One problem discovered fairly early in the development of the passenger train was that passengers on long distance trains would have to eat at some point during their journey. The initial solution was to have trains stop at trackside establishments to give passengers the opportunity to rush off the train and wolf down a quick meal. These were the forerunners to today’s fast food restaurants, only with much less charm, much worse food, and much longer lines, since they had to feed a train full of people in a short amount of time.

Not only was this lacking from a culinary standpoint, it was a problem for the railroads because it caused a delay to every train every time there was a meal stop.

The better solution turned out to be the dining car, a combination kitchen and dining room, in which chefs could cook and passengers could eat while the train was in motion. Although a couple of railroads experimented with the concept in the early 1860s, the idea didn’t catch on until George Pullman, already known for his sleeping car service, got involved.

In 1867, the Pullman company built the President for Canada’s Great Western Railway, a sleeping car with a kitchen attached; portable tables were set up to serve meals to the passengers. A year later, Pullman built the first true dining car, one with a permanent seating arrangement, for the Chicago and Alton Railroad. It was named the Delmonico, after what was then the most famous restaurant in the country, Delmonico’s in New York City, although it had no affiliation.

The number of railroads and trains with dining car service grew, becoming fairly widespread by the beginning of the 20th century. Even the Santa Fe Railway, which prided itself on its above average trackside restaurants, switched to dining cars instead. Unlike with sleeping cars, Pullman never got a stranglehold on railroad dining car service, with the railroads preferring to operate the dining cars themselves, or, in some cases, contract the operation out (in fact, the Santa Fe’s were operated by Fred Harvey like its trackside restaurants had been).

There were several problems with dining cars, however. They were expensive to build in the first place, requiring custom-built kitchen equipment due to the lack of space, plus plenty of china and silverware. They were expensive to staff, requiring a full complement of cooks, waiters, and stewards, most of whom weren’t at work continuously the way other employees on the train were. Since they had a finite number of seats, the dining car would either have to have a waiting list for passengers or take reservations; either way, some passengers wouldn’t get to eat at their preferred meal time. Finally, passengers not used to eating in fancy restaurants would be intimidated by the dining car and would often go hungry rather than risk using the wrong fork or something.

Most railroads actually lost money on their dining car service, but most chose to think of it as a loss leader. The presence of the dining car was a major selling point, with the railroads advertising both the cuisine and the opulence found in the dining cars of their flagship trains, with fresh flowers and starched linen on each table, not to mention a surprisingly wide menu, such as this California Zephyr lunch menu from 1953:

A la Carte

RELISH… Olives, Ripe California or Queen, 30

SOUP… Soup, Cup, 25; Tureen, 35

OMELETTE… Plain, 1.10; Marmalade, Strawberry or Spanish, 1.15

FISH…Filet of Fresh Fish Saute, Tartar Sauce, 1.25

ENTREE… Creamed Chicken with Green Peppers en Casserole, 1.35
Sugar Cured Ham and Eggs, 1.50
Grilled French Lamb Chops, 2.15
(Bread and Butter Served with Entrée)

SANDWICHES… Chicken, 1.00; Chicken Salad, 75; Ham Sandwich, 80; American Cheese, 60; Lettuce, Bacon, Tomato, 80; Toasted Cheese, 80

VEGETABLES… Hashed Browned Potatoes, 25
Season’s Fresh Vegetables, 25

SALADS… Chicken Salad, Mayonnaise, 1.25
Potato Salad, 40
Sliced Tomato Salad, French Dressing, 65
Hearts of Lettuce, Mayonnaise, 55
California Zephyr Combination Salad, 80

BREAD… Bread and Butter, 25
Hot Corn Bread, 25
Dry or Buttered Toast, 25

DESSERT… Freshly Baked Pie, 30; Baked Apple with Cream, 45; Bartlett Pears in Syrup, 35; Ice Cream with Wafers, 35

BEVERAGE… Tea, Pot for One, 25; Coffee, Pot for One, 30; Cocoa, per Pot, 25; Instant Sanka Coffee, 30; Instant Postum, 25; Individual Bottle Milk, 20

Select Luncheon
(Price Opposite each Entrée Includes Soup, Vegetable, Potatoes, Dessert, and Beverage)

Onion Soup au Gratin; Consomme Chiffonade; Chilled Grapefruit Juice

Filet of Fresh Fish Saute, Tartar Sauce, Hashed Browned Potatoes, Garden Vegetable, 2.00
Creamed Chicken with Green Peppers en Casserole, Whipped Potatoes, Peas in Butter, 2.25
Grilled French Lamb Chops, Hashed Browned Potatoes, GreenVegetable, 2.90
Omelette a la Creole with Bacon, Potatoes Saute, Sliced Tomatoes, 2.10

