The Difference Between Amtrak's Café And Dining Cars

With movies like "Murder on the Orient Express" or the idea of Hogwarts Express in "Harry Potter," it's hard not to have a romanticized perception of traveling on a scenic train. The seats are plush, the dining cars are bursting with real china and crystal goblets, and you can eat your fill of chocolate frogs and pumpkin pasties. 

In reality, train travel can be as posh as we'd like to think it is, paying for luxury experiences such as the Napa Valley Wine Train in the U.S. (via Travel + Leisure) or even the Seven Stars in the Kyushu region of Japan, per Time Out. Still, with train travel, there are typically no worries about traffic jams or falling asleep at the wheel, so it does make for a sensible option for daily commuters or vacationers.

Whether the ticket is for coach or first class, passengers want certain things: a comfortable seat, a pleasant environment, and something to eat and drink. And Amtrak, an American railroad company that has been transporting passengers by train since 1971, aims to provide these accommodations. 

In fact, the company offers some impressive, multi-course menus for hungry guests; however, not just any ticket will guarantee you such a perk. If you splurge on a first-class sleeper car, you'll enjoy the best food Amtrak has to offer. Your coach class ticket will get you food but may leave much to be desired.

The café car offers quick meals and snacks

The good news is that most Amtrak trains have a designated café car as a dining option. Depending on where you are and which train you are on, the café menus can be different, but the cars usually have a walk-up counter where you can order quick foods like muffins, bagels, sandwiches, as well as beverages. Sojourner White from Insider states that the food is pre-packaged and can be warmed up for you. None of these are included in your ticket price (although some business class tickets will get you a complimentary non-alcoholic drink, according to Amtrak), so be prepared to pay. 

Any Amtrak passenger is free to visit the café car and either enjoy their refreshments there or in their seat. While the food is fine for a quick fix, it will be far from satisfying if you travel overnight or for multiple days. A coach-class ticket and meals from the café car will certainly be the most affordable option, per Insider, but if you want better meal options, you may want to save your pennies for a first-class ticket.

The dining car provides three-course meals

A first-class ticket on Amtrak will provide you with the most comfort and privacy, and all of your meals will be included (via Amtrak). According to Upgraded Points, Amtrak's meal program suffered due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and first-class passengers had very limited dining choices. But since then, the company has since upped its food game considerably. 

Passengers holding first-class sleeper-car tickets are welcome in the dining car, where dining tables and chairs accommodate them. At scheduled times, the dining car serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner, including freshly prepared French toast and omelets or artisan salads, sandwiches, and soups, depending on your train route.

Dinnertime is when the dining car really shines, offering guests three-course menus that may include coconut-crusted shrimp as an appetizer, a flat iron steak with port wine sauce as an entrée, and chocolate toffee mousse for dessert. Unlimited non-alcoholic drinks are included, as well as one complimentary alcoholic beverage, per Amtrak, but passengers will need to pay for additional ones. Children's options and vegetarian/vegan meals are also available. 

World Wide Rails recommends that passengers set a reservation time during dining hours, as tables can fill up. You can even opt to eat in your room, in which case an attendant will bring your meals to you. It seems like excellent service overall, but like many comforts, this one comes at a price.