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Food on VIA (Canadian rail) versus Amtrak (American rail)

Mr Taster Mar 28, 2012 07:35 AM

My Lovely Tasting Assisatant™ and I just finished a trip on Amtrak from Los Angeles to New Mexico. We had a wonderful time, with great scenery. We had a sleeper compartment, and so meals in the dining car were included in the price.

While Amtrak food is leagues better than one would find on an airline, it's hardly the reason for the journey. For example, we had a decent New York strip steak with bland steamed vegetables and a well cooked baked potato, and an iceberg salad with a selection of Newman's Own salad dressings. We also had a flavorful (if limp) cheese omelet for breakfast, and a beautiful burger with very fresh lettuce, tomato and onion for lunch (even if the burger patty was clearly of the highly processed/frozen flat hockey puck variety). There was a fresh carnation in a bud vase, which was a nice touch, plus real silverware. At first glance the plates appeared as if they were ceramic, but when my knife cracked the bottom of the plate it was clear we were dealing with plastic. The white tablecloth was of the "fabric paper" variety, and I when diners finished their meals, we saw the attendants remove the silverware and scoop up the entire table into a large pouch, hobo bindlestick style.

This obvious PR video for Via Rail Canada (starting at 1:10) makes the food look indiscernible from a restaurant, and for those of you who have traveled this way, I'm wondering what the food and overall experience is really like.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4bcJ4t...!

Thanks Canada hounds

Mr Taster

  1. k
    ketherian Mar 29, 2012 04:15 PM

    I travel sleeper class from Montreal to Halifax about 2-3 times a year. In my youth I traveled the same route in coach-class. The meals have always been good.

    The snack car offers cold meals, occasionally oatmeal or soup -- but nothing fancy. And yes, it is overpriced for all it is. Anyone and every one can access the snack car. The service is often shared with the dining car, as the person running the snack car tends to also do the odd microwaving and plating for the dining car.

    The dining car runs about $20 a head for a two course meal for dinner -- before wine. It's well presented and very tasty with a limited number of options. Seating is limited, occasionally communal (as a 4-seat is filled up with couples and single diners) and they only do two sittings.

    Menus can be previewed here: http://www.viarail.ca/en/useful-info/...
    The menus are seasonal and regional, and it's rare I've gotten the same meals on two trips in a row.

    I've never had a meal on an Amtrack train, so I can't compare it. I hope this helps.

    1. AnneInMpls Mar 28, 2012 10:18 PM

      My experience with several Amtrak sleeper trips (6 or 7 in the past few years) and one eastern Via rail trip: I've been pleasantly surprised with Amtrak's food, and was disappointed with ViaRail's food.

      Two years ago, Mr. Tastebud and I traveled from Halifax to Toronto - H to Montreal was in a first-class sleeper (aka the "sleeper plus", where food was included in the price). It didn't seem like the choices were anything different or better than for the "plain sleeper" folks. I was NOT impressed by the food (lunch, dinner, and breakfast); Mr. Tastebud said his meals were OK, but mine were just a notch or two above edible.

      The Amtrak meals from Buffalo to Chicago to Minneapolis were a noticeable improvement. (Not the breakfast, though - Amtrak breakfasts are just as mediocre as Via's, in my experience.)

      So we bought our dinner for the Montreal-to-Toronto leg in the Jean Talon market. THAT was great food! (Too bad Via can't cater the corridor trains with supplies from the Montreal markets.)

      1. g
        Georgia Strait Mar 28, 2012 07:56 PM

        ps - here you go - have a look at videos posted by VIA Rail - yes it's promotion but maybe more up-to-date as opposed to the one posted by what might be a tour operator or something - not sure who posted the one linked in OP above

        here are some people who work on the canadian

        and in their "off train" hours - i know they are allowed to work elsewhere - like some did at the olympics 2010 for VIP's. (friend of friend is how i have info)

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VKVHhw...

