Saturday, July 16, 2011

Columbia Star Dinner Train Review (Part 3)

The two previous posts (Part 1 and Part 2) highlight the history of Columbia Star Dinner Train and the drinking/dinning experience onboard.

The third installment covers the bizarreness of the train ride itself and the final overview.

Of course, when I say bizarre, I mean that in the nicest way possible (seriously), and I struggle now to put the experience in words.

As described in Part 2, there were protesters present when we arrived.  Being protested against is surreal in it’s own right, but it was nothing in comparison to the experience of riding the train to Centralia.

To begin, I know many people think – Meh….it’s just to Centralia.  But the slow train ride through the countryside was actually rather nice.  The weather was perfect, and the scenery was typical Missouri.  Farms, Lakes, Horses….it’s just as you would expect.  You pass through a few small towns (most notably Hallsville) and that was what we expected.  The return in the dark was also quite nice – the train would shine light out into the trees, creating a unique view that somewhat blotted out the houses along the tracks.

Another interesting thing was seeing people dressed up.  Far to often (yes, I know I am one to talk), people have become lazy and do not dress up for dinner anymore.  It’s a bygone era where gentlemen would be turned away for not wearing a minimum of a tie (and preferably a jacket).  Also, it was great to allow the ladies to also put on their best clothes, jewelry and shoes (Debi needs a reason to wear all the one’s she has).   They look great and feel good about themselves.  The sad thing was the guys in T-Shirts and tennis shoes. 

The final unique thing about the trip was the people.  Not just the protesters…..but the regular people of Missouri.  I liken it to the scene  in Titanic, where the ship is about to depart and everyone is waving to the ship and back to land.  All along the way, there were cars pulled over – taking pictures, waving and even partying along with us.  We say people waiting in their backyards, parked at one lane crossings and even pulled over to the side of the road to take pictures or video the train .


We saw several parties as we rode, including one out in the middle of nowhere that were obviously waiting for us.   Two cars, 10-15 people and obvious drinking going on – all set to cheer as we went by.  On our return trip, they were STILL there and the group was even larger.  Needless to say, this kind of support far outnumbered the few protesters at the Colt Station.

So, what did I think?  What would I change? 

  • I would give the food a solid 3.5 Stars based on taste and merit, with an additional 1/2 star due to to confines of being prepared on a train. 
  • The bar selection was worse than some airlines that I have flown with….and would be lucky to get 1 Star.
  • The experience and ambiance of the trips was great a solid 4 Stars.

This gives us an overall score of 3 Stars, a score that could go up greatly with a better drink service.

As for my recommendations -

Enforce the dress code.  There is already a recommendation in the FAQ, so I would say tighten down on it.  During the reservation process, remind people and then stick to your guns when it is time to board.

Expand the menu.  I get that you have limited space, but I would go to TWO beef choices, an addition side choice with the main and maybe an additional appetizer choice.  A little more variety goes a long way.

Revisit the pricing model.  While I think $65 is fine, it might be to pricey for some.  As an addendum to this, I would suggest a “First Class Car” that is left at the $65 price point and then lower general fare to $50.  The “First Class” group could automatically be upgraded to an addition appetizer or complimentary drink, and have less seating….equating to more room.  To also enhance this experience, Jacket required for men.

Finally, the bar.  There are so many things here that I went to bullet points.

  • Put in a few pony kegs for draft beer and expand the offerings.  Sticking with Inbev products is pretty off-putting.  This is supposed to be an elegant experience, so having just Jim Beam (which I do like) and Budweiser instead of a nice Scotch or Craft Brew really looks bad.
  • Likewise with wine.  Proper planning would be to have approximately a bottle per table available.  I get that space is limited, but there are ways around that. 
  • Top off the stocks right before you leave station, and restock during the 15 minutes at Centralia by having a van ready with supplies.  A quick call ahead has everyone on the same sheet of music and variety would greatly enhance the experience.
  • Have drink menus on the table.  First the customer can see what brands of Beer/Liquor/Wine are available.  Secondly, the wait staff will not be wasting time referring to notes to verify what is available.
  • Hire a real Bartender.  This is a profession, and they can steer you to the right things (and quantities) to stock.
  • Remember that you have a captive audience for 3 hours.  When socializing, people like to drink….so by focusing on this, your profits will go up exponentially.

Some of my frequent readers will read the above critique and think I hated the experience….quite the contrary.  I offer my honest opinion because I loved the idea and and totally enjoyed myself.  I want this to succeed, therefore I have to be brutally honest where fault lies.   Everything wrong is easily correctable….and I trust the management to take my recommendations under consideration.

Columbia Star Dinner Train was an excellent evening and we plan to return again soon.  Even though rating (of a solid 3 Stars) is middle of the road….it is definitely worth it, even more so as they iron out the kinks.

Great Job and I look forward to our next journey….even if it is only to Centralia.


  1. As you know Ed I scoffed at the idea of a dinner train here... we both were greatly sceptical. That said, it sounds like much more fun than we thought it would be. Your excitement comes through and has me curious. I'm not keen on the suit and your idea... they would look silly with my shorts. If they work our the kinks, especially that bar, I may surprise Kendra with a run on the rails.

  2. You can wear a jacket with a kilt though...and that looks classy :P

  3. If they need to iron out kinks, couldn't they just ask the people they bought it from in Iowa how they did things?
    Maybe in Iowa all anybody wanted was InBev and Jim Beam, but surely they bought wine there.

