For the past 50 years, the national passenger railroad service (“Amtrak” is a combination of the words “America” and “track”) has been taking passengers across the continental U.S. and into parts of Canada. For the past decade, it’s also been my preferred mode of transportation for getting around the Northeastern United States. There are myriad reasons: comfort and ease is a big one. You get significantly more space than on a plane or in a car, and you can simply buy a ticket and hop on without the same luggage, security, and boarding hassles that taint the airport experience. There are also great views, the ability to get up from my seat to stretch and explore, and the welcoming pet-friendly policies (my cat is a frequent rider). After I took Amtrak cross-country on a long journey from New York to San Francisco, by way of Washington DC, Chicago, and Los Angeles, I added another item to my list of things to love about Amtrak travel: the food in the dining car is surprisingly tasty.
If you think train food is anything like the airplane food comedians love to joke about, then it’s time to think again. Here’s everything you need to know about eating on Amtrak.
Where to eat on Amtrak trains
Depending on which route you’re a passenger on, your train will most likely have at least one of two dedicated cars that you can visit when you get hungry.
The most common is the Café car, which is essentially a snack bar. You can purchase a variety of snacks (like cookies, candy, cheese, and hummus), or if you’re looking for more filling options, burgers, pizza, and hot dogs are also standard fare. During my many regional travels, I preferred to grab a bite at my departing station over eating in the Café — there are usually more options in a food court, and you’re able to bring food onto the train with you to eat at your seat.
In addition to the Café, longer haul train trips will also feature a traditional Dining Car, — a restaurant on wheels. An on-board chef prepares made-to-order breakfasts, lunches and three-course dinners that riders select from a seasonally updated menu.
The coronavirus pandemic understandably impacted Amtrak’s service quite considerably. Though the rail service is rebounding, traditional dining is currently available on just seven, mostly Western routes: California Zephyr (Chicago to San Francisco), Coast Starlight (Seattle to Los Angeles), Empire Builder (Chicago to Portland/Seattle), Southwest Chief (Chicago to Los Angeles), Sunset Limited (New Orleans to Los Angeles), and Texas Eagle (Chicago to San Antonio), as well as the Auto Train (Washington DC to Orlando).
How to get a table at the Amtrak Dining Car
All meals in the Dining Car are complimentary for first-class passengers. Before the pandemic, coach passengers could make dining reservations and pay for their meals. Unfortunately, in an effort to better control the number of people coming into the Dining Car, traditional dining is currently limited to guests who have a private room booked in the Sleeping Car.
While the Café is casual and will serve passengers who pop in on a whim from early morning until late at night, reservations are always required for your meals in the Dining Car. A dedicated attendant assists First-class passengers in the Sleeping Car throughout their journey to take down their preferred dining times in advance of each meal. As an added safety measure, complimentary room service is also now available.
What it’s like to eat on the Amtrak dining car
Eating in the Dining Car has the same feel as eating at your favorite hometown diner: you’re helped by the same server for all of your meals (though the food is included in the price of your ticket, don’t forget to tip them and your sleeping car attendant at the end of your journey) and there’s enough on the menu to try something new for each of your meals, or, if you prefer, you can order the same dish each day. Best of all, it offers a prime opportunity to connect with some of your fellow riders.
Each table seats four people, and before the pandemic, Amtrak aimed to fill each spot. That meant if you were traveling alone or in a group of two or three, you were likely to have a table-mate for some or all of your meals. I was journeying with another person, so we often paired up with another individual or duo. One night, we were seated with an elderly woman who said seeing the country by train had always been a dream of her late husband’s. They spent years planning the journey together, but he became ill and passed before they could see it realized. She decided to take the trip alone to honor his memory, and their friends came together and pitched in money to make it a more feasible reality.
What type of food is served in the Dining Car
The food served, as previously mentioned, is tasty. Don’t expect Michelin star quality; this is a moving train, after all. But the meals and service are miles (of train tracks) past what you’re used to eating on airplanes or in food courts. Amtrak’s signature dishes like its thick-cut Texas French toast and 8 oz. flat iron steak never miss the mark. In the past, menu items have included a lobster crabcake appetizer and tortellini with pesto cream entree. There are several vegetarian and gluten-free options for each meal of the day, as well as dishes that Amtrak labels a more healthy choice. Diners have one complimentary alcoholic beverage included with each dinner, with additional drinks available a la carte. All soft drinks are complimentary.
Kosher and vegan meals are also available on overnight trains when requested at least 72 hours in advance. Vegan options are available at the Café, with no advance notice required. The menus vary from route to route, but you can always check out sample menus for each train on the Amtrak website.
Bringing your own food on Amtrak trains
If you’d like to bring your own food, be it a specialized meal or simply snacks and beverages, that’s allowed, too! The only kicker is that they cannot, understandably, be consumed in the Dining Car. You can store and eat your own goodies at your seat, in your private room, or even in one of the Sightseer Lounges, should your train offer one.
You can bring alcoholic beverages, too, but only if you have a private room. You technically can’t consume alcohol in a public space, so you’d need to limit your partying to your space in the Sleeping Car. However, if you purchase an alcoholic drink from the Café or Lounge, you may drink it elsewhere. On one night of our trip, my friend and I bought some beers and played a [very tame] drinking game with a deck of cards and some new friends in the Lounge.
Traveling long distance by train should be on everyone’s bucket list. It’s an incredible way to see America’s spacious skies and amber waves of grain while heading to your destination. Long travel days and the hangar that follows can be one of the most stressful parts of getting from point A to point B, but on Amtrak, you’re covered. It might even end up being one of the most enjoyable aspects of your adventure.