This information may be dated.
There are, in general, two types of food available while on an Amtrak train: restaurant-style service in the dining car, and more fast-food fare in the snack or observation car. Short-distance trains typically will not have a dining car, while trains that operate overnight almost always will.
In general, you will find the dining car prices roughly similar to typical sit-down restaurants. The menu offers a number of choices, but due to the limitations of carrying food on the train, isn’t extensive. Food is cooked in a kitchen in the lower level or one side of the dining car.
Amtrak’s dining page has more information, including sample menus.
Typical Dining Car Menus
The dining car has distinct menus for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The breakfast menu typically includes several egg options such as scrambled or fried eggs or an omelet, French toast, and cereal or fruit. Sides available for breakfast typically include bacon, sausages, grits, or hash browns.
For lunch, you’ll often find a burger option, a chicken option, an entree-sized salad, and a vegetarian option such as vegetarian lasagna. Dessert is also available for lunch, and typically includes cheesecake, chocolate layered cake, ice cream, or pie.
For dinner, options typically include steak, fried or baked chicken, roast beef, salmon or other seafood, a vegetarian option, and some other various options. The same dessert options are available as with lunch. Dinner entrees generally come with a salad, roll, vegetables, and potatoes.
Typical beverage options include juices, milk, and pop. Wines are also available with dinner (and maybe lunch?), but are not included in the price of a sleeping car ticket (all other beverages are).
Amtrak also has kids menus for all three meals, which typically feature smaller versions of adult menu items, or child-specific items like chicken nuggets or pizzas.
Due to limited space, the dining car uses “community seating”. This means that if you have a party of less than 4, someone else will likely be seated with you at your table. Most Amtrak travelers really enjoy this, as it gives a rare opportunity to meet and chat with people from all across the country. Many people regard this as the favorite part of their trip.
Service and Reservations
Reservations are typically required for dinner in the dining car, and may occasionally be required for lunch as well. Reservations are usually not required for breakfast.
The dining car staff will make announcements when they will begin taking reservations. They will usually send someone throughout the entire train, starting with the sleepers, to take reservations.
Service in the dining car is often a little slow. They don’t have that many staff, and they have a lot of people to get through. But it’s not really a problem – after all, there probably isn’t anything else important that you’d be doing.
Having said that, service can be incredibly fast at times. It just depends on how busy they are.
The lounge/snack car offers faster, a la carte options. Dry goods include candy bars, chips, candy, cookies, and the like. Hot items are warmed in microwaves, and typically include burgers, pizzas, hot dogs, and nachos. Cold items may include sandwiches, ice cream, or fruit. Various drinks are also available. Sometimes souvenirs, playing cards, blaankets, or toiletries are available as well. Menus vary from train to train.
Some trains offer some more complete meals as well, typically “TV dinner” style. These are mostly available on trains with no dining car service.
In the evenings after dark, Amtrak will show a movie in the lounge/snack car. Two televisions are situated in the upper level and one is available in the lower level.
Some trains along the west coast may offer wine tasting.
National Park Service guides highlight scenery as it goes by your lounge car window. These are also present on some long-distance trains. Availability varies by season; check with Amtrak.
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Amtrak is the only cross-country passenger railroad in the United States. Outside a few regions, Amtrak is usually the only way to travel state-to-state by rail, and is the only regular option for cross-country travel by rail. Amtrak operates the trains, and mostly runs on tracks owned by freight railroads. Amtrak is a quasi-governmental corporation, created in 1971 when the passenger railroads at the time wanted to get out of the passenger business. For more information on the history of Amtrak, see the Wikipedia article on Amtrak.
This page discusses what you might want to bring with you when you travel on Amtrak.