The 30 hour trip between Milwaukee, WI and Whitefish, MT was made much more comfortable and enjoyable in part due to the meals served in the dining car. The train in both directions (east and west) had a dining car which provided a full-service hot food experience to guests.
Departing Milwaukee at approximately 4pm and a scheduled arrival the following day at 9:00pm my plan was to dine with Amtrak for four meals. My return trip was scheduled to depart Whitefish shortly prior to 8:00am, arriving back home in Milwaukee at 2:00pm, which would be five meals.
I can say that for my nine meals on the train, I enjoyed them all. Some were much better than others, and all were one hundred times better than what you can expect to experience on an airplane. Even my first class experience on British Airways last summer could not compare in quality or selection to what I had during my train adventure!
A little about dining on Amtrak . . .
They have open seating (no reservations) for breakfast (6:30am - 9:00am) and lunch (11:00am - 2:00pm). Once the dining car was full, they took a waiting list to accommodate everyone who wished to dine with them. For dinner, reservations are required and seemed to be generally taken in 15 to 30 minute increments, between 5:00pm and 7:45pm. The staff on both of my dining cars were very friendly and efficient. I was impressed at just how quickly they were able to feed and move folks through the dining process without feeling as though you were being rushed.
Times are approximate and somewhat flexible based on the actual travel times on the train. Because my return trip was behind schedule leaving Whitefish, and lost more time along the way, the meal services provided were correspondingly adjusted. Additionally, because of the number of people still on the train for certain meals, food shortages seemed to follow (especially for lunch that day).
Guests are seated with others so as to fill all of the four-person tables. On my trip out to Whitefish I traveled alone, so I was always put with others. On the return, I was traveling with my sister and nephew so we were often alone as there were no singles to add to our group. For the most part, the social aspect of riding on the train is highlighted during meals because you are encouraged to meet and chat with others. Most people that I met along my journey were open and friendly, willing to engage in conversation with new friends.
As for the dining car menu, you can check out what the Empire Builder offers on their website: http://www.amtrak.com/servlet/ContentServer?c=AM_Route_C&pagename=am%2FLayout&cid=1241245653623 . There are similar guides for the other Amtrak routes throughout the system. They did a good job of offering different "chef's specials" from day to day. That was especially nice if you were riding over a distance of more than one day. One example was their "French Toast or Pancakes" breakfast. One day it was the french toast . . . the next day pancakes.
They also featured chef specials for lunch and dinner. I tried to sample as much of their menu as possible over the course of my four days on the train. I really liked the pancakes . . . they were obviously cooked to order on a flat grill and not microwaved. For lunch, I enjoyed the chef's special blue cheese salad feature . . . and dinner always seemed to be outstanding. I guess I was most surprised at how good the pork chop was my first night and that the oven fried catfish was not overly fishy or greasy.
Lunch and dinner meals also offered desserts. At lunch it was generally Haagen Dazs ice cream or sorbet. At dinner, they featured chocolate covered cream puffs one night and a tiramisu parfait or an apple/pear/cranberry pie the second.
In addition to soft drinks and milk, beer and wine are also available in the dining car.
If you are being accommodated in a roomette or bedroom, you are considered to be traveling first class. As such, all of your meals in the dining car are included in the price of your sleeping accommodations. That said, I felt the prices for the quantity and quality of food provided was fair. I found that my breakfasts averaged around $12; lunches $15 and dinner $23 including beverages. The total costs for my meals were $77 on the way out (1 breakfast, 1 lunch and 2 dinners) and $81 on the way back (2 breakfasts, 2 lunches and 1 dinner). Gratuities to servers were extra. They accepted cash and credit cards for all meal purchases.
For those travelers who prefer to not eat on such a regimented schedule or with others in the dining car, there is the option to buy food in the lower level of the lounge car. Generally speaking the lounge car is open throughout the trip with the exception of a short break in the morning, another in the afternoon and then overnight from about 11:00pm until 6:00am. They offer a full array of items for breakfast, lunch and dinner as well as snack items and beverages. I must admit, during one of the morning announcements, the bagel and cream cheese sounded pretty tempting! My nephew also said that the microwaved hamburgers were also pretty good too.
As a low cost option, folks can bring their own snacks and soft drinks aboard the train as well. I noticed a lot of families traveling with coolers and sacks filled with sandwiches and snacks for the ride. While folks are allowed to bring soft drinks on the train, alcohol may only be brought on and drank by those who are in sleeping accommodations (i.e., not in coach).
Bottom line . . . dining on Amtrak's Empire Builder was a big bonus during my "Stations Across the Nation" adventure!