        1. Kajikit Mar 28, 2012 07:22 PM

          I haven't tried either of them recently... but ten years ago I travelled halfway around America by train, and then across Canada ditto. Canada Rail was far far superior to Amtrack in every way. We went on the regular Canada Rail train most of the way across the country, and on the Rocky Mountaineer the rest of the way. We shelled out for the gold level and the food was delicious.

          1. g
            Georgia Strait Mar 28, 2012 07:00 PM

            just like Amtrak - i think it's important to clarify between the various services that VIA Rail Canada offers.
            There is the "corridor" which is strictly inter-city (between Windsor ON and Quebec City, PQ.

            then there is east which is the maritimes and gaspe.

            Then there is "remote" service ... one of which is up to Churchill (if you ever get there in the condition that the historic track is in today - oh and Prince Rupert, the best scenery from Rockies to Pacific)

            and then this is what i think you might be asking about -- that is known as WEST - which is the Canadian - that is the name of the train. it is the flagship. I don't really like any of the other services - but as many people have already said - take VIA 1 if you are in the corridor region.

            anyway - the Canadian is the vintage Budd-built 1955 -- refurbished and hopefully any future reno's will respect the heritage of the Budd cars. You are getting more than just a train ride - it is classic early mid-century mod design with modern amenities. I think that tho this equipment was brought new to Canada in 1955, the design is from a couple of decades prior. Streamlined would be a good term.

            i would very much agree with your report of the Amtrak trip you had - but again, just like VIA, it varies by route. I like the Coast Starlight and the Cascades service is certainly the hopeful future of intercity travel between Vanc BC and Southern Oregon. And even tho Cascades goes between cities (like the surfliner) -- the cascades services are way better in terms of comfort and amenities than the surfliner --- so it's hard to answer your question directly.

            VIA Rail's Canadian features real chefs, real stewards, real waiters -- and real dining tablecloths and real cutlery and plates etc. It's all in a vintage dining car - refurbished - and those were named after the famous dining rooms of the famous CP hotels of the day.

            And most of the time, the food is very good. There are times when the veggies are over-done and the meat is too dry - but that happens. And you end up with a "crew" who are tired or whatever happens - but i would say it's more often that you enjoy your entire experience as a pkg. And if it's your birthday, anniversary, engagement -- there's even been a wedding on the train near Jasper.

            it used to be that VIA had menus that featured real local specialties (like a certain fish for the west, beef in Alberta (of course) - etc. But as most things go these days - there is bugdet decision makers in head office in Montreal (thousands of miles away from Vanc) who possibly make choices not in favor of the traveller.

            but, as someone else pointed out above, for the price - what is there to complain about.

            They also offer a fairly decent non-meat option at each meal and with advance notice, they do their best to accommodate special diets.

            the biggest difference - and i'm sure in all your travels you would agree - is the people - they can make it or break it. and I think most VIA people in the west (not so much in the corridor or maritimes in my experience but it could be the different cultures of canada coming across to us) are there to make the trip memorable in a good way. They work hard and are away from home for several days in a row.

            the facilities they have in which to be chefs and cooks etc - and servers - are beyond belief - in terms of physical capacity - but they do it, while rocking and rolling thru the best scenery ever.

            they serve wine, beer and try to feature some Cdn wines and local micro-brews.

            i like the coast starlight on amtrak (esp if there is a pac parlor car on the train) --- and if we could combine the best of each system (Amtrak and VIA) then it would be amazing.

            ps - people are talking about first class etc - i think they mean VIA1 if it is in the corridor (special lounges in certain major stations - bigger seats) --- in the West, aboard the Cdn

            we don't work for VIA / Amtrak - we just prefer to travel on terra firma, in a civilized manner ... but if i have to go in the air, Westjet gets my vote (as does Alaska) but often it's more convenient for us to take the train.

            i certainly, with due respect, do not agree with the comments about "take a picnic" on the Canadian train. Well, maybe if you're in "basic coach" - and yes, certainly, we take some personal snacks but never for meals while we travel in the Canadian Train 1 or Train 2 (each directoin) sleeping car class. (which used to be called "Silver and Blue" and who knows what the remote head office in central canada is calling it now)

            i hope that helps.

