Amtrak’s long-distance, full-service dining cars are something of an oddity in… well, just about every way. You have a skeleton crew trying to perform full restaurant-style service down the equivalent of an airplane aisle in the midst of light-to-moderate turbulence that comes and goes as it pleases. Since the dining car typically opens at a specified time for dinner, Amtrak’s chefs have to cook and plate upwards of 100 meals in about an hour or so, in the same conditions.
And then there’s the clientele that all this cacophony has to cater to: a very strange blend of relatively well-off Sleeping Car passengers combined with whomever from coach decides that they want to splurge on an upscale-ish meal. The interesting thing is that people get along. There’s something about being on a dining car cruising across the open landscape that makes travelers want to mingle, chat, and generally have a good time. The whole operation is a remarkable experience to watch, if you’re interested in that sort of thing, and – at least in my opinion – an absolutely delightful way to spend a meal. Where else can you eat good food, chat with your fellow travelers in a relaxed setting, and watch the beautiful countryside roll by?
And, yes, I didn’t mistype when I said that Amtrak’s food is good. While meals are pre-packaged when delivered to the train, everything is cooked fresh on-board by trained chefs in a galley and delivered to passengers by the wait staff. Hey, just like a real restaurant! Unfortunately, the Dining Car experience is rather pricey (though included in the ticket price if you’re traveling in a Sleeping Car), and Amtrak’s latest menu refresh (PDF link) is no different. On the bright side, regional specialties have returned that vary depending on which train you’re riding, such as Texas BBQ Beef Brisket on the New Orleans – Los Angeles Sunset Limited or “Phillips Seafood Coastal Crab cakes in Floridian green chile tomatillo sauce” on the New York – Florida Silver Service. And, of course, you get all of the typical restaurant-style meals on all trains, such as omelets and french toast for breakfast, burgers, salads and sandwiches for lunch, and steak, seafood and pasta for dinner.
Riding in an Amtrak dining car really is a unique thing to do if you have the time for it. Continuously-changing scenery, friendly fellow travelers and good food makes for a one-of-a-kind dining experience. You know, if you feel like paying for it.