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When Folks in Iowa Talk About a Movable Feast, They Mean the Star Clipper Dinner Train

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With 142 other passengers, Marvin and Patricia Rake excitedly board the Star Clipper in Osage, Iowa. The Rakes, who farm 1,500 acres nine miles from town, are shown to their table in a cozy railway dining car wallpapered and carpeted in burgundy. Settling in, Marvin orders a Manhattan and Pat a rum-and-Coke from a smiling waitress in a crisp black-and-white uniform. At 7 p.m. on the dot, the locomotive’s whistle sounds, the conductor shouts, “All aboard!” and the Star Clipper chugs out of the depot on its three-hour, 30-mile round-trip along a single-track line. As the train sways rhythmically, the Rakes sip their drinks and gaze at the passing scenery: dark woods with white-tailed deer, sylvan brooks and gently rolling farmland dotted by silver domed silos and red barns. Occasionally herds of black-and-white Holsteins glance up as the train glides leisurely by (top speed: 15 mph), along the Cedar Valley River near the Minnesota border.

Like many others onboard, the Rakes are celebrating something special: their 21st wedding anniversary. They decided to mark that milestone with a new kind of Midwestern treat: a down-home but elegant four-course meal on what is known hereabouts as the dinner train. After cocktails the Rakes select Wisconsin cheese soup, salad and thick prime ribs with baked potato. When they are ready for dessert, a loudspeaker announcement informs their fellow guests of their anniversary, and two chocolate cups filled with mint ice cream and topped with whipped cream and candles appear by surprise on their table.

Since its inaugural run last May, the Star Clipper has attracted visitors from all over the country and even a few from overseas. On this particular evening, the conductor punched the “meal tickets” of guests from Athens, Singapore and Venezuela—all conventioneers attending a business meeting in a neighboring town. “It’s put Osage [population: 3,800] on the map,” beams Jim Hanna, assistant publisher of the local Mitchell County Press News.

The Star Clipper operates seven nights a week, including holidays, though Osage is the departure and return point only on Sundays and Mondays. On other evenings it starts from Cedar Falls or Waverly in Iowa, or Glenville or Lyle in Minnesota, all of them connected by the 109-mile Cedar Valley Railroad. The menu offers prime rib, Rock Cornish hen and seafood for a fixed price of $35 (cocktails extra). In addition to the train crew, the serving staff includes two hosts, two dinner and two cocktail waitresses, two busboys, two bartenders, a dishwasher and two attendants whose job it is to open and close car doors, allowing the food servers to pass with their hands full.

The dinner train was the brainchild of John E. Haley, 49, a retired Air Force pilot, and Walter Vining, 73, a farmer and local restaurateur. Fittingly they tossed around the idea while dining at Walt’s other eatery, Big Don’s Supper Club (which is entirely stationary) in Osage. Haley had just bought the abandoned Cedar Valley Railroad and started new service to haul grain, coal and steel. Walt suggested he run excursion trips as well. “Better than that,” replied Haley, “we can get some cars and have a dinner train. You serve the best steaks I’ve ever eaten. If you put that on the road nothing could stop us.” With a $500,000 investment the two launched the rolling restaurant—a kitchen car sandwiched between two dining cars, with diesel locomotives front and back.

Onboard, Vining is affectionately known as “Ol’Mean Walt” because he has been known to holler at the help if they aren’t doing their jobs the way he would like. But Walt leaves most of the supervision to son Randi, 38. There are special tricks to running a restaurant that’s on the move. Chef Dorothy Crooks, for example, always places a towel under each pan to prevent it from sliding off the table. All the oven doors have special latches so the roasting Cornish hens don’t fly out on a curve. “We can’t afford to forget anything,” says Randi, “because we can’t just hop off and run to the store to get more. So we go over our checklist 10 times.” Even the best-run trains, though, sometimes go amok. Engineer Ed Malek recalls once backing up the Star Clipper for miles after one of the engines broke down.

In addition to his restaurants, Walt Vining operates a 1,100-acre farm (corn, soybeans and oats) just outside town. Like many Midwest farmers, he’s seen boom times and bust. He’s gone broke three times. Still, he says, “always think of what you can do tomorrow,” which is exactly what Haley is doing. Having put his shares of Cedar Valley Railroad in a voting trust last June, John is now buying the 700-mile-long Chicago Central and Pacific Railroad—his name for the Iowa Division of the Illinois Central Gulf. The Vinings hope to launch dinner trains in the larger cities along the route.

Theirs is an idea with obvious romantic appeal. As darkness falls during the Rakes’ anniversary celebration, spotlights on the side of the dining car illuminate the landscape. Inside, overhead lights are dimmed and candles flicker on the tables. As the Star Clipper arrives back at the Osage depot, Pat Rake turns to Marvin. “I can’t believe how nice it is in here,” she says. “It’s almost like a dream.”