The diner came into its own by the late 19th century. While this car was originally designed only to keep passengers happy during their long journey by train during the streamliner era many of the railroads' flagship trains like the Capitol Limited, Broadway Limited, Super Chief, City of Los Angeles, Empire Builder, and others were serving dishes that would rival the best five-star restaurants from coast-to-coast. Dining aboard these trains became an experience into itself and many passengers rode their trains simply for the food! Today, some of these dishes continue to be offered at restaurants or on certain excursion trains. While Amtrak continued to serve prepared meals on board after its 1971 start-up through the 1990s today that is no longer the case with the diner being replaced by snack cars and vending machines. However, the diner is making a comeback. Aside from meals offered aboard excursion trains the new Pullman Rail Journeys is also bringing back this popular service just as it was during the classic streamliner era.
Interestingly, for years dining cars were not even part of passenger train consists. Prior to the late 19th century virtually no passenger train offered on board dining services. To make up for this lack of service railroads would allow passenger to deboard during stops for water if there were nearby restaurants/roadhouses. Often, this food was sub-par, at best. Because western railroads were built through some of the most sparsely populated areas of the United States, during the latter half of the 19th century it was they who first offered dedicated cars which offered dining services. From the earliest designs the layout of dining cars have remained relatively unchanged. The car is typically split in half with the front section featuring the main dining area with tables and seating while the back section featuring the galley, which is off-limits to passengers. By the time of the streamliner era dining cars became a unique experience aboard some trains, even outside of the food.
For instance, on board the Union Pacific's City fleet of passenger trains (the City of Los Angeles, City of Portland, City of San Francisco, City of Denver, City of St. Louis, and City of Salina) the railroad offered domed dining cars with the seating located in the upper domed area of the for breathtaking views of the passing countryside while enjoying your meal. And, of course, the dining itself during the peak of the passenger train travel in the streamliner era was legendary aboard some trains. It is said that the meals offered on the PRR's Broadway Limited and NYC's 20th Century Limited rivaled, and perhaps outmatched, those found in the finest restaurants of New York City at the time. On the Baltimore & Ohio the food was so exemplary, even up until the beginning of Amtrak, that the railroad found many passengers returning simply for the meals (an experience which many who rode the B&O remember fondly to this day). Interestingly, the Santa Fe was one of the last major railroads to hold out in offering on board dining car services. Instead, located along its Chicago-Los Angeles main line were what was known as "Harvey Houses", essentially restaurants catering mostly just to passenger train patrons. The food offered at these establishments was second-to-none and their legend remains even today.
However, when the AT&SF did finally decide to offer dining cars as part of its passenger train consists it constituted only the best of services. During the streamliner era the railroad offered dining in its "Turquoise Room" which also offered dining in a dome car. The car, which was part of the famed Super Chief, used authentic Native American (many of which depicted the Navajo) colors (such as turquoise and copper), patterns, and even authentic murals and paintings in the train. Other interior designs included rare and exotic woods like ebony, teak, satinwood, bubinga, maccassar, and ribbon primavera for trim through the train giving the Super Chief an added touch of one-of-a-kind elegance.
When Amtrak began operations in 1971 it also offered prepared meals aboard dining cars for years. However, by the late 1990s the national passenger carrier decided to forgo this service and replace it with snack cars and vending machines, a decision quite disappointing to passengers and patrons. Today, however, you can still treat yourself to real, prepared meals aboard trains if you visit one of the many tourist lines around the country. Some of the more well known such railroads offering these services include the Grand Canyon Railway, Napa Valley Wine Train, and Strasburg Railroad.
As incredible as it seems you can once again ride the rails just as it was in the classic era of passenger trains. In 2012 it was announced that Pullman Rail Journeys, owned by shortline conglomerate Iowa Pacific Holdings, would re-inaugurate classic Pullman service on select Amtrak trains that included a full staff with porters, full-course meals in dining cars, dome car service, and much more. The new service has since launched and is open to the traveling public in select locations (please visit their website to learn more). While it is expensive, with prices ranging from $500 to several thousand per trip, you can now rekindle the magic of what it was like to ride a train before the days of Amtrak. To learn more about the service please visit Pullman Rail Journey's website by clicking here.
For more reading about diners the book American Passenger Train Equipment: 1940s-1980s by author Patrick Dorin provides a very nice general history of classic car types used in service (predominantly during the streamlined era) featuring many drawings and detailed information on several. Also, the book The Cars of Pullman from author Joe Welsh, Bill Howes, and Kevin Holland. As the title implies the book details and highlights the various types of cars Pullman built throughout the years, along with giving a general history of the company in the process.