            1 Reply
            1. re: Georgia Strait
              el_lobo_solo Mar 28, 2012 08:46 PM

              I agree with GS on VIA, especially about the crew and the fellow travellers. I took the Canadian sleeper class from TO-Van last August. I was surprised with the quality of the food considering I thought it would be cafeteria quality. The menu looked promising before I boarded, although this link is from today: http://www.viarail.ca/en/useful-info/... I just wish there were more options for the wines by the glass. I was getting tired of the Wayne Gretzky Cab-Sav. I ended up buying a different bottle during one of the stopovers.

            2. f
              freia Mar 28, 2012 03:35 PM

              I love Via First Class, including the food. I like having a menu, a choice of entrees, wine with my meal. I like the chocolates afterwards, too. Lets face it, it is food on a moving train where they can't possibly create five star meals given the limitations of budget. They can't price their tickets to compensate for 5 star dining. I think they provide a great compromise between food quality, service and price. It certainly is better than anything I used to get on the airlines. And I don't think you can compare 1st class airfood (ticket normally costs 4 times the cost of regular class) vs 1st class Via food (ticket normally costs 1.5 times the cost of regular class). If Via was to charge 4 x the cost of regular class PLUS if there was a market for this (I'm thinking Toronto to Montreal corridor in particular), then there would be grounds for comparison.
              I love Via and go 1st class whenever I can.

              2 Replies
              1. re: freia
                q
                Querencia Mar 28, 2012 07:12 PM

                RE "food on a moving train where they can't possibly create five-star meals": Not now, not with today's budget, not in today's world, but clearly in the past train service DID accomplish exactly that. I just read a book on the Orient Express. With the technology of 1910, they did it. Yes, we now live in a different world, but I can't believe AMTRAK and VIA couldn't do a little better. Certainly improving service wouldn't cost more. I saw a waiter clear an AMTRAK dining car table by tossing the used silverware ten feet into a dishpan as if he were shooting baskets, and when he accidentally bumped into me as I left the car he said "Ooops, Honey" (I am an elderly lady). My accommodation on that train cost over six hundred dollars a night. Ooops Honey doesn't cut it.

                1. re: Querencia
                  f
                  freia Mar 28, 2012 07:15 PM

                  No absolutely it is possible. You quoted only part of what I said and thus have taken it out of context. My entire quote is this:

                  "...food on a moving train where they can't possibly create five star meals given the limitations of budget. " The key is the limitations of budget, not that it isn't possible. You need to look at the entirety of the sentence.

                  What I was trying to say is that given the budgetary constraints and what Via is working with pricewise, they do a pretty good job. If you are prepared to pay a super premium for 5 star, of course you'd get it. As it currrently stands, you can't expect 5 star dining within the price point that Via has set in order to be profitable.
                  As for Via, I've never had anything other than classy service in 1st class, including at the request of my overseas travel companion, an entire bottle of red wine with our meal, just for us.

              2. prima Mar 28, 2012 09:52 AM

                The food on VIA varies greatly depending on the route and that particular day's offerings. Offerings also vary depending on whether you're in economy or business class.

                If you travel with VIA One (business class) , from Vancouver to Toronto on the Canadian (I think that's the name), the food in the dining car is decent. Usually there's a choice of meat/poultry, seafood and vegetarian. Desserts are ok. The breakfast is more limited, and some ViA employees are sticklers and won't allow substitutions or omissions.

                In economy class, the menu is often more limited. Between Montreal and Toronto, the economy class offerings include hummus, sandwiches, candy, etc. Business class from Mtl - TO , TO-Ottawa/Kingston, TO- London/Windsor includes a 3 course meal, is decent, but not as good as it used to be, as some corners have been cut. It saddens me to see basa and tilapia on the menu as frequently as salmon. Some daily menus are better than others and VIA One's breakfast is usually less tasty than VIA One's lunch + dinner.

