All aboard the Cincinnati Dinner Train

(l-r) Cincinnati Dinner Train performer, the prime rib dinner, and exterior of the train; photos: Paula Johnson

By Paula Johnson

The elegant, parchment-style ticket bearing your name, train car, and table assignment is punched by a uniformed porter. A line of people dressed up for the evening present their tickets to a woman in a long skirt and vintage cloche hat. Her name tag says “Amelia Earhart.” As you wait to present your ticket, a trio of singers sways and harmonizes “The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B.” Your photo is snapped by famed newsboy Jimmy Olsen (who in real life was married to Amelia Earhart). This is how your adventure begins, before you set foot onto the Cincinnati Dinner Train.

It’s 1949 again. The post-war boom is on. Harry Truman is president and the country is still humming the songs of the Andrews Sisters. American optimism and energy chugs full steam ahead, a locomotive engine on a shiny track making its way toward prosperity. This is the time and place and feeling that’s been recreated with amazing care and accuracy, as my rail fanatic husband Tom and I discovered. We rode the Cincinnati Dinner Train, which left from its Seymour Avenue station for an unforgettable, scenic, three-hour cruise on a recent Saturday evening. The leisurely ride tops out at about 15 mph and ends at Theodore Berry Friendship Park in downtown Cincinnati, where the train is pushed back to its origin point.

The cars

The Dinner Train is made up of eight cars (with another recently purchased from Barnum and Bailey Circus to be added). All the details of the history and provenance of each car are outlined in the highly specific route guide that every passenger receives, to the delight of train geeks like Tom. There are a locomotive and a power car, three beautifully restored dining cars, a coach car, a bar car, and a completely customized kitchen car. What makes the Cincinnati Dinner Train so different from the half dozen other dinner trains that run in the U.S. is that patrons are encouraged to explore the entire train (the locomotive excepted), even the kitchen car.

“We want everyone to make their way through all the cars and go outside and blow the train whistle!” says Brian Collins, the co-owner of the train, whose boyish enthusiasm and passion for railroading makes the experience a true delight.

The partners

Collins is the emcee, the showman, the host who recounts railroad lore and history with ease and charm, brimming with well-deserved pride about his beloved train. He’s there every Saturday greeting each patron, and six times during the trip he delivers anecdotes, pointing out noteworthy sights along the way. (The same information is delivered by additional hosts in each dining car.) If Brian Collins is the public face of the Dinner Train, co-owner Bill Thomas could certainly be called its silent partner. Thomas has the same level of passion for trains as his partner; his is just quieter. Thomas owned the now-closed BBQ Revue in Madisonville, Kentucky, and runs the train’s food service, where he is quite happy staying behind the scenes in the kitchen.  I spoke with him there, at his very own table, “Table Number Zero.” While not exactly hiding out, Thomas is clearly content to oversee operations from his table, occasionally venturing forth to observe and briefly chat with guests.

The dining

There are few two-top tables available for couples, but the authentic, old-time experience is being seated with another couple at one of the more plentiful four-top tables. We had a great time chatting with the folks who were seated with us. Three menu options (chicken, prime rib, or salmon) are available for dining, and are ordered when the reservation is made. An appetizer, salad, and dessert are included in the $60 per person fee. For $35 you can sit side by side in the more casual coach car, where it is permitted to bring your own food (no coolers or drinks) or purchase pizza on board. Drinks can be purchased on the train, including cocktails, beer, and wine. We observed a lot of birthdays and anniversaries being celebrated in our car. The same wonderful trio who sang as we boarded, the Queen City Sisters, strolls through the cars serenading birthday passengers, with the whole car joining in. By the end of the evening, our dining car had a festive party atmosphere, with people meeting, mingling, and chatting about the experience.

The sights

As the train cruises toward its destination, historical points of interest are highlighted. There’s a connection to George Washington, as well as a fascinating story about a graveyard along the way. However, the sight that fascinated me most was the train’s “Waving Couple.” As Collins recounts, “A few months after the train started, one of the employees mentioned to me that there was this couple who came out every single Saturday to wave from their backyard. They never missed. At Christmas and Halloween these folks even decorated in the back of their house for the train.” That same couple is still doing it today—I am a witness—along with a few other neighbors gathered around a picnic table, holding welcome signs. Later in the ride, a woman held up her chicken and waved its wing at us. I can’t promise you will see her, but it’s a safe bet you’ll see the Waving Couple. They’ve been faithfully waving to the Dinner Train since 2009.

The special treat

When I spoke to Collins about writing this piece, I mentioned to him Tom’s lifelong obsession with trains, having taken his first ride on a steam train when he was 6.

“I’m going to surprise him with the experience of a lifetime!” Collins promised. He certainly did, beckoning “come with me” to my puzzled looking husband just after we had finished dessert.

It’s a specialized experience that the Dinner Train has just begun offering for the true rail buff—a chance to ride in an actual working locomotive. Tom sat next to the engineer and got to learn about the workings of the locomotive from him and the conductor. It’s an additional charge of $150, and it’s available to only one person on each trip.  After the experience, Tom returned to our table, curiously speechless—that has never happened before, so I knew that something incredible had happened. He eventually recovered his senses, and weeks later, he is still telling anyone who will listen that he “got to drive a train!” (He didn’t really drive, but Collins and I are letting him tell everyone that he did.)

The must-do

There are a handful of must-do’s in every city. The Cincinnati Dinner Train experience now tops my list. It tops a lot of other folks’ lists too, as evidenced by how difficult it is to get a reservation. I can’t think of a more perfect way to celebrate an occasion, or just to go out with a friend or significant other to experience one of the most memorable and entertaining evenings this area has to offer. Don’t forget to wave to the Waving Couple!

For tickets or more information on the Cincinnati Dinner Train, please visit CincinnatiRailway.com/DinnerTrain.

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Paula Johnson
Dayton City Paper Dining Critic Paula Johnson would like every meal to start with a champagne cocktail and end with chocolate soufflé. As long as there’s a greasy burger and fries somewhere in the middle. Talk food with Paula at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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