You Can Dine in a Former Orient Express Train Car in Coastal Ireland
A lifetime ago, I took a train back to Cincinnati for Christmas break. All the George Cukor and Alfred Hitchcock movies I'd inhaled on cable as a kid had convinced me that this was a luxe, languid, somehow elegantly European mode of travel, so on a raw December morning, I hauled my small Jordache suitcase to Baltimore Penn Station, readying myself for the adventure of a lifetime. The trip did indeed prove memorable, but not for the reasons I'd hoped. It was trying enough to weather this alongside a seatmate who took the scheduled 16-hour journey (then 18, and eventually 21) as a divine mandate to save my soul, but my Walkman's batteries gave out somewhere around the Shenandoah Valley, and worst of all, I'd forgotten to pack any food. Not even "forgotten" so much as assumed the presence of a grand and gilded dining car, presided over by crisp-shirted waiters bearing trays of cloche-topped dishes and frosted coupes on their gloved palms as they glided through the swaying car. I think I managed to scrounge up a pack of ToastChee crackers when we stopped for a repair in Charlottesville.
For years after, I assumed that my visions of railborne grandeur had just been Hollywood blowing smoke. That is, until the magical night in 2018 when I walked out of my hotel, boarded the Orient Express, and traveled back in time. I'd come to Galway to speak at Food On The Edge — an innovative culinary conference created by chef, author, and Irish cuisine evangelist JP McMahon — and decided to make the most of my first trip to the country by tacking on a couple extra days to celebrate our eleventh wedding anniversary with my husband. Everything had come together in a whirl and when I booked Glenlo Abbey Hotel and Estate online, I added on a falconry lesson because of course, why wouldn't you? When a lovely reservationist named Bernice emailed to confirm, she noted with chagrin that all those slots were booked, but might we like to try their onsite restaurant Pullman, "a truly unique fine dining experience aboard two original train carriages from the Orient Express"? Fine, I thought. I'll make sure to pack some snacks. Then I didn't think about it again until I was trying to figure out what to wear for dinner. Is this going to be Amtrak casual? Full Lauren Bacall accessory-dripping a la Murder on the Orient Express? Oh no, was I in fact going to be murdered on the banks of Lough Corrib? Jet lag and low blood sugar are one heck of an amuse bouche, and in any case, I'd pre-paid for the meal as part of our hotel package. Off to dinner.
Within seconds of stepping onto the car, I was transported. In the daylight, the two vintage carriages-plus-kitchen-car parked out back of the main hotel look a bit kitschy, a novelty railroad at a tourist stop you might see anywhere across America, in any county that has school kids in need of a field trip. But at dusk, it begins to glow from within, with low, soft-gold lamplight flattering every face and every table in a film-star haze and — is this the pre-game hotel bar Gin and Tonic kicking in, or does the train sound like it's moving? I'm not discounting the effects of that cocktail (which let's take a whistle-stop here, remains the best G&T of my life because it introduced me to dillisk-based Galway Gin Co. gin and the life-changing addition of brine to the standard recipe) but yes, there is in fact a subtle, piped-in layer of train clacks and rumbles beneath the Sinatra tunes and gracious is it cheesy, and good god, did I gobble it all up with a coal shovel. Here's the thing with a theme restaurant: once you buy the ticket, you've just got to get on board and submit to wherever the journey takes you.
Glenlo Abbey Hotel & Estate, which was recently named Ireland's Best Hotel by the readers of the Irish Independent, reopened the two decommissioned dining cars in 1998. The elder, Leona, was part of the original Orient Express and dates back to 1927. For years, she chugged that route from Istanbul to St. Petersburg, then later linked up with Britain's Brighton Belle line, ferrying stars like Charlie Chaplain, Stan Laurel, and Oliver Hardy between theatrical engagements in London and the eponymous Brighton. Leona's swan song as a working carriage came as part of Winston Churchill's funeral cortège in 1965, but it was far from her final act. The car took a star turn in Sidney Lumet's 1974 film of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express (starring the aforementioned Bacall, as well as Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, and Albert Finney) before serving as part of a restaurant at Essex's Elsenham Station alongside Linda, the 1954 carriage with which Leona now co-headlines as Pullman Restaurant. It's all just 300 meters away from the track bed of the Galway-Clifden railway line which ran through the Connemara region from 1895 to 1935.
Chaplain, Laurel, and Hardy might feel perfectly at home in the meticulously restored cars, all polished wood, tufted upholstery, lace curtains, and crisp white napery. And yes, there are indeed meticulously kitted servers (minus the gloves) strolling through the cars with frosted stemware and silver-domed dishes. But they'd be likely do a double-take at what's under the lid. A menu of rigorously local ingredients — Clare Island salmon, Skeaghanore duck, Wild Atlantic turbot, Galway goat cheese — is steeped in Irish pride and could, on a quick read of the menu, be presumed to uphold that fidelity to history that the rest of Pullman does. But we've learned what happens when you assume anything about what you'll be eating aboard a train.
Rather than the hearty, humble, and hidebound (and absolutely delicious) dishes I'd enjoyed in the hotel's tavern, where my husband's beef and mashed potato lunch came with a side of boiled potatoes, or the spot-on Irish breakfasts we tucked into each morning in the sun-dappled River Room, this was Galway by way of Michel Bras, with a station stop in Copenhagen. I'm attempting to imagine Agatha Christie aboard the car, portable Remington typewriter stashed in her berth for the evening and attempting to decipher the quenelles, gels, foams, and flowers of these deconstructed dishes, but she'd piece it together eventually. This is Irish food, too — just nearly a century down the track from where this particular journey started. Even if I wasn't sure where it all was headed from dish to dish (and I should note that since that visit, the food seems to taken a turn toward a more traditional presentation) the ticket price was worth every cent, no train station snacks required.