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Amtrak Flex Dining: What You Need To Know

In June 2018, Amtrak rolled out its new Contemporary or “flex” Dining due to a Congressional bill to reduce Amtrak cross country trains’ food costs.

Amtrak Flex meal
Amtrak’s Chicken Marsala is part of their flex dining program. My meal included an ice tea, roll, and salad.

The meals are prepared for passengers to enjoy as they roll closer to their destinations.

This article will uncover what trains have these meals, menu samples, and everything you need to know about food before your next trip.

Foodservice found on each train

Flex DiningTraditional Dining
Capitol LimitedAuto Train
CardinalCalifornia Zephyr
City of New OrleansEmpire Builder*
CrescentSouthwest Chief
Lake Shore Limited*Sunset Limited
Silver Meteor and StarTexas Eagle+
Texas Eagle+
*The dining car is not available for a section of this route
+Texas Eagle meals between Chicago and San Antonio are flex dining but traditional from San Antonio to LA.

Regional trains, routes under 750 miles, use cafe cars, and few short-run trains do not have any food service, like the Hiawatha and others.

Flex dining is on trains that only run one night. Exceptions are the Auto Train with Traditional dining and the Palmetto. The Palmetto is a long-distance train but not an overnight train.

Traditional dining is on trains that run for more than one night and the Auto Train. These trains offer sit-down meals, basically a restaurant on the rails. Currently, this service is only for sleeping car passengers.

Flex dining overview

Flex dining is only available for sleeper car passengers on long-distance trains that run for one night. The meals for flex dining are “heat and serve” meals warmed in the Sleeper Lounges.

Amtrak Flex Meal
Amtrak’s Aisain Noodle “flex meal” with dinner roll, salad, dessert, and complimentary beer.

You can consume flex dining meals in the sleeping lounge or your sleeping accommodation.

If you do not want to eat in the sleeper lounge, you can grab your meals or ask your car attendant to bring your meals to you. The same is true if you want a complimentary beverage as well.

Amtrak talked about expanding this service to coach and business class passengers, but they have not moved forward with that for trains with flex dining.

A History of Amtrak Flex Dining

Flex dining or Contemporary dining started as a pilot program in June 2018 on two routes, Lakeshore Limited and Capitol Limited. The traditional dining cars turned into sleeper lounges, and the meals became prepared meals.

Amtrak box meal
Amtrak’s first Contemporary Dining, Chicken Penne Alfredo, was served on the Capitol Limited (March 2018); Amtrak no longer used those wooden boxes.

These first “contemporary” meals came in a wooden box, similar to a bento box. Initially,

Amtrak did not offer warm food selections. These wooden boxes were bulky and took up a lot of space on the table.

At that time, the sleeper lounge attendest placed the wooden meal boxes in a reusable bag, and you could consume the meals in the Sleeper Lounge or back in your room.

In October 2019, Amtrak Contemporary “2.0” rolled out. Not only did they change the food selection and ditched the boxes, but Amtrak expanded the meal service to all long-distance trains running East of the Mississippi.

Since the beginning of this program, your first adult beverage has been “on Amtrak.” Amtrak offers other complimentary drinks to sleeper passengers while the sleeper car lounge attendant is on duty. You can purchase additional adult beverages from the Sleeper Lounge or the cafe car.

Amtrak Flex Dining Menus

Kids Meal
Amtrak’s Kids Contemporary Dining Meal – Photo Courtesy of Amtrak

Amtrak flex dining selections can change at any time. Lunch and dinner are the same offerings, including meat and vegetarian meals. Breakfast offers a selection of oatmeal, a warm sandwich, yogurt, omelet, and more. (The meals onboard may not appear exactly as in the photo)

Your first adult beverage is “on Amtrak,” and other complimentary drinks throughout the trip. You can purchase additional adult drinks from this or the cafe car.

Amtrak Flex dining menu
Amtrak Flex dining menu

Mealtimes for Contemporary Dining

The advantage of this meal style is you can eat whenever the attendant is on duty (in most cases). Meals are not available late at night, and the car attendants do have a few breaks during the day.

If you are looking for a snack, check out the cafe car,  but food and drinks in the cafe are at your expense.

Two Types of Amtrak Sleeper Lounges

Capitol Limited Sleeper Lounge Car
Capitol Limited’s Sleeper Lounge Car

Amtrak rebranded dining cars on these routes as Sleeper Lounge Car. These cars are only available to sleeping car passengers and are open 24/7, although not staffed the whole time.

There are two styles of these cars, bi-level or Superliner and the Viewliner single-level.

Amtrak uses Viewliner equipment on routes that start or end at New York Penn Station.

Superliners run on all other long-distance routes.

Food service is available for most of the trip, but it is closed late at night and during break times. Ask the onboard staff for hours of operation or any other questions.

Superliner Lounges
  • Bi-level cars
  • There are two styles of this car, either full diner or Cross Country Cafe.
  • The dining area is on the upper level.
  • Used on
Viewliner Lounges
Viewliner Dining Car
Amtrak uses Viewliner Amtrak dining cars as Sleeper Lounges.
  • Between 2014 and 2019, the new Viewliners were built and put into service.
  • Single level cars
  • Used on
    • Silver Meteor
    • Silver Star

Flex dining wrap up

Are you hungry? Want to stretch your legs? Head down to the Sleeper Lounge to grab a bite to eat or grab your complimentary meals and drinks (for sleeping car passengers). As I said before, meals are available anytime you want, providing the attendant is on duty. Meals are not unlimited; only one lunch and one dinner per mealtime, and the food cars are closed for service overnight.

Safe Travels!



Kev has been traveling with Amtrak since 2012, celebrating his tenth year this year. Over those years, he has been on over 700 trains covering over 200,000 miles of rail. Kev enjoys helping others achieve their travel dreams by assisting them to get started. Kev enjoys making music as an organist.

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