Amtrak Traditional Dining: What you need to know

Amtrak Traditional Dining: What you need to know

Over my years of traveling with Amtrak, many great memories and “interesting” conversations happened during a meal in an Amtrak Dining Car. My first experience was on the California Zephyr, where I had several great conversations with other passengers. I even had a long-term friendship that started over lunch in the Sunset Limited/ Texas Eagle dining car. (Hi Sean and David).

A dining car is where Amtrak serves sit-down meals prepared by onboard chefs, and the cafe car sells grab-and-go food, beverages, and snacks.

Traditional Dining returns for trains departing on June 23, 2021. Trains that had it before the pandemic will have it again but for the Texas Eagle from Chicago to San Antonio.

The dining car is the train’s heart and soul, where people gather for a common goal, food!


 Topics Covered On Amtrak Dining Car

  • What Amtrak trains have or do not have Amtrak dining cars
  • Links to dining car menus
  • The type of dining cars used on Amtrak trains
  • Mealtimes
  • How to make meal reservations
  • Car etiquette
Amtrak Salmon
Amtrak’s new salmon dish in from the dining car. Photo Courtesy of Amtrak

Food Service On Amtrak Trains

When planning your first or next Amtrak Adventure, knowing your food option is essential. Amtrak runs three types of trains, regional trains (these trains run under 750 miles), long-distance trains, and Acela (high-speed).

Regional trains offer cafe cars, but a few short-run trains do not have any food service like the Hiawatha. The menu can vary depending on the location of the train.

Long-distance trains offer more food choices. Currently, sleeper car passengers can purchase food from the cafe, but they get complimentary food from the dining car or Sleeper Car Lounge.

Traditional dining is eating sit-down meals prepared by chefs on board. For right now, this service is only available to sleeper car passengers. Your meals can eat in the dining car, or your car attendant can bring them to your room.

Flex dining meals that are “heat and serve” meals are offered in the Sleeper Lounges.

Traditional dining is on these trains:

Flex dining is on these trains:

For more information on these trains with Amtrak’s Flex Dining, check out this page.

Amtrak's french toast
Amtrak’s French toast from the dining car. Photo Courtesy of Amtrak

What Can You Eat Traditional Dining Cars

Amtrak menus often change quarterly, and some trains have specials, often new items they are trying out.

Breakfast offer includes continental breakfast, french toast, omelets, and scrambled eggs. You can add breakfast meat to your choice at no additional charge. You can have coffee and another beverage along with your food.

Lunch can include a Cesar salad, burger, grill cheese, and chili.

Dining choices offer a traditional spread of dish, beef, chicken, fish or seafood entree, and a vegetarian choice. Amtrak is introducing appetizers to go along with your diner selection, with choices like

The kid’s menu is available for lunch and diner and includes grill cheese, chicken breast, hot dog, and mac and cheese.

While Amtrak tries to have everything on the menu, sometimes popular choices run out towards the end of the route if they were more popular than Amtrak expected.

It looks like Amtrak is continuing to offer free soft drinks for sleeper car passengers throughout their journey and a complimentary alcoholic beverage with diner.

If you have special food requirements or questions on special meals, click here.

Current Traditional Dining Menus

2021 Changes Coming Dining Cars

Some new additions are coming to Amtrak’s traditional dining cars, and some “old classics” are coming back.

Flex dining carry-over, drinks not food

A few carryovers from the flex dining program may be enjoyable for many sleeper passengers.

Traditional dining cars now offer complimentary non-alcoholic beverages thought-out your Amtrak adventure. Choices could be limited; ask the dining car steward for more information. This service is only available during the hours of operations and is closed at night.

The other flex dining carryover is a free complimentary adult beverage with your dinner for those old enough.

Changes to the dining car experience

According to an article by the Rail Passenger Association, more exciting changes are coming. These changes include cloth tablecloths, glassware, silverware, and ceramic plates. These changes will increase the passenger experience and reduce onboard waste.

Other changes can include more flexibility with the menu, like lunch for dinner or adding breakfast meat to the continental breakfast.

These changes could take a little time to implement, and Amtrak does not have a goal date for tableware.

