All Aboard for Dinner on a Slow Train

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Wednesday, July 31, 1985
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All Aboard for Dinner on a Slow Train
By Judy Klemesrud

[image: Randi Vining, left is a partner in the Star Clipper dinner train. Diners at right viewing the landscape along the run from Lyle, Minn., to Osage, Iowa.]

THE loudspeaker crackled, and then the voice of the conductor, Scott Ahlhelm, came on the air. ''As we passed through Lyle, Minnesota,'' he said, ''we entered a place some of us fondly know as God's Country.'' He was referring to the state of Iowa. His comment drew an equal number of cheers and boos from the 95 people on board the Star Clipper. The cheers were from the Iowans; the boos from Minnesotans.

But the 95 people were not on the train to engage in the interstate rivalry that is particularly strong along the border of these two states. They were there to have dinner.

The Star Clipper is a dinner train, a sort of restaurant on steel wheels. Its passengers pay $35 each for a four-course meal that is served while the train travels at 15 miles an hour - a speed the owners call ''slow down and smell the roses'' -through picturesque rural areas of northern Iowa and southern Minnesota.

The train lumbers about 26 miles in one direction, then returns to the point of departure. During the leisurely three-and-a-half-hour journey, diners are likely to spot such things as horses running in the fields, farmers on tractors, white tail deer scampering through the woods and corn, yes, as high as an elephant's eye.

''Ladies and gentlemen, you with cameras,'' Mr. Ahlhelm announced, ''we'll be crossing the Cedar River in a quarter of a mile, and it does make for an interesting picture.''

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''Oh, Harry,'' said one of the women passengers, ''be sure to get a picture of that!''

The three-car train, with a diesel engine at either end, began operating May 5, departing from any one of five towns on a rotating schedule. On this particular evening, the train had left from Glenville, Minn. It also leaves from Lyle, Minn., as well as from three Iowa towns, Waverly, Cedar Falls and Osage, where it is headquartered.

The Star Clipper is operated by Walter Vining and his son, Randi, Osage farmers who also run a supper club there called Big Don's, and Jack Haley, a Washington, D.C., entrepreneur.

Mr. Haley owns the Cedar Valley Railroad, a 110-mile stretch that follows the Cedar River most of the way from Glenville to Cedar Falls. He bought it from the Illinois Central Gulf Railroad, and had been using it mainly to haul grain before he got the idea for a rolling restaurant.

''As far as we know, no one else in the United States is doing what we're doing,'' said Randi Vining, 35, who acts as the train's host on most nights and oversees the staff of 18. ''I've heard there is a dinner train in Arkansas operating on only five miles of track, but they don't cook on the train.''

The cooking on the Star Clipper is done in the middle passenger car, which has been converted into a kitchen. There, the chefs, Dorothy Crooks and Diane Miller, both known locally for their cooking skills, prepare the soup, salads, main course and dessert. The passengers get a choice of three entrees: prime rib, cornish hen or a seafood dish. The dessert is generally mint ice cream inside a chocolate crust, topped with whipped cream.

''We call it chocolate mud,'' one of the waiters joked. The waiters, all friendly and attractive, are mainly high school and college students.

The passengers - 144 is the limit - sit at tables for four in the dining cars, the Velvet Rose or the Snowbird. The Velvet Rose is decorated in shades of dusty rose and burgundy, while the Snowbird is predominantly navy blue and burgundy. The cars, Randi Vining said, were once a part of the famous Phoebe Snow passenger train that ran between Buffalo and Hoboken, N.J., in the 1940's and 1950's.

On this particular evening, passengers from Iowa, Minnesota, Texas Colorado and New York were on board. Many seemed to be celebrating birthdays or anniversaries. ''We're train buffs,'' said George Mahler of Waseca, Minn., who, with his wife, Willmette, was celebrating their 45th wedding anniversary. ''My wife's father was an old railroad man, a conductor on the Chicago Northwestern.''

''This is just something interesting and different to do in the evening,'' LaVae Lillebo of Thompson, Iowa, said over her cauliflower and cheese soup. ''I haven't ridden on a train for 25 years, and everyone is so friendly.'' Then, as the train passed through the hamlet of London, Minn., she added: ''It isn't every day you can take the train to London.''

Donald and Mary Ann Bartz of Forest City, Iowa, were dining with their two adult children, Carolyn and Donald. ''This is sort of a family reunion as well as a vacation,'' Mr. Bartz said. ''Everybody is so busy that we don't have time to do anything else.''

As it grew dark outside, the overhead lighting in the dining cars was replaced by candlelight. Outside, the countryside was illuminated by floodlights fitted under the dining cars. With this lighting system, the three partners hope to operate the Star Clipper year-round.

''We've already taken reservations for Christmas parties,'' Randi Vining said, adding that the dinner train already has about 7,500 advance reservations, and is making a profit.

Asked what he thought was the train's appeal, he replied: ''There's a lot of nostalgia with a railroad. People get to take a ride on a train, and we throw in an elegant, four-course meal. It's very first class, not like a TV dinner.''