Brian’s Travel Spot: Amtrak’s Full Dining Service

The black bean and corn veggie burger, from Amtrak's lunch menu, served on the California Zephyr, April 2019, en-route to Chicago.Two months ago, Amanda and I caught Amtrak’s Crescent service from New York to Atlanta. As fans of Amtrak’s dining cars, we were keen to see what the new “upgraded” dining service was like. Suffice to say we were disappointed, prompting me to write about the demise of Amtrak’s full dining service.

The good news is that this only applies to services east of the Mississippi, including the City of New Orleans, which runs between Chicago and New Orleans. Further west, Amtrak still offers its full dining service, a major plus when travelling by train. Having recently written about my journey last year from Los Angeles to San Jose on the Coast Starlight, and the trip Amanda and I took on the California Zephyr from Emeryville to Chicago a few weeks later, I’ve been inspired to write this as a counterpoint to the demise of Amtrak’s Full Dining Service.

For now, at least, the dining car, with its full dining service, is alive and well west of the Mississippi. Although the COVID-19 pandemic has robbed us all of the joys of communal dining for now, I look forward to when I’ll be eating in the Superliner dining car again.

You can read more of my thoughts after the gallery.

  • Surely one of the best sights when boarding an Amtrak train: the dining car!
  • Here's the inside of a Superliner dining car, specifically the one on the California Zephyr.
  • A table set for four.
  • There are separate breakfast, lunch and dinner menus.
  • Lunch on the first day saw me having the mussels, one of my favourite Amtrak dishes.
  • There was also cheesecake for dessert (from dinner).
  • Breakfast is always a favourite meal. Here's Amanda's pancakes from the first day.
  • Lunch on day two saw me with an old favourite, the black bean and corn veggie burger.
  • Meanwhile, I had the salmon for dinner...
  • ... while there was (a shared) chocolate cake for dessert.
  • I'm cheating here with breakfast on day three: this is actually my omeltte from day two.
  • Meanwhile, although I had mussels again for lunch, this is the picture from day one.
  • I'll leave you with a genuine picture of the actual cheesecake I had for dessert though!
Surely one of the best sights when boarding an Amtrak train: the dining car!1 Here's the inside of a Superliner dining car, specifically the one on the California Zephyr.2 A table set for four.3 There are separate breakfast, lunch and dinner menus.4 Lunch on the first day saw me having the mussels, one of my favourite Amtrak dishes.5 There was also cheesecake for dessert (from dinner).6 Breakfast is always a favourite meal. Here's Amanda's pancakes from the first day.7 Lunch on day two saw me with an old favourite, the black bean and corn veggie burger.8 Meanwhile, I had the salmon for dinner...9 ... while there was (a shared) chocolate cake for dessert.10 I'm cheating here with breakfast on day three: this is actually my omeltte from day two.11 Meanwhile, although I had mussels again for lunch, this is the picture from day one.12 I'll leave you with a genuine picture of the actual cheesecake I had for dessert though!13
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For me, there’s always been a magic about dining on-board trains, something that, for example, flying can’t match, even on the two occasions I’ve flown first class. And I’m not talking here about eating your sandwiches on the train, or getting something from the buffet car: it’s the specific experience of sitting at a table in a dining, eating a full meal, and watching the world go by.

It was always one of the pleasures that I enjoyed when travelling on the UK’s East Coast Mainline from London King’s Cross to Edinburgh, before the dining cars were withdrawn in 2011. I liked it so much that I used to plan my travel around mealtimes to ensure that I’d get the maximum enjoyment from the journey! As far as I’m aware, the only regular UK services which offer dining cars are on select Pullman services run by GWR to/from Paddington, although they are currently suspended due to COVID-19.

All of this makes travelling by Amtrak so special because (west of the Mississippi at least) there is a full dining car service offering breakfast, lunch and dinner. Last year, Amanda and I took the California Zephyr from Emeryville to Chicago, which was the perfect opportunity to experience the dining car. We had lunch and dinner on the first day, all three meals on the second day, and breakfast and lunch on our third and final day.

Part of the magic is the food itself. It’s not amazing, by any means, but is as good as any airline food I’ve had and I can honestly say I’ve not had a bad meal. Even better, there’s a decent selection (important when you are on the train for three days!), with separate breakfast, lunch and dinner menus, each with multiple options.

My favourite is breakfast, where there are five choices, including scrambled eggs, omelettes and pancakes. As a pescatarian (I don’t eat meat, but I do eat seafood), my lunch and dinner choices are a little limited, but there are usually two or three options, depending on the seasonal dish. On this trip, I had mussels (twice) and the black bean and corn veggie burger for lunch and the salmon and rigatoni pasta for dinner). There’s also a choice of three desserts, including cheesecake, which is always popular!

Perhaps more importantly than the food, is the service. I’ve always found the dining car a very welcoming, inclusive place, and I say this as an introvert, which applies equally when I’m travelling solo. The dining car is always a hive of activity and full of conversation. If you travelling as a group of four, you’ll get a table to yourselves, but otherwise, the wait staff (who are lovely) will seat you with fellow travellers to make up tables of four.

Once seated, you server will come to take your order, returning with your drinks and food (while I don’t generally partake, there’s a decent selection of wine, beer and spirits, as well as lots of soft drinks, although I’m going to stick to making my own coffee, thank you very much). The whole experience is very civilised.

On this particular journey, Amanda and I had an awesome server, who referred to everyone as “baby doll”, regardless of age or gender, which never failed to bring a smile to our faces. We were also seated with a variety of interesting companions. We started off at lunch with two Californian ladies who were going to Denver, one of whom was a veteran of the California Zephyr, while her friend had never been on the train before.

That evening we had a very uncommunicative American man, so there wasn’t much conversation, while the following lunchtime we sat with a retired British couple, who were on a two-month trip around America by train. I was very envious as they recounted all the different trains they had caught.

For dinner on our second evening, we were paired with an American lady who was on her way to Philadelphia: once she got to Chicago, she was transferring to the Capitol Limited to Washington DC and, from there, she had one final train to catch, a northeast regional service to Philadelphia. It made our three-day jaunt pale in comparison! Our final lunch companion was another American lady who had, for many years, lived in Sheffield, but was now back in the US, returning home to Jackson, Tennessee, changing trains at Chicago, before catching the City of New Orleans to Memphis.

I should also say, for completeness, that we did have companions for breakfast on both days, but I’m not at my best in the mornings and on those occasions, I let Amanda do the majority of the talking!

So there you have it, the joy of the full service Amtrak dining car. And long may it continue!


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