A dining car (American English) or restaurant car (British English), also diner, is a railroad passenger car that serves meals in the manner of a full-service, sit-down restaurant.
It is distinct from other railroad food service cars that do not duplicate the full-service restaurant experience, such as cars in which one purchases food from a walk-up counter to be consumed either within the car or elsewhere in the train. Grill cars, in which customers sit on stools at a counter and purchase and consume food cooked on a grill behind the counter are generally considered to be an "intermediate" type of dining car.
Before dining cars in passenger trains were common in the United States, a rail passenger's option for meal service in transit was to patronize one of the roadhouses often located near the railroad's water stops. Fare typically consisted of rancid meat, cold beans, and old coffee. Such poor conditions discouraged many from making the journey.
Most railroads began offering meal service on trains even before the First Transcontinental Railroad. By the mid-1880s, dedicated dining cars were a normal part of long-distance trains from Chicago for points westward, save those of the Santa Fe, which relied on America's first interstate network of restaurants to feed passengers en route. The legendary "Harvey Houses," located strategically along the line, served top-quality meals to railroad patrons during water stops and other planned layovers and were favored over in-transit facilities for all trains operating west of Kansas City.
As competition among the railroads intensified, dining car service was taken to new levels. When the Santa Fe rolled out its new "Pleasure Dome"-Lounge cars in 1951, the railroad introduced the travelling public to the Turquoise Room, promoted as "The only private dining room in the world on rails." The room accommodated 12 guests, and could be reserved anytime for private dinner or cocktail parties, or other special functions. The room was often used by the era's celebrities and dignitaries while traveling on the Super Chief.
In one of the most common dining car configurations, one end of the car contains a galley (with a side aisle next to it, so passengers can pass through the car to the rest of the train) while the other end supports table or booth seating on either side of a center aisle.
Trains with high demand for dining car services have sometimes featured "double-unit dining cars" consisting of two adjacent cars functioning to some extent as a single entity, generally with one car containing a galley plus table or booth seating and the other car containing table or booth seating only.
In the dining cars of Amtrak's modern bilevel Superliner trains, booth seating on either side of a center aisle occupies almost the entire upper level, while the galley is below; food is sent to the upper level on a dumbwaiter.
Dining cars enhance the familiar restaurant experience with the unique visual entertainment of the ever-changing view. While dining cars are less common today than in the past (having been supplemented, or in some cases replaced altogether by other types of food-service cars) they still play a significant role in passenger railroading, especially on medium- and long-distance trains.
Today, a number of tourist-oriented railroads offer dinner excursions to capitalize on the public's fascination with the dining car experience.