Something about railroad dining always has seemed romantic to me.
Remember Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint in the train dining car in “North by Northwest”? Or, Daniel Craig and Eva Green hate-flirting over a pricey bottle of wine while traveling by train in “Casino Royale”?
The romance of the rails isn’t just a thing in pop culture, either. In real life, my love of dining in rail cars goes back to when my parents and I took an overnight trip to New York City on the legendary Silver Comet when I was 3.
That was toward the end of the heyday of railroad travel in this country, but it was still one of the most elegant ways to dine. Back in the mid-19th century, when rail pioneer George Pullman came up with the idea of fancy dining cars, he patterned his first one after Delmonico’s, the nicest restaurant in New York City.
I remember someone once describing railroad dining as the most “civilized” way to travel, what with the white tablecloths, china, silverware, and lavish multicourse meals served by white-jacketed stewards.
Even after traveling by train fell out of favor, the tradition of fine dining in rail cars lived on in nostalgic railroad-themed restaurants and excursion trains.
My future wife Leslie and I had our first big date at a place called The Station that operated in the 1970s out of the 1909 Southern Railway depot on Hoyt Street in Athens (now the Athens Community Council on Aging). Next to the former depot, across from the legendary T.K. Harty’s Saloon, you could eat in a narrow 1917 Atlantic Coast Line dining car called the “Valdosta.” The menu offered a New York strip, filet, Chicken Valdosta (a very popular dish with rice), a couple of shrimp dishes, and chocolate mousse and strawberry cake desserts.
The dining car had stained glass taken from a local church, and they used heavy china. As my old Athens classmate Tom Hodgson recalled, it was “considered the most fancy restaurant in Athens at the time,” a favorite of locals for bridesmaids luncheons, rehearsal dinners and birthdays, as well as big dates.
After we were married and living in Atlanta, we ate several times at the Victoria Station restaurant that used to be at Piedmont and Lindbergh. Consisting of several boxcars and a caboose, it was the second location of a San Francisco-based chain that grew quickly in the 1970s, and eventually included a location near Cumberland Mall, before the chain went bankrupt in the mid-1980s. Celebrity spokesman Johnny Cash recorded an album of train songs, “Destination Victoria Station,” available exclusively through the restaurants.
The theme was based loosely on London’s real Victoria Station, with antique English railway artifacts used as decor, and salad served from old baggage carts. Prime rib was their specialty, which is probably why Atlantans remember it fondly as a go-to spot for first dates and celebrations. We took my brother Jonathan and his wife Lisa there on their first anniversary.
Perhaps Victoria Station’s most unusual guests were the Sex Pistols, who dined there right before their first U.S. performance at the nearby Great SouthEast Music Hall in January 1978. Fortunately, the restaurant’s patrons weren’t subjected to the antics of Johnny Rotten, Sid Vicious and company, since the party had “a room in the back to ourselves,” former Music Hall employee Doreen Cochran told me.
Over the years, Leslie and I never could resist a repurposed train depot or train car, but I think our most notable railroad meal was for a wedding anniversary, a deluxe dinner on the New Georgia Railroad, an excursion train that the state operated in 1985-93. You boarded in a depot on Central Avenue, near Underground Atlanta, where you could view the Zero Mile Post, marking Atlanta’s beginning as a railroad terminus, at its original location.
Diners were seated by twos or fours at tables covered with white cloths and set with flowers. The dishes bore the burgundy logo of the New Georgia Railroad. The menu offered a choice of prime rib (seemingly a rail car standard), chicken Marsala or lemon sole stuffed with crabmeat, along with two vegetables, a fresh salad, a tray of assorted desserts, and tea and soft drinks. (They provided a bucket of ice if you wanted to BYOB.)
The train normally went to Stone Mountain and back, but that night it traversed the 18-mile Atlanta Loop instead. Since it was late November, we remember the night chill sweeping through the car whenever the train door opened. Leslie recalls looking out the window and seeing a view of the city we’d never experienced before as we rolled through the night on our two-hour journey.
The weekend dinner train, the scene of quite a few marriage proposals, often was sold out six weeks in advance, but the New Georgia Railroad never turned a profit. Eventually, it was shut down.
Dining fads tend to wane, and in recent years it seemed there were fewer railroad car restaurants around here.
But, you still can find them. We dined recently at an Asian restaurant in Vinings called Orient Express, where you enter through a sleek silver train car that still has the name “Chattahoochee River” on the side. We didn’t actually eat in the car, since we opted for the hibachi menu, but we did sit briefly in it afterward, soaking up the atmosphere.
That set me to wondering about the “Valdosta,” where Leslie and I had that memorable date, so I asked renowned Athens caterer Lee Epting, who ran The Station, what happened to it.
He said he had moved the car to Carrboro, North Carolina, when he opened a later version of The Station in another old depot. “It’s right where it was,” he said.
We were headed to North Carolina for Memorial Day weekend, to visit my son Bill and daughter-in-law Jenny, and they offered to take us to The Station in Carrboro. Unfortunately, the restaurant (which has gone through several ownerships) had closed down a week or so earlier, but we walked around the dining car, trying to determine whether it was indeed the “Valdosta.” (The current owner didn’t know.)
The door looked different, but the car was renovated in 2007, so it may have been altered then. It had the same pattern of ladder bars and window locations, and my eagle-eyed son spotted a seam over one window that was in the same spot as in a picture of the Athens train car.
We couldn’t be sure, but we decided it was likely enough to warrant a photo of Leslie and me on the car’s platform.
The bar in the adjoining 1913 depot — also a music venue, where Athens’ own R.E.M. played its first show outside Georgia in 1980 — still was open for business, so we had a drink there, toasting good times, past and present.
Shortly, we were joined by a group of Bill and Jenny’s friends, who, exactly 51 weeks earlier, had been participating in their wedding.
That’s when it hit me. Our son’s wedding took place in a former railroad roundhouse, situated along with some vintage rail cars on the grounds of a train museum in Huntsville, Alabama.
At least as far as our family is concerned, the romance of the rails continues.
Read more memories of The Station, and the story behind the story, at Bill King’s Quick Cuts blog: billkingquickcuts.wordpress.com/2019/06/14/memories-of-the-station. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.