Everything You Need To Know About Amtrak's Dining Options

Nothing encapsulates the romance of train travel more than the Glen Miller Orchestra's "Chattanooga Choo-Choo," particularly the lyrics "Dinner in the diner, nothing could be finer, than to have your ham and eggs in Carolina." From the start, onboard eats have been an integral part of any train journey longer than a short hop from here to there. Once upon a time, Amtrak offered fine dining (complete with white tablecloths) on most longer routes, but it ditched this option on many trains in 2019 and the rest in 2020 to great upset amongst its patrons. After all, if you want to get from point A to point B as quickly and efficiently as possible, you'll probably fly. Still, Amtrak's core loyalty may well lie with those who simply love riding the rails and all that goes along with it, dining cars included.

In 2021, the company decided to restore traditional dining — and real plates and silverware! — at the same time, and on certain routes, Amtrak returned to pre-pandemic operations following an infusion of federal relief money. Sadly, The Washington Post reveals that only routes running west of Chicago and New Orleans, plus the Auto Train from Virginia to Florida, currently offer those revamped dining cars. Eastern routes instead offer what Amtrak calls flexible dining. Every route, however, features some sort of café car that serves a range of more budget-friendly options (prices mentioned are current as of October 2022).

Traditional dining: Routes and how it works

Although The Washington Post notes that "eventually" dining car meals will be available to any rail passengers who are willing to pay for them, at this point, Amtrak's website makes it pretty clear that dining car access is restricted to those who've paid the hefty upcharge for a sleeper car. The good thing is that all of your dining car meals are included in this price. You may have to act pretty quickly even if you are willing to fork over the big bucks — should you log on to Amtrak's website in an attempt to book a berth book on one of the more popular routes, you'll see just how quickly sleeping accommodations seem to sell out.

If you do manage to score a bed on Amtrak's California Zephyr, Coast Starlight, Empire Builder, Southwest Chief, Sunset Limited, and Texas Eagle routes (this last-named route only offers a dining car west of San Antonio), what can you expect as regards your complimentary meals? Amtrak says these are prepared by a chef, and each meal (apart from breakfast) comes with not only dessert but also a free beer, glass of wine, or cocktail. There's also a kid's menu available for younger diners who may not appreciate anything overly gourmet. If you don't want to eat in the dining car, though, you do have the option of getting your meal delivered straight to your room.

Traditional dining: What's on the menu on western routes

At the moment, Amtrak's western routes appear to offer the same basic menu. Selections may change occasionally, but Amtrak's sample menu can provide some idea of what's cooking. For starters, you can go light for breakfast with continental options; fruit, yogurt, cereal, and a biscuit. Or, start your day with eggs, a breakfast quesadilla with cheese and vegetables, or brioche French toast with berries and whipped cream. Lunch options include a Monte Cristo sandwich, beef or plant-based burgers, and a salad with goat cheese, walnuts, and strawberries. There is also plant-based chili and optional baked potatoes accompanied by optional non-vegan add-ons like cheese, sour cream, and bacon.

Dinnertime is where Amtrak's dining car truly shines. You'll start appetizers such as Mexican street corn souffle, raspberry-brie empanadas, or coconut shrimp. From there, you're on to a choice of panko-crusted chicken breast, baked salmon, rigatoni with a plant-based bolognese sauce, or a popular cut of steak: flat iron. For dessert, savor a chocolate mousse with coffee liqueur and toffee bits, Meyer lemon cake, or a blueberry cobbler and white chocolate cheesecake mashup. Need something to wash it down with? Your free drink options vary from domestic beers (Bud Light, Stone IPA) and imported (Corona, Stella Artois, Heineken) to three types of wine (chardonnay, rosé, and cabernet sauvignon). Bourbon, gin, rum, and vodka are also on the menu (but know that a second drink will cost you anywhere between $6.50 and $7.50).

Traditional dining: What's on the menu aboard the Auto Train

If you're riding the Auto Train, you'll still have access to the whole dining car experience, although in a limited form, as the trip's just an overnight one between Lorton, Virginia (more or less in the greater D.C. area) and Sanford, Florida, (about a 40-mile drive from Disney World, as per Google Maps). The only full meal served on board the train is dinner — there's no lunch, and Amtrak says breakfast is of the continental variety.

