My daughters and I have taken the Coast-Starlight train twice in the last couple of months, from Oakland down to LA. Both times we had at least one meal in the dining cart. All in all the experience was pretty positive.
Amtrak requires you to make a reservation for the dining car a few hours before. For this particular trip, it’s soon after you leave from Oakland. An attendant will go by your seat, and you can get both lunch and dinner reservations. If you get into the train later or decide you want to eat in the dining car at the last minute, you can go to the dining car and see if any reservations are available. Chances are they’ll have them. You can also eat in the lounge car, though in our last trip, this one was busier.
Service is very good and friendly. The tables seat four, and while they don’t split parties, they do seat people together. In our first trip, my two daughters and I shared our meals with two different single ladies, who were fortunately both gregarious and interested on the children, so we all had a great time. We got eat alone in our last trip.
The food would not win any culinary awards, but it can be decent if you keep your expectations low. Prices are high, but you’re eating there mostly for the experience.
Both times I had their cheeseburger for lunch ($10, + $2 for bacon). The first time it was pretty decent, not something you’d write home about it, but I’ve gotten worse burgers in my life. The second time it was overcooked and very dry so it was hard to finish. It’s a large burger, however, and neither time I was particularly hungry for dinner later.
My daughters have tried the pizza from the kid’s menu ($7) and enjoyed it. It’s your generic frozen mini pan-pizza, but it’s pretty tasty as far as these go. I had it for my dinner myself on my first trip – when I could not envision eating, or paying for, a whole dinner entree – and it was OK. But then again, I really wasn’t hungry. I don’t think they usually let adults order from the kid’s menu, but by then I’d built a good rapport with the dining room attendant.
One of them also had the mac & cheese ($7) but preferred the pizza.
During our second trip, my daughter had the “marketplace special” ($12.50), which that day was panko-coasted chicken breast and mashed potatoes with some type of sauce. Mika thought it was just OK, but I had her left overs and they were quite tasty. I would order this dish if available in my next trip.