News & Reviews News Wire Acela first-class menu upgraded: Analysis  

Acela first-class menu upgraded: Analysis  

By Bob Johnston | May 23, 2023

Latest move aims to restore quality commensurate with premium pricing

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White plate with meal of steak and red peppers. Acela first-class menu upgraded: Analysis  
Black Pepper Beef, featuring wok-tossed rib eye on a crispy bird’s nest of noodles, is among the features on the new seasonal Acela menus for service between New York and Boston. The dish is a signature of New York’s Buddakan restaurant, which is part of the STARR group. Amtrak

NEW YORK—Amtrak has enlisted the STARR Restaurant Group to enhance food choices aboard its Acela first-class service between New York and Boston.

STARR’s corporate umbrella covers 32 separately-branded restaurants representing a wide variety of cuisines. Of these, 19 are located in the Philadelphia area, which is home to the group. The remaining locations are in New York, Washington D. C., and South Florida.

In an announcement late last week, group owner and CEO Stephen Starr professed to be a frequent Acela first-class customer who is “excited to offer my fellow travelers restaurant-quality meals inspired by our popular restaurants in Philly and New York.” An upgraded wine selection and fresh pastries from local bakeries have also been added to the recently-changed menus.

Posted on Amtrak’s website, the specialty dishes cross-promote the STARR restaurant that serves them. For instance, the “Wok-tossed Black Pepper Beef” lunch and dinner entrée on one of three rotating menus comes from STARR’s Buddakan Asian-French eatery in Manhattan.

Other Acela first-class selections were updated following a late-April Trains News Wire journey. Shortly after that trip, a surprisingly detailed questionnaire was sent to solicit opinions about what was ordered, indicating Amtrak has sensed adjustments might be needed.

A spinach and goat cheese omelet with turkey sausage was served for breakfast aboard Acela on April 21, 2013. Two photos, Bob Johnston

The changes are the latest iteration of Acela first-class quality ups and downs. When hot entrées and staff were cut in early 2002 as the company flirted with bankruptcy, Acela first-class revenue plummeted. David Gunn, Amtrak president at the time, evaluated the results and promptly ordered personnel and premium items restored.

Beginning in 2009, Amtrak enlisted celebrity chefs to contribute unique culinary creations for both Acela first-class and long-distance train dining cars; their offerings were fine-tuned in the company’s Wilmington, Del., test kitchen with Amtrak chefs and outside food suppliers before introduction. The program became a casualty of management cost-cutting after the Amtrak Board of Directors approved hiring CEOs Wick Moorman, Richard Anderson, and their successors.

A bare-bones assortment of hot dogs, chips, and sandwiches was served in Acela first class for months following the trainsets’ Covid-19 service suspension. Although full meal service was restored in 2021, the quality never rose to “cut-above” levels offered prior to the pandemic.

Amtrak Acela hot dog and humus lunch
Hot dogs, chips, and hummus made the Acela menu following the COVID-19 service suspension. This is the meal on January 21, 2021.

First-class pricing fluctuates with Acela business-class sell outs. The New York-Washington, D.C., first-class fare is pegged at $172 above whatever the Acela business class fare happens to be for each train. Depending on the departure, the first-class fare range between those two cities on May 22, 2023, was $398 to $509 in Acela first and $226 to $337 in Acela business, compared with $138 to $206 in Northeast Regional coach class. This works out to a 50% to 76% first-class boost over Acela business for 2-1 seating plus free alcoholic beverages and one or two meals.

With that pricing premium, it is clear that Acela first class patronage is “quality sensitive.” Restauranteur Stephen Starr’s frequent Acela trips likely played a role in the mutual decision to collaborate on enhancing that product element.

14 thoughts on “Acela first-class menu upgraded: Analysis  

  1. It would be wonderful if Amtrak added these 2 yummy desserts from the menu of the famous restaurateur Stephen Starr’s bistro (Chez La Vieille) in Paris to the new Acela First Class menu: Riz au lait/Rice pudding & Mousse au chocolat/Chocolate mousse!

    Dr. Güntürk Üstün

  2. Over the past two decades, Stephen Starr has transformed Philadelphia into one of America’s fastest growing restaurant cities. His pioneering success, both in his hometown and in New York, Washington DC and Florida, has earned him multiple accolades, including “Restaurant of the Year” from Bon Appétit Magazine and the Zagat Survey.

    Dr. Güntürk Üstün

  3. In addition to the STARR culinary menu, First Class Acela Express customers can enjoy sips of Amtrak’s enhanced wine offerings, including Pommery Champagne, Justin Sauvignon Blanc, Landmark Pinot Noir and Daou Rosé.

    Dr. Güntürk Üstün

  4. An enticing, not-to-be-missed opportunity created especially for foodie fans of the Amtrak Acela Express! All aboard & Bon appetit!

    Dr. Güntürk Üstün

  5. Few travel the full length same as LD routes the most heavily travelled is Phil to NYC (90 min)?

  6. All this fussing over food for passengers who are hardly riding long enough to finish the meal. As a commentor mentioned above is this an effort to entice more riders to their new trains? Not gonna happen the NEC is never going to recover to pre pandemic levels with the new technology that’s been embraced.

    1. I got a full meal (and hot towels, drinks, desert) on a flight scheduled for two-and-a-half hours but actually took measurably less time. The First Class cabin attendant didn’t stop moving. He barely got the tray tables cleared before prep for landing.

      But this was a closed loop. All twelve First Class passengers boarded at the same time at DEN and left at the same time at MKE. The cabin attendant’s sequence of choreographed actions were the same for all twelve of his diners. Would be different on a railroad, where people board and deboard at different stations en route, and not every First Class passenger is on board for two hours.

      (No, I’m not a regular in First Class. After 183 flights in coach class, I splurged First Class for the 184th flight.)

  7. All this Sturm und Drang over menus…

    All we’d like out here in Ohio is a train that makes stops in daylight…

  8. An attempt (desperate? ) to make sure enough demand returns to Acela to justify the 28 new AX-2s?

  9. Still planning a trip from NY later this year to ride Brightline from Orlando; still hoping the Meteor has traditional dining by then. Not betting the farm.

  10. Trouble is, quality food offerings are’t guaranteed. Just wait for the next budget cut or the next dork as CEO.

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