  4. This was sent to me on FB by a friend of mine -

    Ed, in response to your well written critique, I thought I’d respond with my own thoughts. My first observation about taking the maiden voyage of the Columbia Star was excitement. For someone who has always been fascinated with trains and the whole train experience, yet never having ridden a train, there was much anticipation on my part. But being one of the first was additionally exciting. To top it off, I was looking for something special for Elizabeth for her birthday, and this was it! I mean, who doesn’t like a great dinner, and what a way to have dinner, new, refreshing, exciting.

    So to run through the experience from start to finish:

    • Advertising – I thought everyone did a pretty good job advertising the new venture, radio (I’m a full-time talk radio junky), the Eagle 93.9 did a pretty good job, as well as KOMU and their facebook updates.
    • The reservations – I found this aspect a bit awkward, but it was ok. Their web site did a pretty good job describing the trip, meal, cost, ect.
    • Finding the place was a little trying, I had general directions, but obviously, there was no signage, a bit discouraging, but we managed to find our way. I was unaware of the politics involved with the city and the ADA issues, so when we showed up in the parking lot with a police presence, I wondered what I had gotten myself into, then seeing the protestors, more questions on my part. But I never pay any attention to protestors anyway, they have their rights to protest, and I felt like I had my right to ignore them, and we both fulfilled those obligations quite well.
    • The next thing I did was start eyeing who was coming, did I know anyone, what were they wearing. I anticipated something a bit more formal so I wore a coat and tie, but left my coat in the truck after finding that no one actually dressed up for this, first of only a few minor disappointments.
    • Boarding – well done for the most part, just a new experience. I liked the idea that they had our tickets and seating arrangements already identified, but was not aware that we would be seated with others at our table. A little uncomfortable at first, but turned out to be a pleasant surprise as I new one of them from work, actually very enjoyable conversation throughout the evening. Then you sat down across the isle from me – I knew you from somewhere, but couldn’t place you (so embarrassing, but we resolved it, still to my shame .
    • The setting was nice, clean, chairs not so comfortable though. I liked the whole train atmosphere. The staff was wonderful, cheerful, and very professional, a plus on their part.
    • I did not have the same disappointment you had with the drinks, they had my Bacardi and I was happy. Elizabeth enjoyed the wine, but we both like cheap wine anyway, so we would not have known a good wine from a bad one.

  5. and here is Part 2 of his comments -

    • The appetizer was great, just not enough of it, but I could make a meal out of the appetizer and bread. One additional hang-up I had was my disappointment that I had not ordered the shrimp cocktail, and unfortunately could not “add” this to our dinner. I understand they choreographed the entire dinner based on our ability to read and understand the web site, but people are people, and they make mistakes, oversights. This was one of mine.
    • The salad was fresh and fine, no complaints there, but the dinner was a minor disappointment for me due to personal hang-ups with what I term normal oversights on the part of the staff. They set a plate of three small bowls of butter, sour cream, and horseradish, then served bread rolls, and expect four people to share that little bit of butter and sour cream for all the bread and baked potatoes. We ran out of butter before the main course was placed. I cannot eat until everything is ready to eat, so I had to wait several minutes for our waitress to bring extra butter and sour cream while everyone else had already started eating – my only major disappointment.
    • Elizabeth indicated the broccoli was not completely cooked, she thought it should have either been raw or steamed soft, but not a capital offense.
    • The staff was great at keeping the drinks flowing – I was beginning to wonder if this was their major fund raiser, a captive audience in a small space, ply them with massive amounts of alcohol. But I was fine with that, I like my share of adult beverages.
    • The ride was nice, comfortable, we enjoyed the scenery, and were a little amused at the fans we had along the way, re., your comments about the curious on-lookers.
    • The last issue we had was that our wait staff didn’t know or understand the tipping process, they could not tell me if the gratuity was included in the cost or not. Additionally, my only uncomfortable moment, the drink bill was presented for the whole table, not each individual couple – I think there was an assumption on her part that one of us would pay for everything., I was not aware if the meal cost included the gratuity.

    Overall, I loved the whole experience. As we all know though, the mind can only absorb what the butt can endure – sitting for three hours was uncomfortable for me, with my legs tucked under may chair so I didn’t accidentally kick our dining guests across from me. So, I forced myself to get up and walk around.

    I also observed that each dining car had what I think was called a dining car manager. I met one of them during one of my walk-a-bouts and we had a great conversation. I mentioned to him that this was Elizabeth’s birthday present and we discussed the whole train experience, he was very pleasant, enthusiastic, and he, along with everyone else was constantly making inquiries about each traveler’s needs. He then bout Elizabeth and I another round of adult beverages, very nice on his part, and of course, we didn’t refuse his hospitality.

    We would give it 4 stars overall, but considering the meal, the expense of running a train and the staff, maybe even 4 ½ stars. I agree with your observation of having a 1st class car with a little more room, higher end beverages, and a little more pampering – its what we want, and if people are willing to pay for it, why not. I think people like me who love to eat and who do not have a problem paying good money for great dining experiences will love this added option in Columbia. I agree for something like this that a dress code should be encouraged and adhered to, its disconcerting to be dressed nicely, eating a fine meal, and seeing someone in a tee-shirt and shorts, but that’s just me, I’m a bit old fashioned.

    I would encourage everyone to give this experience a run, we loved it!



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