The Hamburger Train, which opened in 1954 at 96-58 Queens Boulevard above the 63rd Drive subway stop, was Rego Park’s culinary delight. The main attraction was a model train complete with blinking lights that delivered food from the kitchen directly to the customers. Adding to the ambiance, the staff wore regulation trainmen’s uniforms and wall prints celebrated the progress of trains.
After Jack Lewis created a complex model railroad system through his family's Saunders Street apartment, he inspired his wife Frances to create the concept behind Hamburger Train.
“I remember standing at the corner of the counter and nervously accelerating the train by the controls, and carefully stopping the car in front of the customer, which carried the plate,” recalls grandson Mark Lewis. “I was always focused on the great desserts display, and I am pretty sure that it was the first place I ever had an egg cream. Of course, I remember the distinct taste of the burgers.”
Mark’s father Stephen Lewis owned a Hamburger Train restaurant in Greenwich Village, while his grandpa ran both the Rego Park and Midtown locations.
“It was so exciting when the train would toot its horn, and bring my hamburger and fries,” said Elise Azaria Lane. “My husband Jeff also frequented that location, and still plays with train sets to this day.”
For some patrons, the Hamburger Train was just one example of creative businesses in mid-century Queens.
“Growing up in Forest Hills, there was always such excitement and adventure: Fairyland, the World’s Fair, Jahn’s Ice Cream Parlor, the Midway Theatre, and of course the Hamburger Train,” said playwright and television writer Stephanie Liss. “Inside was a wonderland of toy trains, and the owner and his wife, dressed in their railroad caps and neckerchiefs, greeted everyone at the door. The wait staff dressed as train conductors, and every time a burger left the kitchen and appeared in front of you on a railroad car, the whistle would blow.”
“An older Jewish man would go in there daily for lunch, and when the train arrived with his burger, he would make everybody laugh by asking it, ‘So, did you have a nice trip?’” recalled Rego Park resident Andrew Martin. “The burger always had little wisps of steam coming off it.”
“I was very, very young, but every time I went to Alexander’s with my mother, I insisted on stopping at the Hamburger Train,” said Forest Hills resident Victoria Steinberg. “I couldn’t figure out why every restaurant wasn’t like this and, of course, sitting at the counter with the train was mandatory.”
“It is sad that today's kids don't get to experience novel ideas,” said former patron Rysse Katz Cooper. “McDonald's is no Hamburger Train!”
Carl Godlewski, a Rego Park history buff, was born decades after the restaurant closed. “It’s a shame that all of today’s stores shy away from such showmanship,” he said.
The Hamburger Train may have left the station in the early 1970s, but Mark Lewis has launched a website which proves what made it so unique. Regomediagroup.com/hamburgertrain features forums, historic finds and former patrons.