Searching for the King’s Dinner

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The first streamlined edition of the Panama Limited, launched in 1942, featured E6 diesels lettered with the train's name. R. H. Kindig photo
Of all the great trains I never rode, I think I’d put Illinois Central’s streamlined Panama Limited at the top.

What? Not the Century? The Super Chief? What kind of heresy is this?

Please hear me out. Of course I would have loved to ride those other two trains. They probably were the best by conventional definition. Lord knows there are enough books, photographs, posters, Broadway musicals, and movie appearances about the Century and the Super to make the argument.

But the Panama was different. As a north-south train, it broke the mold among extra-fare, all-Pullman runs. If you were headed out of Chicago, it had a destination like no other: New Orleans, a city for the senses, arguably more romantic than either New York or L.A. And when you headed south off Chicago’s lakefront, you might soon be doing a cool 100 mph.

Then there was the fabled King’s Dinner, the premium-priced meal that, legend has it, was as good as its presumptuous name. The menu said, “Want to Live Like Royalty? Easy! Enjoy the Kings Dinner!”

These thoughts were banging around in my head last night as I headed north on what passes for today’s Panama, Amtrak No. 58, the City of New Orleans, currently running on a later schedule on account of trackwork Canadian National is doing in Mississippi. I was in the Superliner diner, contemplating the chicken and wild rice I just ordered, delivered in moments thanks to the wonders of microwave. Oh, how the mighty hath fallen!

And the Panama Limited was mighty. The train came to life on February 4, 1911, with the renaming of IC’s Chicago & New Orleans Limited. The new name was an attempt to cash in on the national frenzy over the pending opening of the Panama Canal, for which New Orleans was a major port.

The train got its deluxe all-sleeping-car status in November 1916 and, except for a brief interruption during the Depression, stayed that way for another 30 years. When a new all-air-conditioned version of the train debuted in December 1934, it promised to dispatch its entire 925-mile run in just 18 hours. A decade later, that timing would be reduced to 16.

I think the most beloved Panama first appeared on May 1, 1942, when Illinois Central rolled out the new streamlined version, hauled by E6 diesels and introducing the striking, soon-to-famous brown-and-orange livery. Perhaps the two most important cars on the train were its diners, the Vieux Carre and Evangeline, which carried with them the promise of culinary splendors worthy of the Crescent City, delivered by a white-jacketed wait staff that combined efficiency with southern charm. In 1950, IC expanded the service with a twin-unit diner that seated 56.

The Panama's diner was filled with delights, including the famous King's Dinner. Illinois Central photo
About the King’s Dinner: while most of the entrees in the Panama’s diner cost around 5 or 6 dollars, the King’s Dinner tab came in at $9.85, a classy price for the 1950s. But you got what you paid for. The fixed-course dinner included a cocktail, fresh shrimp cocktail or crab fingers, a fish course, and a broiled steak, all accompanied by a 13-ounce bottle of Bertolli Vinrosa wine, still a fairly well-regarded brand. For dessert, there was apple wedges with cheese and a choice of liqueur. It must have been quite a meal.

As if you hadn’t already experienced the dedication of the dining-car crew, IC President Wayne Johnston underscored the railroad’s commitment to the train by offering devout thoughts of the day on mealtime cards. It was said the legendary executive could see the Panama’s boarding platform from his office at Central Station in Chicago, and if No. 5 didn’t leave precisely on time, there was hell to pay.

Future Trains Editor David P. Morgan knew something of IC’s precision when he wrote a story entitled “My Finest Train Trip” in April 1950, when he was still an associate editor. Morgan reported that his meal on the Panama was “served in an atmosphere of cordial hospitality by a waiter who did not mistake long delays between dishes for true sophistication.”

How good was the King’s Dinner? Take Lucius Beebe’s word for it, the IC’s food was terrific. In his final work, The Trains We Rode, the flamboyant gourmand, socialite, and railroad writer said the train’s diner rivaled “. . . in its plenitude of good things the menus of Brennan’s and the legendary Count Arnaud in New Orleans.”

(An aside: determined to check Beebe’s claim, admittedly from a 50-year remove, I had lunch yesterday at Brennan’s before heading for my train. It’s a cathedral of Creole cuisine, opened in 1946 and still in business on Royal Avenue in the French Quarter. The famed turtle soup and fried Mississippi rabbit with greens and eggs were heavenly. Better, I dare say, than anything on the old IC’s diners, where the menu never looked very “Creole” to me. Beebe’s glib comparisons often were baloney.)

That said, I’m sure that, in a railroad context, the chefs on IC trains 5 and 6 were among the best in the business. I don’t doubt that the King’s Dinner deserved all the accolades.

Although it's no King's Dinner, chicken and wild rice on Amtrak's City of New Orleans, enjoyed with good company, is a satisfying experience. Kevin P. Keefe photo
Meanwhile, how about that meal last night on Amtrak train 58, served as we rolled into Hammond, La.? Actually, it was pretty good. And my dinner companions — a retired British couple now living in France — were very engaging, proving once again that you don’t need great food to experience that familiar magic of dining by rail. I never expected to find the King’s Dinner, but dinner along the old Illinois Central was a delight just the same.

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