Some restaurants boast beautiful views of Long Island Sound. Other dining rooms overlook well-manicured gardens or bustling downtown centers.
The Essex Clipper Dinner Train offers a unique view of an ever-changing landscape as the train winds through quaint Connecticut River towns from Essex to East Haddam. During the almost 2-1/2 hour trip and elegant four-course meal, guests can relax at tables set with white tablecloths, flowers, candles, china and crystal. The landscape and landmarks change as the train passes by creeks, marshes and the Connecticut River. Gillette Castle, the East Haddam Swing Bridge and Goodspeed Opera House also are framed through the train's windows. In the fall, the view is drenched in the colors of the changing leaves.
The experience touches all the senses. "Yes, there is this fabulous meal," says Valley Railroad president Robert Bell, "but the scenery is constantly changing and there is the gentle motion of the train ride." Guests relax at tables set for two or four in the restored 1920s Pullman railcars, decorated with stenciled walls and burgundy velvet drapes.
The dinner train, which runs from the end of May through October, has been the scene of many birthday and anniversary celebrations as well as wedding proposals through its almost 15-year history, Bell says. The supper cars received national attention last spring when ABC's "The Bachelorette" taped a segment for the show. Bachelorette Andi and suitor Dylan had the car all to themselves as they shared a romantic dinner.
Dinner train guests can wander through the station and its special exhibits before boarding. The Roaring '20s theme in one gallery spotlights a Ford Model T Depot Hack, period equipment, apothecary bottles and posters from a local pharmacy, and a corner of a 1920s living room with music from the decade playing on the radio. An exhibit in the Oliver O. Jensen Gallery, named for one of the founders of the Valley Railroad Company, which operates the restored 19th steam cars in Essex, features the railroad photography of Thomas J. Nanos.
Guests begin boarding the air-conditioned train a half hour before departure. John Evans, the dinner train's executive chef and host, pays particular attention to this segment of the evening. "I get a first impression of the guests when they are waiting [to board the train]," he says. "They are waiting on line, and often it's hot and they are sweating. We get them on board and into their seats, and they exhale. Their entire body language changes."
Once the guests are seated, beverage service begins with choices from the full bar. Specialty drinks reflect the season, although this summer's signature cocktail — a Gin Rickey — was inspired by the Roaring '20s exhibit theme. One of the most popular drinks is a creamy Chocolate Scotsman Martini, Evans says.
The Essex Clipper's wait staff follows a tradition that has lapsed in modern rail service. "When trains had [formal] dining cars, the steward would walk through the train with a set of chimes and ring the chimes" to announce that the dining car was open, Bell says.
Evans walks through the two cars, chimes in hand, to start the four-course meal. Guests are served an appetizer plate of crudités and dip and warm bread with honey butter. The second course is a salad that mixes a seven-leaf mesclun blend with olives and sun-dried tomatoes. Toppings for the salad as well as the vegetables served with the meal change according to the growing season. Evans works with Bishop's Orchards in Guilford to supply the kitchen with locally grown ingredients. "We just finished with asparagus and now we're moving to strawberries," he says.
Guests choose their entrée when they book their tickets. The summer menu features prime rib, cooked to medium, Chicken Francese and grilled salmon. The menu changes for the fall season when Seafood Newburg in a puff pastry crust will be among the entrees. "Fall is a huge time for us," Bell says. "To me, [dining on the train] is warmer, toastier" and prime time to admire the changing color of the leaves.
The meal ends with a choice of two desserts — apple cinnamon cheesecake or chocolate mousse cake — and beverages.
Evans and two other chefs prepare the food from scratch in the Colonial Hearth kitchen car, which began life as an Army kitchen car in 1953 during the Korean War. Although the space is compact and a high-traffic area when table service begins, the gleaming kitchen is outfitted with modern gas stoves, warming ovens and refrigerators. The salad course is served on chilled platters, while the entrees retain their warmth served on heat plates with covers.
Evans is no stranger to regimented life. He spent 20 years in the military where he honed his culinary skills and served top military brass at bases in Europe. "All of my food service training prepared me for giving a first class level of service to high-ranking individuals," he says, adding that the dinner train guests receive that same treatment.
Amenities such as hot towel service and a staff-signed thank-you card conclude the meal. Each guest also receives a souvenir brochure with information about the Valley Railroad, the route and its landmarks and the food. As the guests leave the rain, the "significant other" in every party is handed a rose, Evans says. A memento of the trip — two wine glasses etched with the Valley Railroad logo and a package of Munson's chocolates — is available for sale.
The Essex Clipper Dinner Train operates weekends through Oct. 26. During July and August. The hours are Friday and Saturday, 6:30 p.m. seating and 7 p.m. departure; and Sunday, 3:30 p.m. seating and 4 p.m. departure. In September, boarding begins on Saturdays and Sundays at 4:30 p.m. for a 5 p.m. departure. In October, there are two seatings on Saturdays at 11:30 a.m. boarding with noon departure and 4:30 p.m. seating with 5 p.m. departure.
Tickets are $75. Reservations: 800-377-3987, ext. 70; and essexsteamtrain.com/the-dinner-train.Copyright © 2015, CT Now