For dinner, choices on the Auto Train sample menu are the same as those offered on western routes: flat iron steak, chicken, salmon, or vegan bolognese, with hot dogs or macaroni and cheese for the kids. There's no appetizer, though. Instead, you'll get a salad and a roll. Oddly enough, the dessert menu's slightly more extensive, although the additions are nothing to get too excited about. As well as the same choice between chocolate mousse, lemon cake, and cobbler-cheesecake that you'd get on a western route, you can also opt for vanilla ice cream or Jell-O (sugar-free). You're also offered a single free glass of wine, with the same choice of chardonnay, rosé, and cabernet sauvignon. If you want a beer, it'll cost you $6.50 for Yuengling, Bud Light, and Coors Light or $7.50 for Corona and Stella. Hard stuff, however, isn't listed on the Auto Train dining car menu.

Flexible dining: Routes and how it works

Amtrak calls its not-so-popular East Coast dining options "flexible," but this is pretty much a company spin on what's essentially a cost-cutting measure that The Washington Post says is expected to save some $2 million per year. It may be possible that Amtrak's being penny-wise and pound-foolish — a Change.org petition protesting the dining car changes currently has over 150,000 signatures.

If you book travel on the Capitol Limited, Cardinal, City of New Orleans (yes, it's the train from the Steve Goodman song), Crescent, Lake Shore Limited, Silver Service, or Texas Eagle east of San Antonio, the "flexible" part of the flexible dining refers to the fact that you get to go collect your food box. You can, however, still request room service — as with traditional dining, flexible dining is only available if you have a roomette or sleeper. And, you may wind up eating your meal in your berth — unless you prefer to hang out in the lounge. Either way, tablecloths, china, and non-plastic silverware aren't part of the package. Apparently, Amtrak seems to think that gourmet TV dinners are what appeal to Millennials, although we're not sure if they would even rank among popular frozen dinner brands. Since members of that generation haven't been thanking Amtrak for ditching the dining cars, we're going to put the blame on the corporate marketing geniuses that decided it was cool to keep charging big bucks for sleeper cars while providing second-class dining experiences.

Flexible dining: What's on the menu

The flexible dining sample menu has just two meals on offer, although depending on how long you spend on the train, you may get to eat both lunch and dinner and thus explore two different varieties of boxes. For the morning meal, there are three options: buttermilk pancakes with pork sausage; a three-egg omelet with mozzarella, potatoes, sun-dried tomatoes, and chicken sausage; and a continental breakfast featuring a choice of breakfast sandwiches and cold cereals plus a blueberry muffin, oatmeal, and yogurt.

At lunch or dinner, the main dishes run to trendier options such as braised short ribs in cabernet reduction, fettuccine in vodka cream sauce with chicken, baked salmon and shrimp with vegetables, and baked ziti with meatballs. For vegetarians, there are Thai-style red curry noodles with vegetables and plant-based "meat" balls. Seasonal desserts, while available, aren't listed on the online menu. Amtrak does, however, tell you what types of booze are on offer, with your first one being free at dinner (though not at lunch). You can choose from Bud Light, Stone IPA, Corona, Stella Artois, or Heineken, as well as cabernet, chardonnay, bourbon, gin, rum, and vodka. If you want a mixer or a non-alcoholic beverage, free coffee, tea, milk, OJ, still or sparkling water, and sodas are available during all three meals.

Café car dining: Overview and what's on the menu nationwide

If you buy a regular coach class ticket on an Amtrak train, it will cost you much less than a sleeper car, but it won't come with free meals. More's the pity. Nor, at this point, do you have the option of paying to eat in the dining car on those routes that have them. What you can do, however, is to visit the café car, where you'll find a variety of items available to purchase a la carte. Unlike the dining car menu, the café car menus vary from one route to another. Routes that don't have an exclusive menu, however, will go with the nationwide one.

The National Amtrak café car menu offers a short selection of breakfast items: oatmeal for the healthy-minded, blueberry muffins, and streusel coffee cake for those who want something sweet. There are bagels, some with cream cheese and others in sausage, egg, and cheese bialy sandwich style (a bialy being a non-boiled type of bagel). Entrée options include sandwiches (turkey and cheddar or ham and Swiss), salads (Asian noodles or Greek), and hot items, including hot dogs, cheese stromboli, cheeseburgers, mac and cheese, grilled cheese, and vegan blue corn tamales (presumably cheese-free). If you're looking to pinch pennies, there are also Cup Noodles priced at just $2.50. Snacks like cookies, candies, nuts, and chips are also sold, as are beverages, including sodas, water, juice, coffee, tea, beer, wine, and booze.

Café car dining: What's on the menu aboard the Auto Train

If you're riding the Auto Train with a coach ticket, you'll find that the café car is far more geared toward providing dinner-type meals than breakfasts. The only breakfast-esque item on the Auto Train café car menu is a "breakfast sandwich" of unspecified type. You can, however, get coffee, tea, milk, juice, hot chocolate, soda, or an energy drink.

