Although the chances to travel via railroad are infrequent these days, some of us still find the idea of dining in a rail car — with the scenery rolling by outside the window and the clickety-clack of the rails beneath us — both nostalgic and romantic. Heck, even if the car isn’t going anywhere, and it’s just part of a railroad-themed restaurant, it’s still a pretty cool way to dine.
I think perhaps my love of dining in rail cars goes back to when my parents and I took an overnight trip on the legendary Silver Comet to New York City in the 1950s. And, two of my British uncles spent their careers with British Rail, so I guess maybe the romance of the rails comes to me naturally. Where I live probably helps, too: Atlanta and Georgia are rich in railroad history — Georgia once contained more rail lines than any other Southeastern state, and Atlanta was founded as a railroad terminus. All of which dovetails nicely with my love of trains.
Back in the Gilded Age, when train travel ruled, dining cars provided a taste of luxury that many wouldn’t experience otherwise. Even after rail travel fell out of favor in the U.S., the tradition of fine dining in rail cars lived on in nostalgic railroad-themed restaurants. Such spots always have been favorites of mine, ranging from a dining car at a repurposed depot in my hometown and the more elaborate Chattanooga Choo-Choo, to the late, lamented Victoria Station chain and the now-defunct New Georgia Railroad.
I reminisce about memorable dining cars I’ve experienced in a column I’ve written for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. (To read it, go here.)
Here’s some of the story behind that story:
It begins in the fall of 1974, when my future wife and I had our first big date in a vintage dining car in Athens, GA. I was a few months out of the University of Georgia, and Leslie was a senior there; when she was named editor of the student newspaper, The Red & Black, I decided to take her out for a special dinner to celebrate.
We’d not been dating that long, and most of our outings had been to T.K. Harty’s Saloon, a drinking establishment that was very popular with UGA students.
It was located at The Station, an entertainment complex that opened in 1971 in the former 1909 Southern Railway depot in Athens, which hadn’t been used by the railroad for passenger service in 20 years.
(The nearby Seaboard station served Athens’ passenger rail needs in the 1950s and early ‘60s, and was where my family boarded the Silver Comet for that trip to NYC. I recall as a boy that Dad sometimes would take us down to the station just to watch the Silver Comet come in, and we weren’t alone. There would be a line of cars sitting there, full of families doing the same thing. Entertainment options in our college town were somewhat limited in those days!)
Anyway, T.K. Harty’s was in the former railroad freight office, and several shops and other businesses were located in what had been the warehouse area of the station.
Across from them, in the former passenger depot itself, was The Station’s namesake restaurant. The distinctive brick depot building had granite window sills and thresholds, arched windows and triple arched brickwork above the glass. It had a Grand Cabaret restaurant in the former depot’s waiting room (which also hosted the occasional dinner theater production) and a bar called the 20th Century Limited Room in the former baggage area. It all had a charming Victorian look.
But, the neatest thing about The Station restaurant (at least, in my estimation) was that you could eat in a narrow 1917 Atlantic Coast Line dining car called the “Valdosta,” which sat on an abandoned track between the freight and passenger buildings, right next to the depot. In fact, the compact kitchen for the entire restaurant was located in the Pullman dining car. (The three partners who had developed The Station had added gas jets to the old woodburning stove, but otherwise it was just as it had been in the days when it was in railway service.)
I chatted recently with renowned Athens caterer Lee Epting, who was one of those partners, and he said he bought the “Valdosta” in Chattanooga for $10,000. The Chattanooga Choo-Choo hotel/restaurant complex, then in development, also wanted it, he said, “but I got there first.”
Epting said that, when they started, none of the partners was very knowledgeable about running a restaurant, and one of them maintained that bread service wouldn’t be necessary. When customers on the first night started demanding bread, that changed quickly, he said.
The menu offered a New York strip, filet, Chicken Valdosta (a very popular dish with rice), seafood Newberg, shrimp Creole, and chocolate mousse and strawberry cake desserts. Our memories of what we ate on our big date were hazy, but Leslie and I thought we’d had beef. Maybe prime rib? However, Epting said we would have had to special order that ahead of time; prime rib wasn’t on the regular menu. “I think you probably had New York strips,” he said.
The dining car was very ornate, with stained glass, and they used heavy china and silverware from the old Southern Railway days.
As one of my Athens classmates, Tom Hodgson, recalled, The Station was “considered the most fancy restaurant in Athens at the time.”
Dave Williams, who works at the UGA Athletic Association now, and grew up in Athens, also remembered that “it was somewhat upscale as compared to the usual places we ate and hung out. But that area was very popular with us when we were finishing up high school and starting at Georgia. I remember enjoying the steaks.”
Another childhood pal, Charlie Bonner, remembered, “We had my grandfather’s 80th birthday in The Station building. … It was my go-to place for a big date.”
