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 terrific 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.
If you ride the Texas Eagle between Chicago to San Antonio, you WILL HAVE FLEX DINING. However, from San Antonio to Los Angeles, cars from the Texas Eagle connect to the Sunset Limites with traditional dining so that you will be on that section of the route.
The dining car is the train’s heart and soul, where people gather for a common goal, food!Kev
Food Service On Amtrak Trains
Knowing your food option is essential when planning your first or next Amtrak Adventure.
Traditional dining trains:
For sleeping car passengers, you have access to meals in the dining car, and this is also where you go to pick up select complimentary beverages. All train passengers have access to the cafe car in Sightseer Car.
- Auto Train
- California Zephyr
- Coast Starlight
- Empire Builder The dining car is unavailable between Portland, OR, and Spokane, WA, 28 and 29. The cafe car is open for food, and sleeper passengers receive a box meal for their first or last meal.
- Southwest Chief
- Sunset Limited
- Texas Eagle (only between San Antonio, TX, and Los Angeles, CA.)
Flex dining is on these trains:
Sleeping car passengers on these trains receive Amtrak’s flex dining and use the Sleeper Lounge, a rebranded dining car. All train passengers have access to the cafe car.
- Capitol Limited
- City of New Orleans
- Lake Shore Limited
- Texas Eagle (Between Chicago, IL, and San Antonio, TX)
- Silver Meteor and Star
Check out this page for more information on these trains with Amtrak’s Flex Dining.
Food options for traditional dining cars
Amtrak menus often change quarterly, and some trains have specials, usually new items they are trying out.
Breakfast offerings include continental breakfast, french toast, omelets, and scrambled eggs. Breakfast meats, coffee, and beverages are available at no additional charge to sleeper car passengers.
Lunch can include a Cesar salad, burger, grill cheese, or chili.
Dining choices offer a traditional spread of dishes like beef, chicken, fish, or seafood entree and a vegetarian option. Amtrak introduces appetizers to compliment your diner selection, with choices like lobster crabcakes, green chili cheese tamale, and more.
The kid’s menu is available for lunch and dinner 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.
Amtrak offers complimentary soft drinks for sleeper car passengers throughout their journey and a complimentary alcoholic beverage with diner.
Current Traditional Dining Menus
2021 Dining Car Changes
Some new additions are coming to Amtrak’s “traditional dining cars,” with some “old classics” coming back.
Flex dining carry-over drinks, not food.
A few carry-overs 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 when staffed, and it is closed at night.
The other flex dining carry-over 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.
The Location of the Dining Car
For most trains, the dining car is between the Sightseer Car and the sleeper cars, towards the middle of the train.
The Empire Builder dining car is on the Seattle side of the train behind the last sleeper and the first coach car. If you are in the Portland section, it is a little bit of a walk.
Mealtimes for Traditional Amtrak Dining Cars
Dining cars operate on local time. Your cell phones and smartwatches will often automatically change the time to the correct time zone.
Abridged or omitted meal services may occur if the train reaches its final destination early or if the scheduled time is during mealtime.
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 night, but it is closed overnight and 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 and are first-come, first-served
- 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.
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 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 they take reservations.
At this point, coach passengers do not have access to the dining car. There are talks about bringing it back, but there is no date for the return.
Coast Starlight Business Class
Amtrak is now offering dining car reservations for Coast Starlight Business Class passengers. Currently, Amtrak charges a flat rate. These passengers make payment for their meals along with their meal reservations. There could be a limited number of reservations allowed due to demand.
- Breakfast $20
- Lunch is $25 and $15 for kids
- Dinner is $45 and $25 for kids
Dinner includes a three-course meal and an adult beverage.
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.
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 fewer than four people are at 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 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, and desserts with lunch and dinner.
- Sleeper passengers get complimentary non-alcoholic drinks and an acholic drink with diner throughout their journey.
- 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
Depending on the direction, the Empire Builder split or joined, so there may not be a dining or cafe car during part of your trip. 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 handoff 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 or what you would guess for a bill.
If I am on long trips and have the same staff for the whole trip, I may tip at the end of the day.
Traditional dining wrap-up.
Eating on the train can be one of the more memorable parts of your Amtrak adventure.
The menus can change at any time, and sometimes they offer entrees that are not on the menu. Often these selections are new choices that Amtrak is trying out.
If you have sleeper car reservations, include the main entree and extras. With dinner, your first adult beverage is part of your reservations. Plus, you can get complimentary beverages from the dining car.
You can eat your meals in the dining car or in your accommodations. Either you can walk to the dining car during your reservation time to order your meal and bring it back. You could have your car attendant get the meals and bring them back to your accommodation.