Travel: Come for the trains, stay for the food and service

Food and service

Food and service: Once a Philadelphia & Reading passenger station, this beautifully restored building hosts the Tamaqua Station Restaurant. Inside are Reading photos and artifacts. Brian Solomon

I like railroad station restaurants, especially those that thoroughly grasp their heritage, offer views of the tracks, and consistently provide great service and delicious food. Over the years, I’ve visited a great many, including traditional establishments in active railroad stations.

As a youngster, my father brought me to Grand Central’s famous Oyster Bar; in my Dublin days, I’d meet friends at Heuston Station’s Galway Hooker (named for the traditional Irish fishing boat).

Old passenger stations can make ideal restaurant venues. These are well-constructed buildings with large rooms that are often centrally located and feature ample parking. Two of my favorite station restaurants offer examples of adaptive reuse of classic station buildings and embrace the heritage of the buildings and railroads they once served.

I’ve known the Lemothe family for many years. In 1987, they acquired the former Palmer, Mass., Union Station. In the early 2000s, they transformed it into a popular railroad-themed eatery called the Steaming Tender Restaurant.

green and brick building with train decor
Steaming Tender Restaurant displays a variety of historic railroad artifacts in front of the entrance, including a wooden-bodied passenger car (peeking out on the left) that has been made available for group bookings. Brian Solomon

The building was designed in the 1880s by the renowned American architect Henry Hobson Richardson, who drafted plans for many Boston & Albany stations. In its 19th-century heyday, Palmer Union Station served B&A and Central Vermont predecessor New London Northern.

The diagonal level crossing of these two lines is immediately west of the station and resulted in its trapezoidal floor plan. I’d been visiting the station since the early 1980s, and was delighted when the Lemothes opened the restaurant and restored the interior in its classic Richardsonian style.

Outside, a classic Porter-built 0-6-0 helps entice visitors, while Steaming Tender’s interior decorations will captivate any railroad enthusiast. Perhaps also encouraging an interest in railroads for casual visitors.

The walls are decorated with period photos, timetables, and an array of railroad memorabilia, much of it relating to the B&A and New York Central. Wait staff are dressed in classic bib overalls. While they look the part and contribute to the railroad theme, I wouldn’t quiz them on the nuances of how to work a 6 brake or the finer points of locomotive valve gear.

The Steaming Tender has a prime location for train-watching. In addition to CSX’s Boston Subdivision (former B&A main) and New England Central’s ex-CV route, traffic includes Mass Central’s local freights. With any luck, during the course of your meal, at least one train will pass your window (as of this writing, Amtrak No. 448 — the eastward Lake Shore Limited — should pass about 20 minutes after 6 p.m.).

The menu has a wide variety of choices, including classic New England seafood. I’m partial to both the Hopper Haddock and Clam Strip Express. They also have a good choice of burgers and a variety of up-market entrées.

Another favorite railroad-themed eatery is Pennsylvania’s Tamaqua Station Restaurant, situated in the 1874-built Philadelphia & Reading passenger station in the heart of eastern Pennsylvania anthracite country. This distinctive brick station was a replacement for an earlier wooden structure. Until 1930, it included a railroad restaurant for the benefit of the traveling public.

Like Palmer, and so many stations across North America, in its heyday it was surrounded by gardens and a park. Tamaqua lost its regular passenger service decades ago, and the station fell into disrepair.

wood dining table with glasses and plates
Guests at Tamaqua Station Restaurant are treated to classic Victorian décor and may be seated in several areas of this restored 1874-built station. Make sure to bring your appetite along with you as you dine in style. Brian Solomon

Although it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980, the station suffered from arson and was a sad ruin by the mid-1990s. Thanks to efforts by the non-profit group Tamaqua S.O.S. (Save Our Station), the building was rescued and ultimately restored, including recreation of a railroad park. The restaurant opened in 2016 and in 2023, Tamaqua was one of five noteworthy stations honored by a special block of stamps issued by the United States Postal Service.

Visitors to Tamaqua are likely to enjoy passing freights and the occasional excursion operated by Reading & Northern. If timed right, you might enjoy one of several annual steam trips powered by the restored former Reading 4-8-4 No. 2102. Tamaqua Station Restaurant is true to period interior décor and is decorated with photos and artifacts, among them Reading Co. lanterns on tables.

The food is delicious. On one recent visit I enjoyed a Reuben sandwich (with sauerkraut) and a Yuengling lager — a beer brewed locally in Pottsville, Pa. On another occasion, I was delighted to sample their interpretation of fish & chips — a classic meal that owes its lineage to the advent of the railroads in Britain and Ireland.

Great locations, railroad themes, and good food aside, the key to both these restaurants — and what distinguishes them from other similar establishments — is their great customer service and attention to detail.

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