The new restaurant All Aboard is a bit confounding. It is, without a doubt, an engineering marvel. Small, custom-built locomotives run on a track up near the ceiling. When your order is up in the kitchen, the cook loads it into a tray, then puts the tray onto an aluminum sling under one of the locomotives. A very sophisticated computer then sends it zipping on its way, winding around the restaurant until it reaches your table (where you have previously inserted a special key, provided by the front counter, into a computerized doo-dad). The train drops off your food and continues on, never stopping. The meal is then slowly lowered down from the ceiling to your table by a tiny elevator on polished rails. See a video of it in action at arktimes.com/allaboard.
If that sounds complicated, it is. As somebody who has built a thing or two in his day, this writer knows what kind of work went into making the trains run on time at All Aboard. You don't just run down to the Food-Serving Locomotive Supply Store and buy "Food-Serving Locomotive B" to fit your space. Every part of the system in All Aboard — and there is a lot of it — had to be designed and fabricated and fitted and tested and installed, then tested again, tweaked, tested again, tweaked, tested again ... ad infinitum. There's gotta be a quarter mile of polished aluminum rail hanging from the ceiling, all of it held up by dozens of bent aluminum struts and secured to the wall with dozens of welded steel supports. They probably spent enough on nuts and bolts alone to pay for a fair-to-middlin' used Toyota. Then there's the computer program it takes to run it all: that HAL 9000-like brain to know when and where to drop off the food, and when to bring the trains back to the station, and how to know not to dump a cup of steaming chili on Aunt Nellie's head while rounding a turn.
Looking at it, once you get past the initial shock that it works, the biggest question is: Why? Other than the novelty of food delivery by train — which seems to be something like Willy Wonka bragging that his chocolate is the only chocolate in the world mixed by waterfall — why would a restaurant intentionally put itself tens of thousands of dollars in the hole before the first cheeseburger or basket of fries is sold just to be able to say that? I'm not being sarcastic or snotty. I'm honestly asking. Because no matter how cool it is, here's the facts, Casey Jones: Unless you're an engineer (the structural kind, not the kind who drives a choo-choo), a 5-year-old train buff or the parent of said train buff, once you've seen a meal delivered by locomotive, what's the incentive to ever come back to All Aboard again?
It probably won't help that the menu at All Aboard seems a bit like an afterthought — a sideshow to the wonderful toys. Their breakfast menu is, in total: two sandwiches, two egg dishes, cinnamon rolls, cold cereal and fruit. The lunch offerings are similarly spare: cheeseburger, turkey burger, veggie burger, chicken sandwich and a turkey club, followed by three wraps (chicken, turkey and veggie), four salads, a soup of the day and a kid's menu ... and that's pretty much it. During our lunch visit, we tried the cheeseburger with a side of fries ($8), while our friend got her ticket punched on a grilled chicken wrap ($8). We also split an order of red pepper hummus and pita bread ($7).
A problem arose while we were waiting for our food. All Aboard is in a rather echo-ey space, and between other diners chatting (rather civilly chatting), the trains clack-clack-clacking along overhead, and the tiny elevators whirring up and down, my companion and I had trouble hearing one another, even though we were sitting literally a table-width apart in a booth. Not the place for a quiet lunch date then, but thankfully our food arrived quickly.
Was it delivered by train? Damn straight it was. The system at All Aboard works amazingly well. Replace the colorful trains with Vader-black trapezoids, and it's something you'd imagine them using in the mess hall on the Death Star — shiny, quick and efficient. That said, our food turned out to be nothing to write home about. The cheeseburger was OK, with a thin-ish patty, but gained points by being served on a soft roll with red onion and other fresh toppings. Companion liked her wrap as well, and bragged on the fries, but again: It didn't set her world on fire. Ditto on the pita and hummus, which were good, but still a little disappointing just because of the smallish portion size.
In short, though All Aboard is undoubtedly a feat of engineering, one that took a lot more brain power than we've got on hand to figure out, it's still a restaurant, and good restaurants are — first and foremost — supposed to be about food. While it'll probably be a sure-fire hit with kids and worth at least one visit for adults just to see the machine at work, for most everybody else, we predict, it'll just seem like a lot of clickity-clack.
All Aboard Restaurant and Grill
6813 Cantrell Road (next to Stein Mart)
Did we mention the food is delivered by train? Also, there are cookies and brownies for dessert.
8 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.
No alcohol. All CC.
NEXT STOP, YOUR DIGESTIVE TRACT: All Aboard delivers food by train.