Betz Lowry recalled it was “where the frats and sorority girls hung out. Maybe because they had mixed drinks at a good price.”
Karen Rabek said she loved eating there, and “my parents loved that it was a former train station. It was so elegant.”
Deanie May Fincher, with whom I went to school from kindergarten through UGA, worked there several years while in college. She never actually ate a meal in the train car, she said, “but I’d taste the delicious strawberry cake. Football weekends were super busy.”
“It was a great time,” Epting said. “We had a lot of fun.”
The Station also became a favorite of Athens folk for bridesmaids luncheons, rehearsal dinners and birthdays. Chicken Valdosta was big with the brides. “I wish to hell I could find that recipe,” Epting said. “It was good. We served a lot of that.”
The story of The Station complex got kind of crazy in the late ’70s. In 1977, the lease on the train station expired, and the original owners decided to sell it. T.K. Harty, owner of the saloon bearing his name, bought the entire complex and decided to evict a place called Somebody’s Pizza. (I think they’d been undercutting him on beer sales.)
The owner of the pizza joint, John Mooney, didn’t take kindly to that, so he decided to have someone kill Harty. He hired an electrician who worked at various local restaurants to do the deed, and Harty was shot dead at his home. Mooney might have gotten away with it, but the amateur hit man bragged about the deal to someone, and he and Mooney both ended up convicted. (It gets even stranger; Mooney escaped from prison, and lived under another name out West for some years, before one of those network TV true crime shows featured the case, and a neighbor recognized Mooney, who was taken back into custody.)
In its later years, The Station became an events venue (I remember Leslie and I attending a party there thrown by my dentist sometime in the early 1980s). The former freight area where T.K.’s was located eventually burned, and, after The Station closed down, the depot was scheduled for demolition until the Athens Community Council on Aging took it over and restored it. Their offices are still there.
As for the train car where we’d dined, I asked Epting whatever happened to the “Valdosta,” and he explained that, after selling The Station complex to Harty, he’d decided to start a similar restaurant at the 1913 depot in Carrboro, NC, cheek-by-jowl with Chapel Hill, home of the University of North Carolina. He took the “Valdosta” with him. That version of The Station became known as a music venue, with Athens’ own R.E.M. playing its first show outside Georgia there in 1980.
Epting, who also started a Station in Hickory, NC, eventually sold the Carrboro restaurant, which has gone through numerous owners and incarnations over the years (even becoming an insurance agency for a while).
“At one point,” Epting told me, “a Chinese restaurant moved into it. They tore out all the stained glass [in the train car], which came from Central Presbyterian Church in Athens, and painted the mahogany wainscoting inside the car red.”
So, where is the “Valdosta” now, I asked. “It’s right where it was,” he said.
My son, who got one of his degrees at UNC Chapel Hill, and has lived since then in Raleigh, had mentioned The Station in Carrboro when I first told him I was going to write about dining car restaurants. Since we were headed to North Carolina for Memorial Day weekend to visit them, Bill and his wife Jenny offered to take us to The Station in Carrboro.
Unfortunately, the restaurant portion of the complex (which has gone through several ownerships) had closed down a week or so earlier, but a dining car, bar car and caboose kitchen remained beside the depot bar. We walked around the dining car, trying to determine whether it was indeed the “Valdosta.” (The current owner didn’t know.)
The door looked different, but the car was renovated in 2007, so it may have been altered then. It had the same pattern of ladder bars on one end, and similar window locations. (Later, my eagle-eye son spotted a seam over one window that was in the same spot as in a picture of the Athens train car.)
We couldn’t be sure it was the “Valdosta,” but we decided it was likely enough to warrant a photo of Leslie and me on the car’s platform. The bar in the old depot was still open, so we retired there for a drink, toasting good times, past and present.
Speaking of the picture my son examined, I’d been having a hard time coming up with any shots of The Station in Athens, as I mentioned to a former college classmate and retired AJC colleague, Minla Shields, when I had lunch with her shortly after our return from North Carolina.
A few days later, I received an email from Minla. “Look what I found in my negatives (just by happenstance),” she said.
It was photos of The Station that she had taken during her time on The Red & Black at UGA, including the “Valdosta”!
“I wasn’t looking for these, because I don’t remember shooting them,” Minla said. “It’s just so funny! I’ve been slowly going through an index bin of clips and negs — throwing most away. Had we not had lunch last week, this envelope would be in the trash.”
I think that’s what they call serendipity.
And, the perfect ending for my story of The Station.
• A post-script: I just heard back from Lloyd Neal at the Southeastern Railway Museum. He reports one of their experts stopped by the Station in Carrboro to examine the train cars and “confirmed one of the cars is the ‘Valdosta’ as you suspected.” He found part of the name VALDOSTA painted over on the car and found that the windows matched as well. So, it is the same car in which we had our first big date!
(To read Quick Cuts posts from before September, 2018, please go to https://billking.livejournal.com.)