                I have only taken Amtrak once in the last 5 years. Amtrak has hot dogs at their snack bar, and I've not seen any hot dogs on any VIA trains in recent memory.

                In a nutshell, the VIA food experience isn't great right now, but it's ok.

                The Rocky Mountaineer is not run by VIA. Haven't been.

                There might be more info about the food on these trains on a Tripadvisor forum.

                5 Replies
                1. re: prima
                  o
                  OTFOODIE Mar 28, 2012 10:06 AM

                  When I travel by train in the Toronto-Montreal corridor, I always pack lunch or snack. I find the food on the train grossly overpriced, given the quality.

                  1. re: prima
                    Mr Taster Mar 28, 2012 10:14 AM

                    >> There might be more info about the food on these trains on a Tripadvisor forum.

                    Ah, but I don't trust Tripadvisor (or Yelp) opinions on food!

                    Also, I wasn't really asking about the snack car offerings. My inquiry is about the quality of food offered to **sleeper passengers on long distance rail**, in order to compare it with my experience on a comparable Amtrak route. Not sure how economy/business would play into this.

                    My understanding that the sleepers on The Canadian include meals in the dining car (as is the case with Amtrak long distance sleepers) so that is my primary question.

                    To clarify, are you saying that there is different food offered depending on the quality/size of the sleeper you book? Or were you mixing up sleeper/economy/snack car/dining car into one post?

                    Thanks for your help.

                    Mr Taster

                    1. re: Mr Taster
                      prima Mar 28, 2012 11:03 AM

                      I'm saying the food quality and variety varies depending on whether you go with a sleeper (which includes the same dining car meals in the price, regardless of whether you choose the most basic or most deluxe sleeper car) or economy (which is alternate way to travel on the Canadian, which doesn't include any meals, as far as I know). Usually the dining car has 2, sometimes 3 seatings, and sometimes it's possible to request a certain seatings, other times the seatings are assigned. The food in the dining car when I travelled by sleeper car in 2010 was better than the food sold in the snack bar and/or bar car when I travelled in economy in 1997. People that travel in economy tend to bring more of their own food on the trip.

                      I was giving my general thoughts on food on VIA vs food on Amtrak (which seemed appropriate given your subject line ;-) ) , including my thoughts on sleeper vs economy on the Canadian (it's possible to travel either way), ViA One vs Economy in the Windsor-Montreal corridor, and Amtrak snack bar vs VIA snack cart.

                      I haven't travelled by Amtrak sleeper car in a long time, so the only direct comparison I could make between Amtrak and VIA is on the topic of snacks!

                      1. re: prima
                        Mr Taster Mar 28, 2012 11:09 AM

                        Ah I see. I should have been more specific in the subject line. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

                        Mr Taster

                      2. re: Mr Taster
                        c
                        cecilia Mar 28, 2012 12:57 PM

                        Two summers ago, we took VIA from Halifax back to Toronto. We had a sleeper car between Halifax and Montreal. There were two levels of tickets for sleeper. One only includes the sleeper car but does not include the cost of meals, and no access to the special cabin. That's what we had.

                        We did have access to the same dining car. The menu we got was a limited version of the full menu offered, and we had to pay. There were 3 choices of entree for lunch/dinner. Quality is about your average chain restaurant. Prices are about the same as mid-tier chain restaurants. Nothing to write home about.

                        However, if you do opt for the Sleeper Plus, you get more options and maybe better food. The price difference between Sleeper and Sleeper Plus was pretty big and we couldn't justify paying so much more for 3 meals.

                    2. Sam Salmon Mar 28, 2012 09:13 AM

                      The scenery through BC & the Rocky Mountains is unsurpassed-the service & food rather ordinary-I suggest packing a picnic.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: Sam Salmon
                        m
                        mangoannie Mar 28, 2012 09:14 AM

                        was that the rocky mountaineer trip, I have heard others voice disappointment with that part of trip out west

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