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August 12, 2011 10:06 pm
There are two station buffets that really stand out as grand invitations to a railway journey, however long or short. One is the Oyster Bar & Restaurant in the abysses of New York’s Grand Central Station.
When I worked in New York for the FT in the early 1980s, our offices were in the Rockefeller Plaza. But I lived out in Mamaroneck and before catching the Conrail train home from Grand Central, I would often grab a bite in this magnificent restaurant – a sort of Aladdin’s seafood cavern that served a delicious lobster bisque with the American crackers so loved by Inspector Columbo, soft shell crabs when in season and a memorable dish of bay scallops on toast.
The other place is Le Train Bleu at the Gare de Lyon in Paris. This is even more monumental and in my opinion the world’s most glamorous station buffet. Before it was renamed in 1963, the restaurant built as part of the 1900 Universal Exhibition in Paris was simply known as “Le buffet de la Gare de Lyon”. It is pure Belle Epoque. It is open seven days a week. Its paintings on the ceiling of the various destinations of the old Paris-Lyon-Mediterranean railway network are just as much an appetiser to any traveller as the hot Lyon sausage or the salade Niçoise.
These days, before catching a train south, I try to have lunch at Le Train Bleu. This is not just because the food on French high-speed trains is dreadful and consists of miserable yet expensive sandwiches and pre-packed salads in an equally ghastly bar carriage. It is because the place always fills me with nostalgia and reminds me of the days when I used to travel as a child in the old Train Bleu.
The other day, my wife and I had been invited to attend a divine performance of La Traviata in Aix-en-Provence and we decided to have lunch at Le Train Bleu before jumping on the packed TGV. The waiters always ask you when your train is leaving, and your lunch is timed to the second so that you can enjoy your grilled turbot with hollandaise sauce and a perversely large baba au rhum without suffering indigestion later.
It is at this very moment that I invariably start annoying my wife with stories of my charmed “Little Lord Fauntleroy” childhood and my travels back to boarding school in England on the Train Bleu and the Golden Arrow. Let me explain. We originally lived in Alexandria and my parents and I were forced to leave in 1956 following the Suez crisis. We ended up in Monte Carlo (a long story) and I was eventually sent to board in England at the age of 10.
Now my mother is quite continental, did not like the idea of boarding schools and was especially troubled at seeing her little darling risk his life flying to England in all that fog and nasty weather. So I was sent with an older niece called Melita, or with my even older uncle, Edgar, to England via the Train Bleu to Paris and then on to the Golden Arrow Pullman train for the last leg of the journey to London.
It was in the Train Bleu that I started enjoying easy jazz, listening to the pianist in the bar carriage tinkling away at the Cole Porter song book. Then a spectacular meal would be served in the restaurant car. I can still taste the Dover sole à la grenobloise (that is with capers, croutons and lemon rind) and the inevitable bombe glacée. The train puffed smoke and when we entered the Gare de Lyon in the morning we would go up to Le Train Bleu restaurant (then still called the station buffet) for a sort of extravagant brunch. This would be followed by a quick taxi ride to the Eiffel Tower and then off to the Gare du Nord where the distinctive blue sleeping-car carriage would have already arrived and been hooked on to the Golden Arrow.
And then there would be another treat. This time it was the turn of smoked salmon and cucumber sandwiches with tea and cream cakes.
All this made boarding school a little more bearable. But it also made the anticipation of the return journey all the stronger. Rail travel has never been quite the same since. Thankfully, the restaurant in the Gare de Lyon has lost none of its splendour and remains a last vestige of what Belle Epoque rail travel was all about.
The Oyster Bar too, I must say, still seems to be trying its best to keep the grand old station buffet alive in New York.
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