Originally published in the October 2021 issue of LCM.
The Strasburg Rail Road provides the perfect way to see the countryside as it makes the transition to fall. Why not make a day of it and enjoy a meal at Café 1832, which is situated on the platform, aboard one of the trains or at one of the picnic groves.
Open since November 2020, Café 1832’s name is a nod to the year the railroad was chartered. Thanks to a history spanning 189 years, the Strasburg Rail Road is regarded as America’s oldest continuously operating railroad, offering guests a 45-minute ride to Paradise through the county’s verdant farmland.
As you’ll discover, dining on the rails has become a popular experience at the Strasburg Rail Road. Last fall it took yet another step forward with the debut of Café 1832, whose culinary staff is headed by chef Phillip Ponticelli, who is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, and brings 35 years of restaurant experience – including the South Pacific and Washington, D.C. – to Strasburg. He joined the Strasburg Rail Road late last year after working with Disney World in Orlando, Florida, for 24 years. “I learned a lot working with Disney,” he says of playing a role in opening several restaurants and serving as chef de cuisine at the property’s Oak Country Club, where he experimented with growing his own vegetables and herbs, started a charcuterie program and even ventured into beekeeping. “We came here because we love the area,” explains the New Jersey native. “My wife fell in love with the area. There’s a strong sense of community here.”
Ponticelli’s team includes sous chef Jeffrey Merrill, who began working with the railroad in September 2020. Two of his brothers also work with the Strasburg Rail Road – one is in the railroad’s freight department, while the other is a train master. “I grew up in Mechanicsburg, and my parents would bring us here as kids. We would ride the train and have a picnic at the picnic area,” he recalls. “I enjoy learning about new foods and cultures.”
Chef Ponticelli describes Café 1832’s menu as scratch-cooked comfort food with a bit of a twist. “Guests visit the café either before or after a train ride, so we offer freshly made items that are quick,” he explains. He notes that quality, fresh, locally sourced ingredients such as Kunzler’s bacon are used as much as possible to prepare menu items. Burgers are a blend of chuck, brisket and short rib. “I keep it simple and straightforward and offer guests what they want to eat – it’s important to know your audience,” he says. “The idea behind everything here at Café 1832 and Strasburg Rail Road is to create memories that will last past the meal or the ride.”
The café’s menu, which focuses on sandwiches, wraps and salads, includes fries and sweet potato fries; sandwiches such as pulled pork BBQ and grilled chicken caprese; wraps such as grilled vegetable hummus and turkey bacon avocado; and the smash burger (two 4-oz. beef patties with caramelized onion, garlic mayo, Cooper American cheese and pickles). Desserts include brownies and chocolate chip cookies. The kid’s menu features a cheeseburger, chicken tenders and fries, and an all-beef hot dog with fries.
Lunch-to-go from Café 1832 can also be enjoyed at one of the railroad’s two picnic areas – Groff’s Grove and Leaman Place Grove, which are generally open April through October. Guests can let the trainman know they wish to disembark and then pick up a later train to return to the station.
The needs of the local community are addressed, as well. “We have five parking spaces out back for curbside pickup or grab & go items – such as meatballs or chicken parmesan – which make it easy for the local community to do take-out,” Ponticelli points out.
Chef Ponticelli and his team also prepare the food that’s served on-board the train. Lunch (available Wednesday through Sunday) and dinner (Saturdays at 7 p.m.) are served in the dining car. The three-course dinner menu includes appetizer, entrée and dessert. The fall menu features a choice of shrimp chowder or roasted butternut squash salad; choice of Thai sweet-chili-glazed salmon, grilled bone-in pork chop, braised beef short rib or creamy herbed polenta and roasted Lancaster County mushrooms with stewed tomatoes. Dessert is apple cider crème brûlée.
Yet another option is the Wine & Cheese Train, which operates Friday and Saturday evenings and features wine from Waltz Vineyards Estate Winery in Manheim, as well as cheese, fruit and charcuterie. Craft beer from nearby Bespoke Brewing may be available in the near future.
Strasburg Rail Road also offers some seasonal trains such as the upcoming Legacy of Sleepy Hollow, which is a Halloween-type experience, and several holiday train experiences, some of which will offer dining options.
Café 1832 is located along the platform of the Strasburg Rail Road, 305 Gap Road, Ronks. Hours are Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m.- 3 p.m. and Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Dine-in and take-out are available. Call 717-687-6242 or visit cafe1832.com. Reservations for lunch/dinner/wine & cheese on the train can be made via the website, strasburgrailroad.com.