Dinner on the Zephyr - Stillwater, MN

Stillwater Depot sign


Unfortunately, the Minnesota Zephyr Dinner Train is no longer running. A Stillwater tourism icon for more than two decades, The Zephyr has carried more than a million passengers while cruising back and forth along a 6-mile route north of Stillwater and along the bluffs of the St. Croix River, before heading west along a creek. High fuel prices and a terrible economy forced owner David Paradeau to declare that New Year's Eve 2008 would be the final run of the famous Dinner Train before going out of business.
It is quite unfortunate, since the trip and dinner, while a tad pricy, was definitely worth it: a super fun affair. The Minnesota DNR has acquired the rights to the property and has plans to convert the rail line into the Brown's Creek State Trail. Fortunately, I at least have the memories...   rk

It's pretty easy to fall into the same old "flowers and chocolate" trap for Valentine's Day. This year, I decided to look for something different, something unique. Perhaps a... yeah, that's it, a romantic getaway! But where to go was the big question. This needed to be something very special, and not so close by. When I really want to "get away," my instincts seem to always direct me North.

The museum - inside the depot

I had heard about the town of Stillwater, MN but had never visited it. I did a little research, and when I literally stumbled upon something called the dinner train (The Minnesota Zephyr), my mind was made up. This was something I knew we were going to enjoy.

The drive from Chicago is about 6 hours. For some, that may seem like a long way to go for dinner. But it is a very easy drive and this particular dinner was well worth the trip! With Minneapolis so close (to Stillwater), there is plenty to do and a wide range of accommodations is available.

The museum - inside the depot

Driving into the town of Stillwater is like stepping into the past.  The downtown area is lined with specialty stores and antique shops; building materials are mostly limestone and brick.  Main Street (Route 95) runs parallel to the beautiful and scenic St. Croix River. 

One boards the dinner train on the north end of town at a restored railroad station*.  Prior to boarding the Zephyr, browse through the gift shop or soak up some of the railroad and logging history of the area by perusing the many fascinating displays and old pictures.

*Thanks for a heads-up from RGH on 1-03-03: "The 'restored railroad station' statement is not accurate. The original station was built in 1888 and located near the interstate bridge. It was torn down 42 years ago to make way for a grocery store of all things, which has since been converted into a sorry excuse for a hotel. The station you visited is only a few years old and 'styled' after the original, albeit tastefully done."
The Minnesota Zephyr and domed dining car

The train itself is comprised of circa 1940 Pullman rail cars. Each car is decorated accordingly with a slightly different theme and each table is dressed "to the nines" with white linen table cloths, silverware and crystal in preparation for the upcoming five-course meal.

We were seated at our table and immediately noticed the waiting shrimp cocktail and glasses of ice water, complete with lemon slices. A waitress delivered cocktails, and soon the lights were dimmed and the train began its slow journey into the night.

Tables set and ready to go

Over the course of the evening (about 3 1/2 hours) we were presented with more food than a hungry lumberjack could possibly eat!  We dined on shrimp, cream of chicken and wild rice soup, salmon, old-fashioned cheesecake and more as the countryside slowly rolled by. 

Periodically, a quartet of period-dressed, smiling troubadours wandered through the car crooning melodious renditions such as "Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy" and "Sentimental Journey".  It was almost as if the train were a time machine and had taken us back to the 1940's!

The evening was a memorable and enjoyable one indeed. I stepped off the train back in Stillwater feeling relaxed, reminiscent and very full. I am looking forward to a return trip to Stillwater, although next time I will plan a longer stay so I am able to do more exploring in this charming, old-fashioned town.

R. Karl

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