Lettuce and Tomato Salad, French Dressing (Served with these meals, 25c additional)

Ice Cream with Wafers; Freshly Baked Pie; Bartlett Pears in Syrup; Chilled Grapefruit Maraschino

Assorted Bread

Coffee; Tea; Iced Tea; Cocoa; Milk; Postum; Sanka Coffee


$1.60—Sliced Turkey Sandwich on Toast with Potato Salad; Bartlett Pears in Syrup; Coffee, Tea, Milk

$1.85—Breaded Pork Cutlet, Country Gravy, Hashed Browned Potatoes, Vegetable du Jour; Ice Cream with Wafers; Assorted Bread; Coffee, Tea, Milk

Amtrak continued the dining car tradition when it took over most passenger train service in the United States in 1971, with the main innovation being complimentary dining car meals for sleeping car passengers; previously, all passengers paid the charges listed on the menu. Dining car service has been somewhat inconsistent throughout Amtrak’s history, with the low point coming during the late 1970s and early 1980s when budget cuts led to paper plates instead of china and meals coming out of a microwave oven. Some Amtrak trains still have only “dinette” service, featuring prepackaged meals, or only a snack car or “Automat” car with food sold by vending machines, but most long distance overnight trains feature full dining car service, with meals prepared on board under the supervision of chefs with CIA training. According to the whims of Amtrak management, there are sometimes individual menus for each train featuring regional specialties and sometimes a national menu for all trains, although even when the national menu is in effect, the chef on each train has a certain amount of latitude as to how the dishes are prepared. This is the Amtrak national menu as of May 1, 2002, used on all trains except the Auto Train:


Two eggs, up, over, or scrambled, with breakfast potatoes or grits and a hot biscuit or croissant, 6.00
(Egg substitute available upon request)

French toast, two, with syrup or fruit topping, 6.50

Pancakes, three, with syrup or fruit topping, 6.50

Continental: Cereal (Raisin Bran, Rice Krispies, Frosted Flakes or oatmeal) with fruit, yogurt, and a hot biscuit, 5.75

Bacon, pork sausage patties, or turkey sausage, add 2.25


Coffee (regular or decaffeinated), 1.50
Tea (hot, iced, or herbal), 1.50
Milk (2%), 1.50
Juice (orange, apple, or cranberry), 1.50 Bottled water (500 mL), 1.75


Sirloin hamburger, with or without cheddar cheese, with lettuce, tomato, and onion on a Kaiser roll, potato chips or fruit, and a pickle spear, 7.75
Two bacon strips, add 1.50

Reuben sandwich, grilled, with corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and Thousand Island dressing on rye bread, potato chips or fruit, pickle spear, 8.50

Southwest chicken salad: Sliced chicken breast on lettuce with black beans, sliced black olives, tortilla chips, cheddar/jack cheese, ranch dressing, 8.75

Vegetable stir fry: Asian vegetables and rice topped with chow mein noodles (not vegan compliant), 7.00

Mediterranean vegetable soup with any entrée, add 3.00

Includes mixed green salad with dressing and a dinner roll

New York strip steak, grilled, sherry mushroom sauce, 17.50

Chicken a l’orange, roasted, in orange sauce, 12.50

Pork chop, center cut, baked, herb cream sauce, 14.50

Regional seafood selection (server will describe), 16.00

Included with above: choice of baked potato, mashed potatoes, or rice pilaf, choice of green beans almondine or baby carrots

Penne pasta, pepper sauce, with green beans almondine or baby carrots (vegan compliant), 11.00

Children’s Menu

Macaroni and cheese (Kraft), vegetable, roll, 5.50
Milk or juice included

Beverages and Desserts, Lunch and Dinner

Coffee (regular or decaffeinated), 1.50
Tea (hot, iced, or herbal), 1.50
Milk (2%), 1.50
Soft drinks (regular or diet), 1.50
Bottled water (500 mL), 1.75
Domestic beer (Budweiser or Bud Light), 3.50
Premium beer (Corona, Heineken, or Samuel Adams, 4.25
Wine, available

Vanilla ice cream (with whipped cream, fruit topping, or chocolate sauce), 1.75
New York style cheesecake (with whipped cream, fruit topping, or chocolate sauce), 3.75
Apple pie, 3.25
Dark chocolate truffle, warmed (dinner only), 3.75
A la mode, add 1.75

California Zephyr menu found at

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