There's a wider range of options for an evening meal at different price points. On the low end, ranging from $2.50 to $7.50, are many of the same options as are on the national café car menu: the Cup Noodles, hot dog, vegan tamale, grilled cheese, cheese stromboli, mac and cheese, cheeseburger, and turkey sandwich with cheddar. If you don't mind paying a little upcharge, though, $16.00 will get you a choice of baked ziti, beef short ribs, and a Thai red curry noodle bowl (which, if it's an exact dupe of the one on Amtrak's flexible menu, and is vegetarian). The Auto Train also offers a selection of snacks, including crudites with hummus and a cheese and cracker tray for those who want to be a bit healthier (or fancier), as well as the standard array of chips, pretzels, popcorn, and candies. Non-alcoholic drinks and boozy ones are also available, although we assume Amtrak cuts off the bar car service long before passengers retrieve their cars from the storage bay.

Café car dining: What's on the menu on Midwest and Central routes

While Amtrak offers what it calls a Midwest Hub café car menu, several other central routes share similar, if not nearly identical, offerings, these being the Heartland Flyer and the Missouri River Runner. All routes offer bagels with cream cheese, blueberry muffins, breakfast sandwiches, and cinnamon rolls for the morning meal. To differentiate, the Midwest Hub and Heartland Flyer also offer yogurt, while the Flyer and Missouri River Runner have donut holes.

For lunch and dinner, the Midwest Hub and Missouri River Runner offer entrées available both a la carte and in a combo with a beverage and bag of chips. The former runs to Italian subs, turkey sandwiches, vegan tamales, cheeseburgers, cheese pizza, and chicken tacos. In contrast, the River Runner slings cheeseburgers, vegan burgers, hot dogs, buffalo chicken tenders, and pizza (it's not delivery, it's DiGiorno). On the Heartland Flyer, you can have Hebrew National hot dogs, buffalo tenders, cheeseburgers, and a slew of sandwiches — plus cheese-filled pretzels, soup, and tuna snack kits. All three routes have the standard candy and chips snack options, although the Hub also has what Amtrak terms "healthy options": hummus and pretzels, cheese and crackers, fruit, and vegetables. All three routes also have the usual non-alcoholic and boozy beverages, with the Hub and River Runner featuring a selection of regional craft beers and the Heartland Flyer offering the Texas brew ZiegenBock Amber.

Café car dining: What's on the menu on the Capitol Corridor route

The Capitol Corridor is a train that, despite its name, does not run anywhere near the Washington, D.C., area. Instead, the eponymous capitol isn't our nation's, but California's, as the train does pass through Sacramento en route from Colfax, California (home of what may be the nation's only monument to former VP Schuyler Colfax) to San Jose (a city that once inspired a hit pop song). The entire trip takes just over 5 hours, so the café car menu is not extensive, but it features both breakfast and lunch options.

The breakfast items include a Jimmy Dean breakfast sandwich, a bagel with cream cheese, and a Danish, with the last-named being available a la carte or in a combo deal with coffee. Oatmeal and cereal are also on the menu, both bundled with milk at no extra charge. Midday meals include hot dogs, cheeseburgers, pepperoni pizza (again, it's DiGiorno), and that vegan blue corn tamale. These items can also be ordered a la carte or in a combo with a snack and drink. Speaking of drinks, while the café car has the expected coffee, tea, juice, milk, water, and soda selection, this fairly short route also offers all of the harder stuff as well. With your drink order, though, Amtrak will knock $1.50 off the price of a snack box complete with cookies, chips, nuts, and an energy bar.

Café car dining: What's on the menu on the Northeast Regional route

The Northeast Regional runs from Boston to Virginia Beach, which is a fairly long haul, so the dining car has options for any meal of the day. The café car menu resembles a fancied-up version of the nationwide one, with the breakfast selection including the bacon and cheese egg bites, bagel with cream cheese, streusel coffee cake, blueberry muffins, and oatmeal, although the bialy sandwich is made with bacon instead of sausage. Additional selections include lemon cake, a tropical fruit medley, a vanilla yogurt parfait, and an egg white & cheese artisan sandwich.

