. The food was a veritable gourmet's delight, and those who prepared and served the food took a special interest in pleasing their guests.

Each California Zephyr diner was manned for an entire trip across the country eastbound and westbound between Oakland and Chicago by a crew from one of the three railroads who operated the train. A Burlington crew may have been aboard for one trip, a D&RGW crew the next, followed by a crew entirely made up of WP dining car employees on the next trip out.

The California Zephyr dining-car pool employed 216 stewards, cooks, and waiters, which made up twelve crews, four from each of the three railroads. Every crew was responsible at any time to the superintendent over whose railroad the train was operating at that time. The service had to be uniform so every crew in the pool worked under rules which were provided in a manual known as CZ Bulletin No. 2. Every known question in the operation of the dining and buffet cars—from where to light the kitchen range pilot light to the serving of a deluxe Italian dinner—was answered in the bulletin.

Each dining car and every chef in the pool was furnished with a recipe book containing some 280 pages and 525 recipes. New recipes were added as they were tested and found favorable for the discriminating tastes of the travelers about the train. But all these regulations, recipes, and service instructions would not produce results unless they were put to practical application with the whole-hearted cooperation of the employees to whom they were issued. Obviously, special training was required to serve some 200 deluxe dinners each night with a variety of items—dinners about which the passengers often talked about long after they had reached their destinations.

To provide this training, Harold G. Wyman, WP's superintendent of dining cars, conducted an annual instruction class for Western Pacific crews during which examinations and service refresher courses were given. U. S. Public Health Department pictures covering the requirements of an interstate carrier were also shown. The classes lasted an entire day and were enthusiastically supported by the employees and their organizations. As a feature of each class the commissary would serve a luncheon between the morning and afternoon sessions which these railroaders who would spend their time preparing and serving food looked forward to. Dining-car crews of the other two railroads over which the California Zephyr operated attended similar classes.

Dining car service exemplified the dedication of Western Pacific and its employees in the quest to provide first class service to the passengers riding the Zephyr. In testament to this challenging task the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare on May 16, 1967 informed Western Pacific that the dining car service had earned a Public Health Service Grade A placard for the fifth year in a row. This was an award not to be taken lightly. Inspections came unannounced and were very thorough. With flashlights in hand the inspectors checked every nook and cranny of the dining cars. Nothing was left unnoticed as the inspector checked food storage areas, cooking facilities and cleanliness of the china and utensils. At the end of the inspection suggestions for improvement were presented to the appropriate personnel although for Western Pacific this was a short list. This health safety award had also been earned in 1959.

Famous for superb meals the dining car offered gracious service, reasonable prices and an atmosphere of congeniality that put you in an ideal mood to enjoy the culinary treats expertly prepared and served. Coupled between the vista-domed-lounge-buffet car and the 6-5 sleeper, dinner was on a reservation basis, so passengers would not have to stand in line waiting for service. Advance selection of a dining hour was suggested for each passenger. The Zephyrette would pass through the train each afternoon and inquire as to reservation requests for that evening. Reservations were not required for breakfast or lunch in the dining car.

The chef of a WP diner planed his day's meals, and before the first breakfast order was given, he had luncheon and dinner menus well along in the process of preparation. In the dining car proper, five to seven waiters laid the tables with fresh linen, silver and glasses, filled the water bottles and gave the car that spick and span Western Pacific look. As the passengers entrained at a station the dining car crew watched them and not from mere idle curiosity either. For from long years on the same run the good dining car crew studied the taste of the traveler, so that before the dinner call was sounded, your own pet dish was often already on the fire, ordered by a waiter who had served you before. Early on the run a checkup was made of through passengers so that the chef would know the probable number of meals he had to prepare.

Rivaling restaurants in any city meal offerings available to passengers began with a full breakfast menu. Eight full offerings were available to start the day. These included a Breakfast Steak or Sugar-Cured Ham both served with two eggs, Shirred Eggs with Sausage, Poached Eggs on a Toasted English Muffin with Canadian Bacon, Browned Corned Beef Hash with a Poached Egg, an Omelette with Cheese, Ham or Jelly, and of course Cereal both cooked and dry. All offerings included a choice of Fruit, Fruit Juice or Cereal with Toast or Bran Muffins and a Beverage. Hashed Brown Potatoes were available on request. Additionally, A la Carte items of Fruit, Fruit Juices, Cereals, other Entrees, Toast, Muffins, and Beverages were available.

Midday lunch offerings included Filet of Fish with Cole Slaw, Family Style Chicken Pie, and Chopped Sirloin Steak with Brown Gravy. Soup or Juice, Vegetable, Dessert and Beverage where included in the price. Sandwich Plates included a Hamburger on a Toasted Bun, Potato Chips, and Cole Slaw or a Hot Chicken Sandwich served with Whipped Potatoes and Cranberry Jelly. A la Carte items were available, as were selections for children under 12 years of age.

Featured dinner meals included delicacies such as Boneless Rocky Mountain Brook Trout, Roast Loin of Pork, Southern Fried Chicken, Roast Top Sirloin of Beef, Broiled Sirloin Steak, Crab Louie, Abalone Steaks, Broiled French Lamb Chops on Toast all served with dinner rolls, vegetables, potatoes, and beverage. Cocktails, Liquors, and a wide selection of California Wines, available at extra charge were offered to compliment the meals offered. Parents were allowed to share their meals with children with no charge or purchase half portions offered on the select dinner menu at half price. Plate Dinners, A la Carte items, and selections for children under 12 were also presented for passengers’ perusal.

A romantic touch of old Italy was added to the pleasurable offerings available to dining car patrons during the dinner hour in 1955. Five full course Italian dinner meals served with California wine became available for the first time on any transcontinental train for travelers who enjoyed continental food at its best. Special menus were prepared which included such tasty delights as Veal Scaloppini a la Parmesan, Chicken Cacciatore, and other dishes specially prepared with real Italian flavoring. Each passenger ordering an Italian dinner was also given his or her choice of a bottle of California Sauterne, Burgundy or Rose wine. Items complimentary to the dinner selections included antipasto, minestrone, tossed green salad with olive oil dressing, ravioli, and spaghetti. Other appetizing foods to complete the dinner included toasted garlic rolls, potatoes, vegetables du jour, a choice of cheeses, toasted wafers, Marsala wine, and a nut sundae with wafers. All items on the Italian menu were in addition to those available on the regular dinner menu.

Any of the days meals ordered for service outside of the dining car incurred additional charges and were subject to delay when the dining car was busy.