Backyard Tourist: Napa Valley Wine Train

Meals on wheels, a secret kitchen

railcar.jpgWhen the Napa Valley Wine Train rolled out of the station in the late 1980’s, it wasn’t exactly to a rousing welcome. In its early years pockets of tourist-averse townies railed against the idea of a train bringing hordes of tourists to the valley. A disgruntled Sonoma winemaker held it up and demanded equal pourage for Sonoma wines in a memorable moment. And there was the occasional one-fingered wave at crossings.

Living in a tourist mecca isn’t always easy and the happy little locomotive was a 250-ton target for our ambivalence.

But over its almost 20-year ride through the Napa Valley most of us have come to appreciate it as part of our home–the elegant Pullman cars quietly rumbling along the tracks between Napa and St. Helena, feeding and entertaining hundreds at a time. What few people know, however, is that inside the historic cars are two restaurant kitchens preparing up to four-courses onsite during the three-hour train ride. Meals on wheels, so to speak.

kelly.jpgFor most of the train’s recent history, Kelly Macdonald has been executive chef, serving up hundreds of plates over the course of a busy day — not pre-made in station but cooked, grilled and roasted on the train itself.

Walking through the refurbished early 1900’s dining cars with barely a sway (despite everyone else lolling back and forth — due perhaps in part to the wine), he commands a small, intensely hot grill beneath the Vista Dome as well as a long galley kitchen staffed by six cooks and countless waiters rushing to bring meals to the dining cars.

Prep work is done before departure but much of the food is cooked as the train rolls along the tracks — not simple sandwiches and salads but complex multi-course meals. In the Vista Dome, which sports 180 degree views through domed windows, winemaker lunches have four courses, each paired with a different wine. A recent menu lineup included shrimp and crab cakes; farmed Arctic char, grilled lamb and a family recipe for pineapple upsidedown cake.
dishes.jpgA former Cindy Pawlcyn protege, Macdonald’s hadn’t planned on making his career as a railway chef, but ended up loving the gig. It’s hard to imagine anyone enjoying the impossibly tight quarters, constant rocking and swaying and railway-precise schedules, but Kelly seems to thrive on it.

Everything has a neat place in the galleys and the cooks’ movements are well choreographed. You can watch the kitchen ballet through glass windows while walking through the large kitchen car. The second kitchen is hidden behind a sliding door beneath the Vista Dome diners — which is sometimes mistaken for one of the restroom entrances. “They’re quite surprised when they open that door.”

What you’ll end up eating on the train depends on what you’re willing to spend. It’s not cheap, but embracing your inner tourist once in a while can be priceless. If you’re up for a winery tour, you can eat and hop off at Grgich Hills or Domaine Chandon and eat in the open-air Silverado car where meals are a la carte. If you’re a local, it may be more worthwhile just to stay onboard for the duration, gazing out the windows and drinking wine for a blissful three hours of, well, relaxing, rather than jumping in and out of a car.

Lunch is a best bet, when you can fully enjoy the scenery whizzing past, though sunset and moonlight tours have more of a romance factor.

If you’re breaking the bank, the Vista Dome is the most deluxe car, with private dining, spectacular views and a relaxing pace to the dining experience. It will run you $119 (per person including train fare) for lunch and $127 for dinner. Winemaker lunches are about $150.

A less expensive option is the gourmet lunch in the oldest of the Pullman cars, which runs $89 (including the train fare). If you’re pinching pennies, hop on the Silverado Car and order just what you’re hungry for off the menu, paying only for the train fare ($49.50) in advance.

The train also offers special theme dinners throughout the year, including a Murder Mystery and Family Fun Night (you eat, the kids get entertained).

Worth it? If you’re willing to embrace your railway state of mind, the experience is a throwback to simpler, less harried times when the journey was the destination.

Napa Valley Wine Train,