Virgin Trains East Coast has been in the press a lot over the last week or so mainly because of so-called 'Traingate' where Richard Branson released CCTV footage of Jeremy Corbyn and to a much lesser extent September's fare rises and changes to off-peak validity. A more positive piece of press was that a new Foodbar menu was launched on the 22 August and of course I was there on day one to try it. The delay in posting this blog was because I ended up closing my browser before saving the article, let's blame Hop on Board for that!
Reading the comments people posted to newspaper articles relating to Virgin Trains East Coast showed catering was getting a bit of an unfair criticism. Some people were saying the quality has declined since Virgin has taken over when that has not been the case. Most of the bad points people associate with East Coast catering such as the weekend first class menu and limited hot food in the Foodbar were due to changes made by East Coast in an attempt to get the costs of offering the catering service under control while still making it reasonable compared to other operators.
The new menu, launched in association with James Martin, is a massive improvement over the previous Foodbar menu, which apart from the addition of the Hop on Board ale and Prosecco had pretty much remained the same as the pre-Virgin East Coast days. Some of the items in first class are now available for purchase in the Foodbar by standard class passengers, these include the chicken curry and the sausage roll. The bacon roll now no longer has the 'available before 10:30am' restriction on it so hopefully it will be available all day as a matter of course. The bacon roll in the Foodbar is just a microwave roll rather than the first class breakfast offering which is freshly prepared but it does mean there should be no issues with offering it all day and it certainly goes down well with ale.
On the outward journey I had the salmon and cream cheese sandwich and the quality does seem better than the last time I had a sandwich from the Foodbar, in addition to the hot and cold meal options there's an increased range of snacks, many from local suppliers and also cider for the first time (I think). There's a small price cut for the Hop on Board ale, it's now £3.95 which is the same price as the cider.
To get better than the current menu you have to go back in time quite a bit. The hot food offering in standard class took a dive after East Coast switched to offering complimentary food and drink in first class in 2011. One of the reasons was that prior to this you could actually order items at the buffet counter which were on the 'First Class at-seat' menu. The menu had been introduced by National Express East Coast in 2008 and remained until East Coast went complimentary in first class in 2011. The ability to order off this menu in standard class was very rarely publicised but for those in the know it was a nice benefit. First Great Western used to have a similar offering called the 'Travelling Chef' on selected services.
As for the regular buffet menus the best period would have been when GNER launched their GO EAT range, a menu from 2004 is available here. The variety of food on offer was extensive but gradually the less popular options started to disappear as the menu was simplified over time.
It's also worth mentioning when looking back at catering options that on-board restaurants were also available until 2011. In GNER days almost every train had a restaurant on weekdays (none on weekends except for some trials), when National Express took over they removed the restaurant from all but the peak time services. The great thing about the restaurant is that it's open to all (first class ticket holders should be given priority when it's busy, but generally standard class ticket holders could get a seat) and allowed you to enjoy a freshly prepared three course meal cooked by an on-board chef. Although for me nothing could beat the on-board restaurant experience, the introduction of complimentary catering in 2011 has meant that most people consider catering as part of the first class product and I imagine most people would be annoyed if we returned to paid catering in first class. If you'd like to experience an on-board restaurant they're still available on selected Great Western (GWR) services that are branded Pullman. It's certainly worth a go if you enjoy dining and rail travel.
In short I do think catering on Virgin Trains East Coast is in a good state, in both first and standard class East Coast continues to beat West Coast (although West Coast does have a better first class breakfast selection). Comparing to other operators I think the GWR Express Cafe had a better selection than the old Foodbar menu, next time I travel GWR I'll see if the Foodbar has overtaken it. If the new menu has overtaken GWR it means that Virgin Trains East Coast will have the best standard class catering currently available in Great Britain.
^DH (note all posts in the blog section reflect the views of the contributor and may not match the opinions of the campaign)