Let’s Read Old Menus, featuring the Pennsylvania Railroad, circa 1963-1967!

Hello, everyone and welcome to Let’s Read An Old Menu! This is a somewhat irregular column in which I, your humble LibraryLass, look at restaurant, hotel, and lunch counter menus from the 19th and 20th centuries. Sometimes things will be familiar, sometimes they’ll be weird. But one thing you can count on is that they’ll almost always have cottage cheese on the menu, and they’ll almost never actually explain what’s in anything.

What’s For Lunch?

Today we’ll be eating on the road– the railroad, that is! Our travels now take us aboard the Broadway Limited, where we’ll be eating aboard their dining car as an adult in 1963 and again in 1965, and as a kid in 1967. (I had hoped to find menus from the same year, but ultimately that wasn’t possible this time. Such is ephemera!) The Broadway Limited was Pennsylvania Railroad’s premiere passenger line from 1912 all the way up to 1995, making it one of the last surviving privately-owned passenger trains in the US. I don’t discuss this very often, but I’m extremely fond of train travel so I’m looking forward to offering you all a glimpse at one of America’s great railroads.

Is the restaurant still there? If not, what can we find out about it?

Alas, no, Pennsylvania Railroad is long gone, and its demise is characteristic of the sad story of rail transportation in this country. Established in 1947, the Pennsylvania Railroad Company (commonly called “The Pennsy” in its own time) was at its peak the largest railroad, the largest transportation concern, and the largest corporation on Earth, with a budget second only to that of the US government. The Broadway Limited, spanning from New York to Chicago and named not for the boulevard, but for its massive quadruple-track right of way, was their premiere passenger service. All of its passenger cars were Pullman sleepers, no coach service available, and it featured an open-platform observation car in the rear.

Over the years The Pennsy acquired or merged with no less than 800 other rail concerns, producing an absolutely massive rail network that spanned the northeastern US from Michigan in the north to Virginia in the south, from Iowa in the west to Long Island in the east. By the 1920s they carried nearly three times as much total traffic as did such titans of the industry as Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe or Union Pacific, and were rivaled only by the New York Central Railroad, which carried around three quarters of the traffic. Over the years its scheduled running time crept downward from a 20-hour journey to a speedy 16 hours. In 1938 it became one of the first four lines in the country to convert from a heavyweight steam train to a streamlined electric line. From 1938 to 1957 its nine sleeper cars would be handed off at Chicago to Santa Fe Railroad for the famous Super Chief route to Albuquerque, Los Angeles, and other points west, before declining ridership put a stop to this collaborative service.

A magazine advertisement for the newly re-equipped Broadway Limited, giving us a rare image of its interiors in color. Images circa 1949, image sourced from streamlinermemories.info

But hard times lay ahead for rail travel after the second world war. By 1967, the Broadway Limited was the only all-Pullman service left in the country. Finally in 1968 the two northeastern giants merged, along with the struggling New York New Haven & Hartford Railroad, forming the Penn Central and creating a rail network that spanned the entirety of the northeastern United States. It should have been a near-unstoppable monopoly. It was bankrupt within two years– the largest bankruptcy in US history up to that time. Passenger service was ultimately offloaded to the newly-formed Amtrak, allowing the federal government to subsidize the costly and comparatively low-revenue matter of passenger rail so that private enterprise could focus their resources on more reliably profitable freight operations. This was enough to save the Broadway Limited for another quarter-century, but it was not enough to save Penn Central, and in 1976, after a failed attempt to sell the air rights to Grand Central Station that was blocked because of the famous terminal’s status as a historic landmark, Penn Central became one of the many companies whose rail assets made up Conrail. With their rail assets gone, the former Penn Central pivoted into the insurance business. Today they are known as American Premiere Underwriters, a subsidiary of American Financial Group.

The Mountain View, one of the Broadway Limited’s iconic observation cars, today on display at a rail museum in Altoona, PA. Photo by David Sommer, sourced from streamlinermemories.com

The Broadway Limited carried its last passenger in 1995, when it was discontinued and replaced with the all-coach Three Rivers line instead in the face of significant funding problems on Amtrak’s part, until Three Rivers, too, ended its service a decade later. Today if you want to go by train between New York and Chicago, you will have to make a transfer at Pittsburgh, PA.

Page from a 1949 brochure showing the interior of the dining car in full color. image sourced from waterlevel.com, full brochure available here

But this article isn’t about the Pennsylvania Railroad, or even about the train as a whole. We’re here to talk about the dining car!

The counterpart to the above page from a 1964 brochure– note that they can no longer afford full color. Image sourced from a pdf scan from streamlinermemories.com, available here along with lots more information about the train in general

Let’s Eat!

The menu in 1963. Image courtesy of reddit user /u/rectalhorror, who attributes it to the collection of the Ira Silverman Railroad Menu Collection at Northwestern University. Sadly Mr. Horror did not provide the cover, so we’ll never know these “interesting facts.”

$1 in 1963=$8.51 in 2021

Consomme is found a lot on early railroad menus. Makes sense, it’s easy to just throw a few stock cubes in some hot water and call it fancy.

Interesting that the desserts and beverages are on the first page of the menu. I have not been able to determine with complete certainty the exact nature of the walnut sauce available on the ice cream, though my supposition is that it’s simply whole or chopped walnuts packed in syrup, which you can still sometimes find among the ice cream toppings at most grocery stores. Cheese and crackers are listed as a dessert, a classy option that has only recently begun to reassert itself in the popular consciousness after a strong shift towards sweet desserts only.

The main course section specifies “Pennsylvania Chicken Pot Pie.” If you’re not familiar with Pennsylvania Dutch or Amish culture you might assume that’s just a poetic flourish. But my maternal grandfather came from Mennonite roots and I happen to know that “pot pie”, sometimes written “bott boi”, is something very different in Pennsylvania Dutch country– a sort of broad flat noodle-y thing cooked and served in chicken stew, sort of like the rolled type of chicken and dumplings. Here’s a typical recipe for it, complete with images.

The sauce ravigote, available with the shrimp, is something like a vinaigrette mixed with Russian dressing– oil, vinegar, and dijon mustard whipped into a thick creamy concoction with herbs, capers, and pickles. Very tasty stuff.

Broccoli Polonnaise is broccoli served topped with bread crumbs and a finely chopped hard boiled egg. Why would you do that to poor broccoli?

Menu from 1965. Image sourced from reddit user /u/4morebeers.

$1 in 1965=$8.21 in 2021

Vermicelli Madrilene is consomme with vermicelli in it, so on the whole the appetizers have changed less than you think. Gotta say I’d rather have pineapple juice than clamato though. Someone in the reddit thread comments that they believe that “Egg au Curry” is something like a deviled egg with curry powder instead of the usual spices. No thank you.

You can begin to see them going for a bit plainer fare if you look at the desserts. Carrots vichy are just simple glazed carrots.

The children’s menu from 1967. I cannot personally guarantee this one came from the Broadway Limited, but I expect the kids’ menus would be fairly standardized. The reverse of the menu is the same image except with grey instead of yellow and no menu. Image sourced from reddit user /u/youagreewithit.

$1 in 1967=$7.80 in 2021

Is it weird that a lot of this seems more appetizing to me? Maybe I’m just a wimp today.

if you liked this article and want to see more old menu content, please subscribe to my partner Lovely Bones on Patreon at https://www.patreon.com/lilytina