It's almost taken me a year to write this review of the last time I travelled on the GWR Pullman. If you enjoy dining on board a train then the GWR Pullman is one of the few fine dining experiences you can get on the National Rail network. All the Pullman services are normal scheduled trains and operate Monday-Friday except during public holidays.
What is the GWR Pullman?
The trains GWR designate as Pullman services are the ones that have an on-board restaurant. GWR have pulled out all the stops to ensure that it's a special experience and compares favourably with other fine dining experiences. Only a limited number of trains offer this service so check on the GWR Pullman website before booking to see if this is available on your train. In British Rail times on-board restaurants were a lot more commonplace than they are now. The key InterCity routes (East Coast, West Coast, East Anglia and Great Western) had a number of daily services with restaurants on them (as far as I know InterCity CrossCountry never did), most of these restaurant services were phased out during privatisation except for GNER who operated the East Coast franchise. GNER were the only operator that significantly increased the number of services with a restaurant on them over British Rail. On the West Coast, Virgin Trains decided to go for a complimentary offering in First Class which is something East Coast also decided to introduce in 2011.
Those of us who enjoyed the restaurant on the East Coast were sad to see it go, we knew that once the first class catering was made complimentary it would be very difficult to go back to a restaurant style offering as there's not the space in the kitchens to offer a complimentary offering to most of first class and then a higher quality restaurant style paid offering alongside it. As a business plan the complimentary catering offering by East Coast achieved the aim of increasing the number of passengers who travel first class and they've still retained their on-board chefs to provide an evening meal and breakfast service. As a complimentary offering the East Coast offering is probably the best, as long as the advertised catering is provided.
GWR has taken a different approach. Their complimentary offering is not as good as what you'd get on East Coast (now LNER) but their Pullman dining provides an amazing experience for those who are willing to pay. It is open to both first and standard class ticket holders but first class have priority and they're also able to pre-book a seat in the restaurant either by phone or the GWR Pullman website. If you're taking this journey for the main purpose of trying out the on-board dining I'd strongly advise getting a first class ticket and pre-booking. If you're travelling on busy periods such as a Friday I would particularly stress the importance of pre-booking. Although on this particular trip there was space for one couple who had standard class tickets, my previous two Friday trips on the Pullman were filled with those with first class tickets.
For those familiar with the restaurants from GNER times one of the differences is that the entire evening meal is silver served (i.e. served off trays) you will be given an empty plate and then served the meal silver service style ensuring you only have what you want on your plate. GNER served the main component on the plate and then the vegetables silver service style.
The main differences with an on-board restaurant over complimentary service (other than the price) is the table is laid for dining with table cloths, cutlery, etc already on the table when you board. You can have a full three course meal (or even four courses if you want to have the cheeseboard and the sweet dessert) or just stick with a main. There's also a dedicated team for the restaurant section so service is very attentive.
GWR Pullman London Paddington - Plymouth Departing: 19:03 17 November 2017
The journey starts in the First Class lounge at Paddington station. The lounge has two sections, the 'modern' section which is light and airy and looks like a normal station first class lounge and there's also the 'traditional' section which used to be Queen Victoria's waiting room and has wood panelling and cosy sofas. Both are nice enough places to wait for a train but the traditional section feels more luxurious and starts the trip off in a good style.
As well as the usual selection of soft drinks, hot drinks and snacks sometimes the lounge has wine available in an evening. This was one such evening.
Once boarding is announced it's time to head to the train and find the restaurant coach (this is the one with the buffet car/kitchen in it), by the door is the restaurant host. Those with a reservation are then shown to their tables, once those with reservations are seated they then seat those other passengers with first class tickets who wish to dine and if there's any space after that then standard class passengers are also welcome to dine. On this trip there was two seats remaining for standard class passengers, on previous Friday trips there wasn't any so it does pay to book first class and reserve if you definitely want a place.
The train was an HST which has the excellent First Class seating that GWR installed. This carries on the luxury feeling from the lounge. There's already a bottle of water waiting on the table and it's made up ready to dine.
The lunch and evening meal service has three different weekly rotations. The current offerings are listed on the website although it doesn't tell you which week each rotation is so it was a surprise until boarding.
So for starters I had the chicken and duck terrine and my friend had the Devon scallops.
For the main course, we both chose lamb which was delicious. They also came back later on in the meal to see if we wanted additional vegetables. As I wanted to try the desserts I declined on this occasion.
So for the desserts we ordered the pistachio frangipane and the cheeseboard.
The pistachio frangipane was nice but it's similar to the desserts you can get on an LNER evening meal train.
Whereas the cheeseboard was significantly more substantial than the (admittedly nice) cheeseboards you get on LNER's evening meal trains.
The meal was finished off with a glass of port and finally a choice of tea and coffee. The tea is actually grown in England. Tregothnan Tea, grown in Cornwall, is the only tea that can claim to be grown in this country and it's part of the GWR commitment to source locally whenever possible. Service was delivered in a way to ensure that all passengers were finished before they reached their destination. In this case as the first passengers to leave the restaurant car were alighting at Tiverton Parkway (which is a little over two hours away from Paddington) this wasn't difficult. Those staying longer (we were going to Plymouth) could purchase additional drinks at this point. They started clearing away after Totnes which is just under 30 minutes away from Plymouth. The train carries on to Penzance, I'm not sure if there's any at seat first class service for those passengers who remain on the train until Penzance.
At Plymouth the ticket barriers are in operation despite it being fairly late in the evening but there was no wait in getting a taxi as there was plenty at the station.
If I had the chance I'd choose dining on-board a restaurant car every time I travelled long distance. In GNER days it was very rare that I didn't dine on-board. I don't get the opportunity to travel in the GWR Pullman as much as I'd like, in fact most of my trips on the Pullman have been specifically to try the Pullman rather than for the destination. So far I've been on the Pullman four times and have yet to be disappointed, I've got my fifth trip coming up soon. In the GNER days there was a point when I was dining in on-board restaurants twice a week.
I'd love to see fine dining return to the East Coast but also know people value the current complimentary offering. Perhaps LNER could run an occasional fine dining service, this would have to be advertised clearly as it's likely the complimentary offering would have to be cut back on these services as there'd not be enough capacity in the kitchen to offer both. These special services could run a few times a year and would give LNER chefs and on-board teams the chance to show off their skills. I know quite a few long serving staff who miss serving in the restaurant.
Back to GWR everything is superb from the service to the quality of the food. The style of seats in their First Class add to the luxury feel. The only criticism I have of this particular visit (November 2017) is that there seemed to be a reduced beer selection compared to what was on offer previously. The beer offering was cans of Tribute and bottles of Doombar. On previous visits they also had a few other different bottled St Austell ales in addition to Tribute and Doombar. I can't remember what the lager offered was but it was one of the brands that I'm not a fan of so possibly Carling.
If you've not tried it yet, give it a go while it's still available on the HSTs. It's not cheap but it is an experience worth paying for. The Pullman Dining will continue on the Class 800 and 802 InterCity Express Trains (known as Azuma on the East Coast but not by GWR) and I'm sure the quality will remain as high as ever but the surroundings will feel entirely different on the new trains.
I've not tried a Pullman breakfast but looking at pictures you find online they also look impressive.
If you want to combine two GWR experiences you could always try the Pullman in one direction and the Night Riviera Sleeper in the other.