By Michelle Gillan Larkin, a writer living in Northern Westchester
I have a 4-year-old son. He’s all boy: He kicks balls, plays with toy cars and trucks, and he loves watching trains. I also have a niece who’s almost 2. She wears pink, flowered dresses and pigtails. She enjoys watching trains even more.
I often find myself sitting on a bench on a Metro-North platform, one of them on either side of me, their wide eyes glued to the tracks. They’ve got their juice boxes and goldfish. I’m empty-handed (and craving an afternoon pick-me-up). Just as well since my arms are around them, making sure they stay in their seats. They have a blast, particularly in the late afternoon, when trains come one after the other. Me, not so much.
I drive home thinking there has got to be a better way. A safer place, a more comfortable spot to sit, and with, dare I say, a little something in it for me (read: latte). So I decided to take a ride along the tracks of the three Metro-North lines that run through Westchester County. I discovered a hearty handful of neat places to watch trains — from cafes and coffee shops, to restaurants, playgrounds, and even a kid-friendly beer hall. They are all super safe, a feast for the eyes and the palette, and thrilling for both the kids and me — though in wonderfully different ways. All aboard!
The Hudson Line
First stop, the Hastings Station Café situated right at the Hastings-on-Hudson train station. From dawn to dusk, choo-choo views abound from both the indoor and outdoor tables, and the coffee runneth over. The pastries from local bake shops melt in your mouth, and the freshly baked muffins and frittatas are just as tempting.
Next up, the Red Barn Bakery, located just steps from the Irvington train station. Specializing in organic, vegan, and gluten-free baked goods, there’s no shortage of munchies for you and your hungry, little train enthusiast. Grab a table outside for a stunning look-see, and bring a kale and cheddar scone along for the ride. If the signature breakfast cookie has given the kids a sudden burst of steam, run it off at nearby Scenic Hudson Park, where you’ll find a playground, ball fields and lots more track to love.
The Harlem Line
At the lower end of this mid-county line is the Scarsdale train station, where you’ll find a Starbucks. No shocker there, but you may be surprised to discover that this particular Starbucks has an elevated outdoor patio with a clear shot of the tracks below. And even better than that: Your little train guy or gal is completely fenced in, allowing them to roam about freely while you fuel up at one of the comfy café tables. Plus, you’re surrounded by trees and greenery, making this a pleasant summertime spot.
The crème de la crème of trainspotting has got to be Valhalla Crossing at the train station in downtown Valhalla. Not only is this neighborhood restaurant adorably housed in a couple of converted, old train cars, it has a dedicated room to watch trains while dining. The “track room,” as it’s called by those in the know, is adorned with huge picture windows, allowing even the tiniest train spotter a remarkable bag of eye candy. The menu is extensive, though there are just three tables in the track room, so it’s best to call ahead. (Parents, one of you should end the meal with a signature adult milkshake. Chugga-chugga!)
The next stop on the line is Hawthorne, and the Station Café and Grille. Open dawn ’til dusk, this other neighborhood gem is perfect for getting up close and personal with trains. Eggs, bagels, and homemade croissants, muffins and crumb cake get you going in the morning, while the rest of the day menu is chock full of soups, salads, and paninis. Trains blow right past the indoor dining area, and the staff couldn’t be more accommodating to budding engineers.
Another sweet spot to catch a glimpse of the silver streaks is Via Vanti at the Mt. Kisco train station, where the gelato is the highlight for my kid (ok, me). There’s 18 divine flavors to choose from, along with a few sorbets. Grab a scoop or four and head out back to the fenced-in tables along the tracks. Three meals a day are served inside this chic Italian eatery, with everything from thin crust pizzettes and inventive salads to quinoa-crusted tilapia. If you crave just some simple sustenance, however, pull into Mario’s Pizza & Pasta right next door for a wood-fired slice at a table under the sky.
Almost at the end of the line, in the heart of Katonah, you’ll find Peppino’s Ristorante. Housed in the original 1910 train station, this is the stop for down-home Italian favorites like meatballs and spaghetti, Bronx-style pizza and generous portions. Open for lunch and dinner, the outdoor tables at this family-run eatery sit right at the edge of the rails. However, if comfort food from a diner is more your speed, grab a table inside or out at the cozy KR Cafe, just a block away, where three meals are served daily.
The New Haven Line
For trainspotting along the New Haven Line, motor on over to the Port Chester train station and dine at the new Heartland Black & Gold, which recently replaced the Port Chester Hall and Beer Garden. There’s plenty of room for the kids to move about amid the rows of picnic tables while feasting their eyes on the real reason for the visit.
With so many great spots to just pass the time away on the railroad, how has it taken me this long to become a train spotter in my own right? I guess my inquisitive little boy has opened new doors — metal and steel ones — for me, and the sounds of clickety-clack have become music to my ears. And I wouldn’t trade it for all the lattes in the world.