Along with my wife and a couple of friends, I rode BC Rail's recently-acquired nine-car "Pacific Starlight Dinner Train" in mid-June. I thought Branchline readers might be interested in our experience. This trip is aimed at the nostalgia market, and I will give my impressions basically from the non-railfan's point of view.Bytown Railway Society, Branchline. July-August 1997.
The train was sold out and it was a good idea that we had ordered our tickets well in advance. We reserved a table for four in the Stardust Dome and managed to get on the south side which has the best views. We were well received by the BC Rail staff and serenaded to our seats by a jazz band which accompanied the train.
When making the reservation we were asked to choose our entrée which is shown on the ticket. This makes things very much easier for the chef who knows exactly how many of each entrée to prepare. The on-train services have been chartered out to a local restaurant and hotel company. There is much to be done in this area as the servers were obviously very new to the task, I found the attitudes to be closer to fast food rather than fine dining and, although the supervisors were good, some additional training is required. Our waitress knew nothing about the wine list and did not think to ask someone more knowledgeable than herself. In a restaurant "small things" like bringing water when it is requested become very important to the patrons and for this to be a roaring success the company will have to concentrate on the small details.
The three non-railfans in my group were not impressed with the expansive views of the BC Rail yard which are possible from the dome car and found the exit from North Vancouver to be the worst part of the experience. We were treated to the sight of a freight being made up by a CN crew who leered into us in the dome as we were perusing the menu. Being able to look into the cab of a CN SD40-2 is not everyone's idea of a night out!
The train is scheduled to leave North Vancouver at 18:15 and arrive at Porteau Cove at 19:45. The return leaves at 20:30 and is scheduled back in North Vancouver at 21:45. We left on time with BC Rail Dash 8-40CMs 4608 and 4605 back to back on the point. With 8,000 hp there was plenty of power but I assume this was required to have a cab leading for both legs of the trip. Speeds are kept low so that patrons can enjoy the wonderful views and eat their meal without spilling the wine. We had a good smooth ride.
The scenery is well known and I will not comment further except to note that the views along English Bay and Howe Sound are first rate for such a starlight dining trip with good opportunities for sunset views. Our arrival at Porteau Cove was announced over the train public address system and then BC Rail did one of those operating things that infuriate the travelling public. Everyone was ready to disembark when the train ran right past the station on the main line, stopped while the north switch was aligned by the rear end trainman, and then backed into the station. It would have been much better for the second man on the locomotive to have thrown the south switch to have allowed us to head straight into the station.
Food preparation is under the supervision of Executive Chef Bruce Knapik who has been awarded numerous medals at a variety of international culinary competitions. In 1993, Chef Knapik took over leadership of Culinary Team Canada and, more recently, he was one of the few overseas Chefs invited to join the Singapore Chefs' Association. The summer menu is:
Summer vegetable millefeuille
Confit of vegetables layered with crisp pastry leaves, watercress and roasted garlic. Gaspachio vinaigrette.
Roasted BC Salmon
Fresh Salmon roasted with soya, sesame and lemon grass with vegetables, wasabi risotto and chive beurre blanc.
Five ounce beef tenderloin with mushrooms and foie gras, baked in puff pastry. Vegetables and roasted potatoes. Madeira jus.
Black Pepper Chicken
Fresh Fraser Valley chicken breast, roasted with cracked pepper, chervil and lemon. Served with vegetables and potatoes.
Vegetable Rotolo Roasted vegetables with pasta and ricotta with sage tomato sauce.
White Chocolate Soup Chilled chocolate soup with marinated strawberries.
Apple Pear crumble Sweet BC apples and pears baked with roasted pecan streusel.
We tried the Salmon and the Beef Wellington. The beef was good and the salmon was excellent. However, the risotto needed some work as it came to the table looking like plain boiled rice without any hint of wasabi.
For desert the White Chocolate soup was a disappointment. It looked and tasted more of condensed milk with some milk chocolate shaved into it. The Apple Pear crumble was an unqualified success.
The coffee was bitter and had been made a long time before being served.
There was an opportunity to walk around at Porteau Cove, smoke a cigar in the open air and listen to the jazz band. We were ready to depart on time when it was announced that we would be leaving about 20 minutes late to allow the Budd cars from Prince George to run ahead of us because they could make higher speeds. In this way we missed the sunset. We left backwards through the north switch, another annoying piece of North American railroad stupidity, and made our way slowly back to North Vancouver.
So what are my overall impressions? It was a good trip and I am glad I went along. It was expensive, salon seating costs $69 while dome seating costs $84, and so one expects good dining value. We found the food to be good but not really exceptional and there is a need to improve the quality of the serving staff. The trip is being marketed as a train that takes you back to a time when Ernest Hemingway first graced our bookshelves, when Fred and Ginger danced their way to into our hearts. An era when there was time to savour the romance of the golden era of rail travel, made all the more enjoyable by the company of someone special. I think the problems can be ironed out in time and the BC Rail dinner train will become a well patronised part of the Vancouver entertainment scene.
Advance reservations and meal selection are required by calling BC Rail Passenger Services at: 604-984-5500 or 1-800-363-3733.