The Great Smoky Mountains Railway dinner train was crawling with characters on a recent Friday evening when it pulled out of its Dillsboro depot. Members of the mammoth WNC tourism venture’s self-styled Nightshade Mystery Theater had taken on the roles of Snake, a washed-up rocker with a weakness for ladies; Snowflake, Snake’s angst-ridden love child (incongruously dressed in an Alice in Wonderland costume apparently left over from a previous production); and Cherry, a starstruck groupie, for its performance of The Crypt of Passion, a rolling whodunit.
But the show’s toughest parts were played by the railway’s hapless servers. They were forced to balance trays of teetering cocktails as the train rattled westward, and to deliver plates of hot food to tables blocked by leather-clad actors brandishing rubber snakes. While the overtaxed servers were game for the challenge – anyone applying for a railroading job in the 21st century is likely a born optimist – their good humor couldn’t keep the meal from veering off-course a bit. (Although the group of middle-aged women who coaxed their waiter – a student at Western Carolina University – onto their table for a group photo didn’t seem to notice. If the 20-spot they slipped into his waistband was any indication, they left satisfied.)
When trains first started crisscrossing the country, most passengers’ concerns were centered not on the possibility of being overtaken by a black-hatted robber on horseback, but on the inevitably of eating poorly. Until 1867, when George Pullman hitched a dining car to a Chicago-bound train, meals were served in trackside depots – passengers who hadn’t packed their own lunch pails had just 20 minutes to get their fill of bitter coffee and rancid beans.
However, by the 1930s, dining had become an integral part of train travel, with lines competing to have the most exquisite mint jelly pooled alongside their lamb fricassees. As anyone who has tried to make a meal of the Doritos and Cup-O-Soup served in Amtrak snack cars can attest, that heyday is long over.
But Americans still link trains with good eating, an association that has spurred almost every tourist hot spot with a working track to launch a dinner-train operation. There are now almost 100 such excursions in North America, from California to Newfoundland. The Great Smoky Mountains Railway started its trips more than 10 years ago, gussying up its three- or four-course-meal format to match the season, with Polar Express dinners leaving the station at Christmastime and beer-themed menus offered around Father’s Day. The Mystery Train is among the most popular chugs, selling out on most fall weekends.
Food quality could easily be overlooked in such an endeavor, but the Great Smoky Mountains Railway has publicly announced its commitment not to content itself with accoutrements. The company routinely enters Chef Paul Swofford’s creations in regional culinary competitions – and wins. So, sorry Snake: The mystery I hoped to solve when the conductor punched my ticket was The Secret of the Esteemed Dining Car.
The dinner-train experience begins in the railway’s gift shop, where passengers are offered an array of merchandise that would make Emeril Lagasse blush. The gift shop, which caters to riders on all excursions, hawks whistles, lanterns, fleece blankets, bandannas, money clips, pencil sharpeners and mouse pads emblazoned with the GSMR logo. Most folks bypass the shop for the complimentary wine-and-cheese reception, which has the distinction of being housed in a heated waiting area.
The reception included access to a never-replenished plate of cubed cheese and crackers and one glass of boxed wine, chosen by color: red, white or pink. No clues here. But the mood at the reception was downright giddy, with groups of reuniting women, church members and celebrating couples tipsy on the prospect of adventure: “I can’t stop laughing and I don’t know why,” drawled one Diet Coke drinker excitedly.
Boarding begins around 8 p.m., when the sun is safely out of the sky. I’m not sleuth enough to solve two mysteries in one night, but it puzzles me why the Railway waits until nightfall to begin its scenic ride. Word was we passed through charming mountain towns and over rushing streams, but for the duration of the trip, we saw nothing but darkness. Considering how much was visible through the train’s dirty windows, it’s a wonder these evening excursions aren’t already offered in scenic locales like Gary, Ind., or, say, southern Jersey.
The staffer who made the boarding call, ushering the eager hoards into three 1940s-era dining cars, prefaced her invitation with a warning: The bartender would be busy. With only one bartender for 104 passengers, drinks could be slow in coming.
I was initially sympathetic, knowing the bartender had just minutes to pack up her boxes of wine and take her place on the train. But my little grey cells told me otherwise – why not hire a second bartender? Acknowledging a problem isn’t the same as addressing it. While I appreciate the honesty (I wish more restaurants would greet my arrival with announcements like “Avoid our BLTs like the plague” or “Even we don’t know where our fish came from”), a restaurant that bills itself as a fine-dining establishment should be sufficiently staffed.
To simplify service, dinner orders are placed before boarding. While the entree selection changes monthly, there’s always one fish, one fowl and one beef dish on offer. In October, guests could opt for chicken or prime rib. Everyone is served the same first course – in October, a hazelnut/pumpkin bisque – and dessert.
The soup was a promising start to the meal, tasting something like pie filling in a cup. A slivered-almond garnish was a handsome flourish and hinted at a saltiness that might have enhanced the dish. Perhaps the chef was being kind in showing restraint with the salt shaker, as drinks didn’t arrive until almost an hour after we’d been seated. Palate-prepping cocktails tend to lose their allure by showing up on the heels of the main course.
Nearly everyone on the train ordered the prime rib, a hefty serving that screamed “I got my $82 worth!” The dish was a constructed beef stew, with the hunk of meat – doused in thick gravy masquerading as au jus – joined on the plate by a scoop of well-executed garlic mashed potatoes and a single crisp carrot. The meat was overcooked for my taste, but I’m not sure which temperature the chef was shooting for since we weren’t asked our preference when we placed our order.
Eating prime rib is, for me, largely an excuse to eat horseradish. But horseradish wasn’t served, and I never had the opportunity to request it as our server only had time to drop our plates and bus them.
The dessert, described as a lemon mousse very berry stack with white-chocolate drizzle, really belonged to the cheesecake family. (Maybe, like the gravy, it was just costumed for Halloween.) It was sharply sweet, which – judging from the number of sweet teas I saw circulating – was probably evidence of the pastry chef knowing the audience.
Our tablemates, a couple from Wilkesboro celebrating their 31st anniversary, weren’t too keen on the cake. They did, though, have plenty of nice things to say about their trip to Alaska, the growth of their small city and their new granddaughter. And thus I cracked the case: The appeal of the Great Smoky Mountains Railway dinner train is not the food, which, while presentable enough to win awards, never really rises above standard wedding-reception fare. What’s fun about the train is the assigned-seating arrangements, which force you to spend three hours in conversation with another couple. More so than slices of prime rib on mismatched china, being thrown together with strangers resurrects the golden age of train travel. And that’s something worth experiencing.
[Writer and editor Hanna Rachel Raskin is a regular contributor to Xpress.]
Great Smoky Mountain Railway operates its dinner train every Saturday between February and December, with additional departures on holiday weekends. Passengers must be 21 or over, and a dressy-casual dress code is enforced. Tickets are $65 for the gourmet-dinner train, $82 for the mystery train. For more information, call (800) 872-4681.