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Flexible dining - Requesting a review from a recent rider

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MARC Rider

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being used to the old cooked to order meals it was a big disappointment.
Just to be clear, most of the pre-flex "traditional dining" meals (except the steaks, and maybe a couple of breakfast items) were not "cooked to order." Even back 10 years ago, when the food was a lot better, most of the entrees were pre-made. The big change (aside from the quality of the entrees, which could easily be rectified) is in the presentation of the meals. "Traditional dining" provided an illusion that you were being served "fresh cooked food," whatever that is. However, it did require a full dining car staff to heat, plate, and serve the food. Under the flex system, the meal is heated and served in the same platter, and thus, the passengers can be served by dining car staff of 1. (Maybe have the coach attendant help out if there are very high passenger loads.) That's where the costs savings come from.

It is entirely possible the the marketing people at Amtrak know what they're talking about regarding millennials, who may not value food presentation as much as previous generations, just as we boomers drifted away from the bourgeois formality of white tablecloth, fancy china and silver of our parents. (This is course is a generation, and there may be millenials who prefer traditional dining, as well as boomers who yearn for some bourgeois formality, but that stuff costs money, and there is a clear trend of most consumers opting for affordable prices over fancy presentation.) The growing success of fast casual restaurant concepts at the expense of sit-down "white tablecloth" establishments might be evidence that this is the case.

Maybe 30 years ago they were still cooking everything in the dining cars, but they haven't been doing that for a long time. I don't know the history, but they've been cutting back on staffing in the dining cars for quite a while. The "flex dining" is just the culmination of this process (*) -- now they don't even need waiters. Personally, I really don't care, except that I'd like the food quality to be better and the service to be fast, efficient and friendly -- no long waits for food and being able to sit in the diner-lounge and eat undisturbed by OBS staff who are frustrated boot-camp drill instructors. I don't even care if different trains have different procedures for serving food. These may be justified based on the circumstances of the trip. I'd just want OBS staff to make it clear what the procedures are.

(*) Well, maybe not. Perhaps the culmination of this process is vending machines. :( Or maybe even just a lounge car with a passenger-operated microwave oven for passenger-provided food, if they can get the applicable regulations changed. Or maybe platform-side vendors. )
 

MARC Rider

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I was looking at a video on the Trans Siberian RR in Russia and the food looks fresh prepared and a good deal more inviting than the TV dinner concept currently embraced by Amtrak.
Uh, I suggest reading Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, especially the passage about the dining car on the Trans-Siberian before making any definitive statements about what it's really like. After all, the pictures of Flex dining on the Amtrak website make that look pretty good.

Of course, Ghost Train was about a journey in 2006, back when Amtrak food was pretty good. If there's been enough time for Amtrak food to get lousy, maybe there's also been enough time for Russian railway food to improve. But don't judge the quality of the food on the basis of a video.
 

crescent-zephyr

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The definition of cook is - “prepare (food, a dish, or a meal) by combining and heating the ingredients in various ways.”

Most of traditional dining falls into that definition with a few items like scrambled eggs and steaks being fully cooked on board.

The food specialist prepared and plated the food, most trains only had 1. A full dining car staff was not needed to continue the traditional dining menu.
 

tricia

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.... Under the flex system, the meal is heated and served in the same platter, and thus, the passengers can be served by dining car staff of 1. (Maybe have the coach attendant help out if there are very high passenger loads.) ....
On the SL/TE earlier this week, there were two staff in the dining car: a very good LSA who worked upstairs directly with passengers (and did the best she could, with not much work with, to make the dining-car experience pleasant) and a "chef" downstairs who organized and heated up the orders. Not certain the "chef" was there before our SL joined the TE in San Antonio. After San Antonio, both the SL and TE sleepers were served by the one dining car that started out in New Orleans with the SL.
 

jiml

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Hi *wave* New traveler here since Covid stole my overseas adventures ...
After reading/watching reviews I thought I was prepared for the 'more portable covid menu' ... here's a pictorial view from the California Zephyr & Starlight Menu. Mostly inedible, never on time, sauces spilled in the bag - overall extremely disappointed. My first journey, I came home quite unwell from the excessive sodium.

Twice I was able to substitute a meal for a Hot Dog, and on other occasions I was told "No." I had to purchase the hot dog despite foregoing a meal as a bedroom sleeper passenger.

