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Fine Dining on the Rails

Imagine the finest dining experience you ever had.  Now transfer that experience into an early 1900s railroad car.  Dining in a railroad car was a one-of-a-kind experience.  Its class and sophistication were competing forces between rail lines for the best service provided and the dishes were contending with five-star restaurants from coast to coast.

Everything in a dining car had to be precise—right down to the measurement of the fork placement.  The waiters and workers of the Southern Pacific Company had a book that described all of their job responsibilities: from working together and talking to patrons, to setting the table, and properly dressing a salad.

In the General Instruction Covering Service written by waiters in Dining, Café, and coffee shop cars (December 15, 1946), these rules and instructions are all listed.  For example, just the setting of a table had to be perfect. Page 1 of this book stated:

“The basic requirements for a successful meal are good food tasting prepared, and attractively served on tables provided with proper settings.  Tables that impress must have clean linen or clean service tops; with brightly polished silverware and glassware, and shining dishes that are neither cracked nor chipped that will create an atmosphere of dining-room distinction.

In placing napkins and small silverware the following will govern:

  1. Napkins to be arranged, folded, in center of space allowed for service plate.
  2. Knives to be placed at right, with cutting edges inward, spoons to right of knives in order of their use.
  3. Forks to be placed in service order (salad-meat-dessert), at left with tines upward, in order of use.
  4. Oyster fork, when called for, to be placed to right of spoons.
  5. Extra spoons are streamlined (slanted) position at aisle ends of tables.

Stewards will observe that table set-up as outlined above is maintained at all times.” (Page 1)

Generally, the first thing eaten before a dinner meal—even before an appetizer—was a salad.  There was a page of specific rules in the book about how to prepare and serve a salad.

“The salad bowl consists of

  • Lettuce- 3 small heads or 2 large ones- Broken up
  • Tomatoes, peeled and quarters- 6 only
  • Radishes, thinly sliced- 1 bunch
  • Cucumbers, peeled, scored, and sliced- 2 only
  • Bell Peppers, shredded fine- 2 only
  • Pinch of salt
  • French Dressing

Chilled tea plate for service. Large salad fork and spoon for self-service.

  1. Salad bowl should not be filled under or over three-quarters full, and should, for appearance, be replenished after each serving.
  2. If more than one person partakes of servings from one salad bowl, be ready to follow up with a second one, but do not remove the first one from the table unless you have asked politely if you may do so.
  3. Do not serve salad bowl from one table to another, but bring fresh for each service from the pantry.
  4. Always offer a second helping, but from a replenished bowl only.” (Page 12)

Workers also had to follow specific recipes when preparing food.   A couple different styles of recipes are listed below.

Great Northern Railway/Chef’s Recipes/Oriental Limited

Planked Lake Superior Whitefish Page 9 by Jack Hall

First take a round plank that will fit inside a dinner plate, maple or oak preferred.  Use a two pound fish, remove bones, split down base, skin one side, and place on top, end for end, place plank skin down, brush with butter and salt, bake is quick oven about 20 minutes Serve on lace doily with lemon and butter roll and Saratoga chips, sprig of parsley.  Shad or halibut served this way are equally good.


Great Northern Corn Bread Page 15 by Chas. Young

  • 1 lb Flour
  • 1 lb yellow corn-meal
  • 2 teaspoonfuls baking powder
  • 4 eggs
  • 2 oz butter
  • 1 teaspoonful salt
  • 2 pints milk
  • 1 cupful water

Pour water over corn-meal and allow to become cold, beat yolks of eggs and add to corn-meal, add the milk, flour, baking powder, salt, and butter.  Bake in shallow pan well-greased.  Have your oven hot.  This should bake in about 20 minutes.

In some cookbooks, like the first example, they were written in paragraphs: word for word explanations of how to properly prepare and plate the dish.  The second recipe looks more like a recipe from a book today.  The measurement vocabulary is slightly different, but common across multiple cookbooks for that style.

These specific rules and recipes were enforced to make each dining experience not only the best possible, but also consistent from train to train and person to person.  The waiters had specific rules they had to follow in order to give the best service possible.

Waiters were expected to be clean, well groomed, professional, and have a great memory.  They were told guests loved to be remembered and recalling someone by name would further their experience.

When working with multiple staff, the waiters could not group together or talk in the dining room, but were still expected to work together.  If a steward was occupied and guests entered, a waiter was to seat them.  Waiters had many rules of politeness to guests as to not offend them and bring them what was desired.

Workers also had many other rules to follow:

  • Clean shaven, hair combed, clean teeth, clean nails, trousers clean, shoes shined, collar and tie immaculate.
  • No sitting down during specific periods for guests
  • Make little noise as possible with dishes
  • How to properly plate a slice of butter or pour water
  • Walk fast- Never run

These are just a few of the rules.  There were many other rules such as how to serve each drink or food choice, how to talk to staff, and how to properly take a check.  Without the vigorous staff training, the fine dining experience would have never been what it was on a railroad dining car.


Author: Alyssa Behnke, Education Assistant

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