On the lunch and dinner menu, the white cheddar mac and cheese, grilled cheese, cheeseburgers, stromboli, hot dogs, and vegan tamales are similar to the ones offered nationwide. Still, the sandwich selection is upgraded to smoked turkey with Havarti, barbecue chicken, a chicken caesar wrap, or — and stick with us here — a chicken panini with roasted red peppers, pepper jack, and chipotle aioli. Yum. The salad selection includes a plum-sauced Asian noodle bowl and a greens salad made with strawberries, walnuts, blue cheese, and balsamic dressing. For snacks, satisfy yourself with beef jerky and a "nosh box" with Gouda, turkey, and naan. The train also sells wine, beer, hard seltzer, hard liquor, and canned cocktails for bar car partiers, plus coffee, tea, juices, energy drinks, sodas, and water (including smart and sparkling varieties) for those who want to wake up or rehydrate.

Café car dining: What's on the menu aboard the Downeaster

The Downeaster is a train that starts in the Pine Tree State — Brunswick, Maine, to be specific, and it runs down to Boston in about 3 ½ hours. Despite this relatively short trip, the café car can sell you a variety of snacks and meals to sustain you en route. Breakfast sandwiches offered by the Downeaster café car come in a choice of sausage and Canadian bacon, and you can also get muffins, pastries, bagels, breakfast burritos, oatmeal, or cereal. Traveling during lunch or dinner hours? On offer, you'll find burgers (with or without cheese), calzones, beef or bean burritos, and cheese pizza. Plus, you'll find a well-known Maine specialty, red hot dogs.

The drink and snack selection, too, also shows some regional influence. The non-alcoholic options include standard coffee, tea, iced tea, juice, milk (white or chocolate), water (fizzy or still), and sodas. For a 75-cent upcharge instead of the usual big-name sodas, you can upgrade to Maine's own Capt'n Eli's. The café car does have beer, wine, and cocktails, as well, but Amtrak doesn't specify the brands, so we don't know how many (if any) are local. Regional snack brands are represented by MAC's Kettle Corn and Wicked Whoopies pie, in addition to the usual array of chips, popcorn, cookies, candies, nuts, and energy bars. For more substantial nibbles, you can also get a warm pretzel or a snack tray with salami.

Café car dining: What's on the menu aboard the Pacific Surfliner

The Pacific Surfliner hugs the California coast, running between San Luis Obispo and San Diego in about 10 hours. This route is beautiful as all get out (which is old-timey-speak for "AF"), and you may well spend the entire ride in the observation car. You'll likely want to sustain yourself with a snack as you sightsee, though, and the Pacific Surfliner Market Café (as Amtrak has cutely dubbed this café car) is here to help. The breakfast menu offers warm burritos and sandwiches as well as pastries, muffins, donut holes, a yogurt parfait, cold cereal with milk, and a mysterious "breakfast bistro box" consisting of who knows what.

During lunch and dinner hours, available hot items include hot dogs, pizza, cheeseburgers with or without jalapenos, and a noodle cup that, at just $2.00, is priced lower than the nationwide café car menu. Unspecified "artisan" sandwiches, along with equally TBD salads, make up the cold entreés. The snack selection includes crackers and cheese, vegetables with dip, nuts, trail mix, hummus with pretzels, chips, candy, cookies, and fruit cups, and there's also a kids' snack pack with both savory and sweet snacks plus a drink and "fun activities." For adults, there's the standard bar car setup with beer, wine, and cocktails. Non-alcoholic beverage options include coffee, tea, hot chocolate, soft drinks, milk, juice, iced tea, Naked Juice brand bottled smoothies, and waters still or sparkling.

Café car dining: What's on the menu on the San Joaquins route

Amtrak's San Joaquins route connects San Francisco with Bakersfield, California, in about 7 hours, plus additional bus service through to Los Angeles. While we've yet to see a bus with a dining car, the café car menu on the SF to Bakersfield leg offers options for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, depending on what part of the day your trip takes place. Should you be boarding the train in the a.m. hours (the earliest leaves Bakersfield pre-dawn), you can reward yourself with a cup of coffee and a cinnamon roll, each item available separately or as part of a package deal. If you're not one for sugar in the morning, Amtrak also has sausage egg muffins (Jimmy Dean brand), while non-coffee drinkers can opt for tea, hot chocolate, milk, juice, water, or soda.

Later in the day, cheeseburgers, hot dogs, and vegan tamales are available a la carte or as part of a combo with a snack and drink. At the same time, pepperoni pizza, bean and cheese burritos, and Cup Noodles are all standalone options. Snacks mainly run to candy, cookies, and chips (potato, tortilla, and whatever Cheetos are classified as). And yes, of course, there's a bar car to fulfill all your boozy cravings as long as they can be satisfied by cognac, rum, vodka, whiskey, Budweiser, Bud Light, Corona, Stella, Lagunitas, black cherry White Claw, chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, or sparkling white and rosé wines. Phew.