View attachment 19189
View attachment 19183View attachment 19184View attachment 19185View attachment 19186
***Feel free to ask me what I think about overall customer service at Amtrak!
Nice caption on the first one. ;)
 

MARC Rider

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On the SL/TE earlier this week, there were two staff in the dining car: a very good LSA who worked upstairs directly with passengers (and did the best she could, with not much work with, to make the dining-car experience pleasant) and a "chef" downstairs who organized and heated up the orders. Not certain the "chef" was there before our SL joined the TE in San Antonio. After San Antonio, both the SL and TE sleepers were served by the one dining car that started out in New Orleans with the SL.
When I rode the Cardinal last fall, the LSA in the cafe car was supposed to do everything. Fortunately, the coach attendant was on hand to help out with the sleeper passengers during mealtime. It was not bad service, but there were only 12 people in the sleeper.
 

Dakota 400

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Traditional dining" provided an illusion that you were being served "fresh cooked food," whatever that is.
"Fresh cooked" or not, the food most of the time looked palatable and tasted good.

How palatable seemed to depend upon the Chef on the train. I was on a SWC trip when the Chef tended to overcook everything: Scrambled eggs and the chicken entree were the worst. My half chicken was so dry and overcooked that I didn't consume one-quarter of it let along the whole thing.
 

lordsigma

OBS Chief
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I was wondering how they were managing it on the western trains. The two level configuration of the superliner diner seems like it would make it tricky for one staff member to do it all especially on a busier train.
 

MARC Rider

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Apparently not on the SL and EB per recent trip reports.
I guess we need a Congressperson to "grill" them at appropriation hearings about exactly where the cost savings from Flex Dining is coming from, then.
When I took the Capitol Limited last fall, they only had one person doing the Flex Dining on the double-decked Superliner Cross Country Cafe car, and the sleepers were pretty full, too.
 

crescent-zephyr

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I guess we need a Congressperson to "grill" them at appropriation hearings about exactly where the cost savings from Flex Dining is coming from, then.
When I took the Capitol Limited last fall, they only had one person doing the Flex Dining on the double-decked Superliner Cross Country Cafe car, and the sleepers were pretty full, too.
They can’t grill without the food specialist! They’ll have to convection heat them!!! :p

Did they have to go downstairs to get your meals or were they able to serve them all from the ccc serving area?
 

PaulM

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Quincy, IL
I recently took a MTP-DEN round trip on the Cal Zephyr and was a bit surprised. I don't claim to be a foodie, but I (shrimp and sausage gumbo) and my wife (beef dish) both enjoyed our dinners well enough that we repeated the choices on the way back. Also, the selection of meals seemed to be at least as large, if not larger, than "traditional" menu in recent years. The paper trash presentation did leave something to be desired.

I confess a fondness for breakfast sandwiches; although I prefer Hardee's biscuits over McD's muffins. So breakfast wasn't that bad. However, I don't see how Amtrak can justify a lack of hot or cold sugar-free cereal and fruit at breakfast.

I would sum up the situation be saying that "flexible" doesn't make for as nice a travel experience as "traditional". But the downgrade is not bad enough me to consider any other type of travel.
 

MARC Rider

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They can’t grill without the food specialist! They’ll have to convection heat them!!! :p

Did they have to go downstairs to get your meals or were they able to serve them all from the ccc serving area?
On that CL trip, the sleeping car attendant was very conscientious about getting my dinner order and making a reservation time even before the train left Washington. It seemed like they were doing reservations in 10 minute increments, and were trying to keep the crowds down at any one time. I'm thinking they might have had some short breaks in the dinner reservations to allow the attendant to run downstairs and get more meals, which were nuked in the upstairs CCC serving area. It's also possible that the coach attendant was helping out, and I didn't notice him or her. (NOTE: This trip was in October 2019, well before the Covid stuff.)
 

desertflyer

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Jul 29, 2013
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San Francisco
For my trip SLC-EMY, didn't wake up in time for breakfast since the train was a bit late and we were up until 3am. We again had to ask for lunch in the room, the dining car attendant seemed annoyed by the request, but our SCA was excellent. I got the chicken fettuccine (which our outbound CZ trip didn't have on the menu) and my partner got the shrimp in lobster sauce. We were offered either a blondie or brownie for dessert. When the food was delivered, there was no side salad or roll.


