Foodstuffs - This Dinner Train Attracts Food Buffs and Rail Enthusiasts Alike

Oct 1, 2015

The Cafe Lafayette Dinner Train in Lincoln is exactly that.  Part train, part restaurant, the Cafe rolls down 20 miles of track serving five course meals to passengers over a 2 hour trip. NHPR's Sean Hurley rode along on this moveable feast on rails and sends us this.  

After the evening's forty passengers climb aboard, the Dinner Train begins to chug south along the Pemigewasset at 8 miles per hour.  Drink orders aren't in yet but bartender Todd Harris is already muddling the mint to make a Cafe Lafayette specialty.  "This is called an MGM," Harris says, "it's muddled mint, vodka and peach juice."

Chef Doug Trulson plates up the beer braised short ribs.
Credit Sean Hurley

 In the kitchen car, Chef Doug Trulson directs two line cooks.  Rolls are baking, soup is bubbling,  salads plated and set to chill.  Trulson says he got his start making pastry at an upscale bakery in Boston.  But the city wasn't for him. "This is my 22nd year here," Trulson says, "I was finished with the city and I loved it up here. I came up.  Looked at the ads in the paper - it was the only job available.

Nowadays, he has trouble making dinner at home in a kitchen that isn't heading somewhere.  But dinner on the train is a different matter, he says. "We kind of look at it as like every night you're doing a wedding. It's like catering almost. But it's a whole lot different than a regular restaurant."

Dinner train owners Ali and Michael French work alongside the staff during every 2 hour ride.  Tonight, Ali is hosting. She goes car to car reciting a verbal menu. Shrimp Crepes. Beer braised short ribs.  New York Strip, Statler Chicken, Swordfish, Pork Ribeye, a Vegetarian Dish.

"We took over last year," Ali French says, "but I've been here 16 years and Michael's been here eight years. We try to keep the music the same period as the car itself. So we'll have 50s curtains in here and all the way down the other end will have lace curtains for the 1924 car."

"Big band music, in the 1924 Pullman and that sort of thing," Michael French adds.

Cafe Lafayette train owners, Michael and Ali French.
Credit Sean Hurley

And Frank Sinatra in the 1952 dome car.  "It's one of the last dome cars in existence still functioning, still on the rails," Michael says, "so we get a lot of rail buffs up here that are here for the train as much as they are for the food."

Passengers Elaine Aubin and Jerry Loyack, from Londonderry, are here for both.  "This is our first time. Actually our children gave us a Christmas gift of six months of dates and this was one of the gifts," Elaine says to which Jerry adds, "This is something different for us to do as far as going on the dinner train."

Their first time on the dinner train - Elaine Aubin and Jerry Loyack from Londonderry.
Credit Sean Hurley

Michael French says Elaine and Jerry are pretty typical passengers. "This is a big date night and anniversary kind of thing," he says, "so we have a lot of couples that have been on, they came on for the honeymoon they come back every year for their anniversary." 

Michael French says the 1952 Dome car is one of the last of its kind still active on the rails.
Credit Sean Hurley

Conversation quiets as the entrees arrive.  The train crosses one trestle and then another and finally halts at a Christmas tree farm in Thornton. With a lurch, it begins to head back the other way.  "So just when you're finishing your last cup of coffee we're pulling back into the station," Ali French says and goes off to bid the passengers goodnight.

Back at the station at the end of the night.
Credit Sean Hurley

A slow ride to nowhere in a way, but with the old timey music and the clicketty clack of the rails, it's as much a journey to another time as it is dinner on a train.