Chugging forward with a full head of steam, our restaurant roamin' journey is going slightly touristy this time with a stop at the Chattanooga Choo-Choo. You see, there's this Glenn Miller song you may have heard, and many people throughout the world have heard it too, which has marked the Choo-Choo as a main identity of our fine city for tourists.
1400 Market St.
Chattanooga, TN 37402
An epic dining experience: world-class service, décor and menu options.
A superior dining experience: high-quality attributes you'll want to come back for again and again.
A solid dining experience: great characteristics but also some minor issues.
A mediocre dining experience: may have a few good highlights but major flaws.
A terrible dining experience: stay far away unless it's the only place left to eat to avoid starvation, and even then, question if it's worth it.
"Dinner in the diner, nothing could be finer, than to have your ham and eggs in Carolina," is one of the lines of the song. And although there were no ham and eggs—and we weren't going to Carolina—the hotel has made the Dinner in the Diner train car an upscale dining experience I'd always wondered about but had never tried.
I mean, they could lure tourists in and charge high prices just for the novelty of dining in a historical train car with a famous song attached to it. So, I wanted to see if the food was actually good, and because the place is geared toward a romantic evening, there is no "romantic" without "Roman," right?
Atmosphere and service
Dining in this historical train car was a moving experience in a car that wasn't moving—another table broke out the "So, when are we leaving?" obligatory joke that I'm sure the servers hear every night. A trolley that does move throughout the Choo-Choo passes right next to the diner car, so I did have the common train practice of waving to passing people (which kids are most enthused to do).
When night set in, the inner courtyard garden was lit up with blazing torches, their warm light dancing in the wind and glittering off the water fountains in an enchanting elemental view outside the window. The inside of the car had mirrors between the windows (for you claustrophobes out there) with charming Victorian-esque décor and smooth music playing softly in the background—although I didn't hear the "Chattanooga Choo-Choo" song, I'm sure it's in the rotation somewhere.
My server was, in a word, adorable. I'd love to hang out with this lady just to hear more of her stories. With this operation attracting a lot of tourists, she was a well-seasoned server with a lot of interesting life experiences. We had a good discussion about food in some travel destinations. She checked on us constantly and made sure everything was in order.
My first order for this evening was their signature lobster bisque ($5), and if you have dinner here, you cannot pass up this soup—unless you have a seafood allergy or are anti-lobster or something. The soup was steaming hot, with generous chunks of Maine lobster in its velvety base. This bisque was so heavenly that after the first bite I was hearing a choir of angels and seeing a faint halo hovering above the rim of the bowl.
Fresh-baked, crusty sourdough bread was also served with the meal, and, believe me, I was sopping up some lobster bisque with it—I'm sure the soup bowl was easy to wash because I wiped it clean.
Next, I tried the "diner car salad" ($5), which had wild American field greens, grilled portabella mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes and feta cheese. This handsome helping of fresh greens and marinated mushrooms was dressed with a balsamic vinaigrette. It had an earthy, sweet flavor with a nice tang. This was an exciting salad, not only as a starter, but also as a good vegetarian dish on a menu lacking in that department.
The first main entrée I tried was the "grilled filet of beef Oscar" ($26), which was topped with jumbo lump crab and asparagus and covered in a Bernaise sauce. The filet mignon was evenly cooked to my specification, tender and juicy with a nice, light char. The large chunks of crab were sweetly succulent, and the asparagus flower tips were silky soft, their delicate flavors melding perfectly with the beef and Bernaise.
The Bernaise buttery egg yolk emulsion had a smooth, rich consistency and was well-seasoned with shallots and spices to complement its aromatic tarragon flavor—tarragon's Latin naming origin, "dracunculus," means "little dragon," because in ancient herbal folklore, it was thought to cure venomous bites and stings because of its snakelike root symbolism.
Potatoes were served to the side, mashed to a thick consistency with the soft skins included in its herb, garlic and butter flavor blend. The French green beans and carrots had a light flavor and were softly cooked with a slight firmness.
The other entrée I sampled was the caramelized Atlantic salmon ($17). This thick, center-cut salmon filet had a soft, flaky interior with a nice sear and a caramelized turbinado (unprocessed brown sugar) coating. The light taste of the salmon melded well with the turbinado sugar in a fish-out-of-water flavor story with a richly sweet ending.
Sweet potatoes were served to the side of this dish, along with the same two vegetables as the beef Oscar (the sides and vegetable selections change each week, according to my server). These dreamy mashed sweet potatoes evoked cozy feelings of the arrival of autumn in their warm, creamy cinnamon, brown sugar and nutmeg mixture—a complement to the beginnings of cool autumn winds outdoors, bringing a welcome, slight chill to the evening air.
These fuzzy fall-season feelings were further intensified with the warm apple torte ($5) I sampled for dessert. The soft, layered apple slices had a strong cinnamon and sugar flavor with caramelized brown sugar covering the top. Freshly whipped cream was served to the side to add a lightly sweet, cool element to this warm comfort torte.
I'm giving Dinner in the Diner a strong 3 stars. My service was superb, the elegant train car atmosphere was charming and the food was high quality. My expectations were wildly exceeded, and I'll be sure to return—I'd go back just for another bowl of their fanciful lobster bisque. I recommend this not only to tourists but also to locals—who could be as skeptical as I was—to try on special occasions or even just for a unique experience that only the Choo-Choo can offer.
Roman Flis is a wandering writer, focusing on Chattanooga's food scene. You can find him at romanflis.com, on Facebook and Twitter, or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.