That's the shrimp in lobster sauce on top and chicken fettuccine on bottom. Both were decent. Lots and lots of sauce. The portions are kind of small without a side salad and roll.

Our CZ was on a modified schedule because of Moffat maintenance, so our scheduled time into EMY was 5:40pm. With delay we didn't arrive until ~7:30pm and no dinner was offered. Not unexpected, but we sure were hungry by the time we got home.
 

lordsigma

OBS Chief
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Had my first experience with flexible dining today at lunch on 91. I had the shrimp with lobster sauce and ate in the diner. Apparently on this train at lunch they don’t have salads as those are brought on at Washington. But the roll was done right and not soggy and as much as I hate to day it I enjoyed the meal and thought the lobster sauce was quite tasty. I will disclaim that I like a decent amount of salt so I can see where some who don’t care for (or can’t have) salty food could have an issue. We’ll see how dinner is - getting the pasta meatball meal then. Could just be the shrimp meal is the best of the bunch and I won’t like the others.
 

tricia

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Aug 23, 2011
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Had my first experience with flexible dining today at lunch on 91. I had the shrimp with lobster sauce and ate in the diner. Apparently on this train at lunch they don’t have salads as those are brought on at Washington. But the roll was done right and not soggy and as much as I hate to day it I enjoyed the meal and thought the lobster sauce was quite tasty. I will disclaim that I like a decent amount of salt so I can see where some who don’t care for (or can’t have) salty food could have an issue. We’ll see how dinner is - getting the pasta meatball meal then. Could just be the shrimp meal is the best of the bunch and I won’t like the others.
To my taste, the shrimp entrees were the best of the bunch, though the shrimp was rather rubbery. The meatballs tasted off to me, but were better than the chicken marsala , which was just about inedible. Good luck with your choices!
 

lordsigma

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Just had Meal 2 the pasta and meat balls dinner. It’s not like eating at a gourmet restaurant but it’s perfectly acceptable for for what I’d expect on a train or bus. My early conclusion would be, at least from these two meals, that the main downgrade is the presentation and how it is served and the lack of a substantive meal for breakfast or a lighter choice for lunch. The lunch problem is easy - throw a few of the same burgers and pizzas that are served in the cafe car into the diner for a lighter choice. For breakfast the Acela first class normally has some decent options. I know some will disagree but the actual main entrees, at least these two, are perfectly acceptable to me and are far superior to eating from the cafe car. If they added a scrambled egg/bacon or omelette sort of prepackaged meal you could serve at breakfast and some of the cafe car lighter options for lunch, I’d say it would be good enough for 85% of riders on the eastern trains especially those that have never Had traditional dining and don’t know what they are missing.
 

crescent-zephyr

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Just had Meal 2 the pasta and meat balls dinner. It’s not like eating at a gourmet restaurant but it’s perfectly acceptable for for what I’d expect on a train or bus. My early conclusion would be, at least from these two meals, that the main downgrade is the presentation and how it is served and the lack of a substantive meal for breakfast or a lighter choice for lunch. The lunch problem is easy - throw a few of the same burgers and pizzas that are served in the cafe car into the diner for a lighter choice. For breakfast the Acela first class normally has some decent options. I know some will disagree but the actual main entrees, at least these two, are perfectly acceptable to me and are far superior to eating from the cafe car. If they added a scrambled egg/bacon or omelette sort of prepackaged meal you could serve at breakfast and some of the cafe car lighter options for lunch, I’d say it would be good enough for 85% of riders on the eastern trains especially those that have never Had traditional dining and don’t know what they are missing.
I do disagree but that’s what makes the world go around!

It’s good to hear what other experiences were. Sounds like you have a good crew which always helps.
 

lordsigma

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I think you are right - this crew does seem to care. As I said in an earlier post though - I will disclaim that I am not turned off by salty foods so I may not be the best person to review for nutritional value and I also know for those that have other nutritional needs (such as no meat) things may be a bit different as you may have literally one option. Just sharing my thoughts but I by no means claim to be the be all and end all - I also have only tried two of the choices I may hate the other ones. The enchiladas don’t look all that appealing to me.
 
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