Café car dining: What's on the menu aboard the Winter Park Express

The Winter Park Express isn't your everyday train line — for one thing, it doesn't run every day, just Friday through Sunday between January and April. Why the funky schedule? Winter Park is a ski resort, and the route's a partnership between Amtrak and Winter Park Resort. The ride's just two hours long, leaving Denver in the morning, then departing the resort in the late afternoon. Still, brief as the trip may be, you can get a bite to eat on the way out and enjoy a little après-ski drink as you head back to town.

The Winter Park Express menu isn't divvied up by mealtimes, although a few breakfast-type items are available: blueberry muffins, cinnamon danishes, and KIND bars. The other food options are limited to chips, pretzels, nuts, candies, cookies, and trail mix, possibly because Winter Park wants to encourage skiers to dine in one of the resort restaurants rather than waiting to have a meal aboard the train. It seems there's no objection to skiers relaxing with a drink on the way home, though, as the bar car offers bloody marys, screwdrivers, beer (Colorado-brewed Coors Light, Blue Moon, and Dale's Pale Ale), and half-bottles of chardonnay, pinot grigio, and cabernet sauvignon. This Amtrak doesn't do mocktails, though, as non-boozy beverages are limited to coffee, tea, hot chocolate, sodas, juice, bottled water, or melon-lime seltzer.

The Acela trains offer a different menu for first-class passengers

The Acela is Amtrak's answer to Japan's bullet train — it's a high-speed, limited-stop rail line that runs between Boston and Washington, D.C. Even with a train capable of achieving 150 miles per hour, that's still a lot of territory to cover, and it generally takes about 7 hours to ride the full route. While Acela's café car menu pretty closely resembles that of the Northeast Corridor route, where each differs is in the amenities offered for first-class passengers. Should you choose to travel first-class, not only will you get priority boarding and upgraded seating complete with conference tables, but you'll get actual meals served to you in your seat free of charge! (Needless to say, the ticket comes at a higher price.)

For breakfast, the Acela first-class menu features a so-called light option of boiled egg, yogurt parfait, and either beignets, crumb cake, or "gourmet breakfast bread," as well as a fruit plate, a Denver omelet, and egg bites with turkey sausage and gruyere cheese. Lunch or dinner selections include a fruit and cheese plate, bulgogi-sauced chicken and rice, cheese-and-spinach-stuffed pasta rolls with tomato sauce, and an antipasto plate. Desserts (seasonal, yet unspecified) also come with the price of a first-class ticket, as does a drink. The bar selections feature craft or import beers, wines, hard liquors, and pre-mixed cocktails, while non-alcoholic options include a range of hot and cold beverages.

Dining options for travelers with special needs

In certain circumstances, Amtrak is able to accommodate special diets. For one thing, the company notes that certain café car selections are vegan, while vegan meals can also be supplied to Acela first-class diners with 24 hours' notice. If you've booked a sleeper train with traditional dining, you'll need to contact Amtrak 72 hours in advance to ensure that a vegan meal will be available to you. On a flexible dining route, no notice is required, although vegan meals are only available on a first-come-first-served basis. Rabbinically-supervised Kosher meals are also available with a similar heads-up: 24 hours for Acela first-class and 72 for an overnight route. Here, though, passengers on a flexible dining route will also need to request the meals in advance.

Another way in which Amtrak will accommodate special needs is to provide in-seat or in-room service to any mobility-impaired travelers. Meal service can also be had in the lounge car if this proves more convenient for wheelchair users.

Can you pack your own food onboard an Amtrak train?

Of course, the best way to ensure that your onboard meals fit your specific dietary needs and preferences is to bring your own food and beverages. Moreover, homemade meals — or even takeout from a restaurant — may be cheaper than Amtrak's options. Will Amtrak let you do this, or will you resort to smuggling in snacks as you would to a movie theater? (Er, not that we have any personal knowledge of such nefarious activities.)

The good news is Amtrak has no problem with you supplying your meals and snacks ... within certain parameters, that is. You can't eat your own food in the dining or lounge cars, although it is permitted on the observation lounges' upper level. Train staff is also not allowed to heat your food or keep it in the onboard refrigerators. Doing so would violate federal health regulations, so don't even ask. However, if you've brought your own Cup Noodles or teabags, several café cars will permit you to purchase a cup of hot water for 25-cents. As far as booze goes, the only way you can drink your own stash on board a train is if you have a sleeper car. You are not permitted to consume alcoholic beverages that you did not purchase onboard the train in public areas.