Mealtimes for Traditional Amtrak Dining Cars

Dining cars operate on local time. Often your cell phone will change automatically to the right time. Abridged or omitted meal services may occur if the train reaches its final destination during the regular meal service. Quick meals can happen if the train comes in early to its final destination. On the other hand, if the train is running late, they may add a meal. Ask your onboard staff if you have questions.

If you miss a meal, the cafe car is available from early morning to late at night but does close for the attendance breaks.


  • Breakfast time is from 6:30 am – 10:00 am
  • The last boarding time to receive breakfast is 9:30 am
  • Reservations are not needed
  • There are no announcements for the start of this service; you may go for breakfast anytime after 6:30  am.


  • Lunch is from 11:30 am – 3:00 pm.
  • The last boarding time to receive lunch is 2:30 pm.
  • Reservations could be required.


  • Dinner is from 5:00 pm – 9:30 pm.
  • The final boarding time to receive dinner is 8:30 pm.
  • Reservations are required

Be advised, all this can change at any time and can vary from train to train.

Amtrak steak
Amtrak’s steak dish from the dining car. Photo Courtesy of Amtrak

Meal Reservation For Amtrak Dining Cars

Sleeping car passengers

For sleeper car passengers, making reservations is easy. The dining car steward will announce when they are ready to walk the train to take reservations. When they are coming around, at least one person in your party needs to be in your accommodation so they can make the reservation. Often when you make your reservations, you receive a reminder slip.

Your car attendant may make the reservations for you if you are not on board when reservations are being made.

Coach passengers (currently suspended)

After sleeper’s reservations are complete, the dining car steward walks through the coach cars for passengers to fill the remaining spots. To make a reservation, waiting at your seat till after they come through is the best you can do to get the best times.

There is a chance that you could catch them in the observation car, but your reservation choices could be limited. You can ask the dining car steward for openings if you board after they take reservations, but there are no guarantees.

General information

Ask your car attendant or the dining car steward if the dining car announces the reservation time or if you should walk to the dining car at your reservation time.

Be aware that the dining car can get busy, and a 6:30 reservation could get called at 6:45 or later. When they call it, they still call it a “6:30.” This congestion can be due to passengers lingering too long after their meal or not coming at their scheduled time.

Amtrak's new chicken ceaser salad
Amtrak’s new chicken Ceasar salad from the dining car. Photo Courtesy of Amtrak

When You Enter Traditional Amtrak Dining Cars

The common practice for eating in an Amtrak Dining Car

  • When arriving in the dining car, wait to be seated. The steward will direct you where to sit.
  • During regular times Amtrak practices community seating
    • If there are fewer than four people in your party, others may join you.
  • Sleeping car passengers receive handed a piece of paper when they sit down. Only fill in the room and car number/letter (found on your ticket), and then sign it. The staff will fill out everything else.
    • All scheduled meals come with your room ticket (so pick what you want). Meals include one entree, plus meal-appropriate extras such as breakfast meat, cheese, desserts with lunch and dinner.
    • Sleeper passengers get complimentary non-alcoholic drinks throughout their journey and an acholic drink with diner.
  • Coach passengers, you will not have to sign a slip.
    • You are responsible for paying for your meal.
    • The experience is similar to that of a restaurant.

The Portland Section of the Empire Builder

Box meal on the builder
A prepared meal from the Portland section of an Eastbound Empire Builder. (2016)

The Empire Builder split or join another train with the same name en route. During part of your trip, there may not be a dining or cafe car. Often your section of the train will have one or the other.

Portland section (28) of the Empire Builder joins the Seattle section (8) in Spokane, WA. The Seattle section has the diner, and the Portland section has a cafe car. If you are a Portland sleeper passenger, car attendants handed soon after you leave, and after the two trains combine, you will enjoy the rest of your meals in the dining car.

Tipping In Amtrak Traditional Dining Cars

Tipping is appreciated, and many passengers base the tip amount off the menu prices.

Safe Travels!


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*This information is according to the Amtrak website (03/02/2021) and is subject to change.


Kev has traveled over 125,000 miles on over 660 trains all around the United States aboard Amtrak. When he is not on the move, Kev enjoys making music as an organist.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Donna Parquette

    Thank you for your help. This is my first trip and I am so excited. It is on my bucket list.

    1. Kev

      You are welcome! If you have any questions, let me know where I can help you! I hope you enjoy your trip.

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