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A dining car is a car on a passenger railway train that has a small kitchen where food is prepared along with a dining area where it is served to travelers. Due to size constraints, both the dining and kitchen areas of these cars are generally designed to use all available space as efficiently as possible. During the height of passenger rail travel in the 19th and early 20th centuries, a train’s dining car often offered high-quality food in an elegant atmosphere. As of the early 21st century, many formal dining cars have been supplanted by casual snack bars.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, when long-distance passenger train journeys were commonplace, the dining car was a practical necessity. As its name suggests, its primary function was to provide an onboard space where travelers could enjoy freshly prepared meals. With an onboard restaurant at their disposal, passengers did not need to worry about bringing their own food on their journey or intermittently disembarking from the train for meals. Additionally, the dining car offered train patrons an area in which they could mingle and socialize with other passengers.
Due to size limitations, both the dining and kitchen areas of a dining car are designed to maximize all available space. The dining area usually consists of two rows of square or rectangular tables which are separated by a central aisle. A dining car’s kitchen, often situated at the car’s rear, is usually designed in a galley style. Its two walls are lined with typical kitchen equipment, such as cupboards, drawers, refrigeration units, ranges, ovens, worktops, and so forth. Between these walls of equipment is a narrow aisle where one or more cooks can move about, preparing orders.
Despite these size constraints, however, during the height of passenger rail travel, dining cars were often very elegant. Many featured pristine linens, expensive china, ornate chandelier lighting, and immaculately dressed and mannered wait staff. With the proliferation of passenger railway lines in the US, Europe, and elsewhere during this era, the creation of increasingly elegant dining cars was in part an effort by these lines to attract customers.
As of the early 21st century, automobiles and airplanes have largely made long-distance rail travel a phenomenon of the past. In many countries, however, short-distance train travel does remain a common method of commuting into and out of cities, usually for work purposes. While this abbreviated form of train travel may persist, most commuter trains do not have a dining car. Those that offer food often do so in a casual snack bar format rather than a formal dining area.