Travelers can choose among the four types of dining service available on French trains by planning ahead. Which of the four a train offers can be learned from the ticket agent or the official train schedules.
The choices are (1) an old-fashioned dining car, (2) pre-cooked, airline-style meals, (3) a bar or buffet car with drinks, salads and sandwiches, and (4) a "Grill-Express" car--the rail version of a Horn & Hardart automat.
The old-fashioned dining cars are available on the Intercity and TEE trains. To get a table you must buy a first-class ticket plus a ticket "supplement," which would, for instance, cost about $69 on the Paris-Strasbourg route. Then you pay a fixed price for the meal--at current exchange rates, $12.50 for a multi-course lunch or dinner, which includes tip but not beverage. Some TEE trains also serve a la carte breakfast. Make your meal reservation when you buy your train tickets.
The pre-cooked, airline-style meals are served on Corail or TGV trains, at your seat, in specified cars only. You must buy a first class ticket, but no supplement, plus the meal ($12.50). Again, reserve a seat in a meal car when you buy your ticket.
The bar or buffet cars, where any passenger may eat, are also usually featured on Corail and TGV trains. No reservations are neccessary.
"Grill-Express" cars are included on a small number of trains. Passengers select pre-cooked dishes, from eggs and sandwiches to steaks, at little windows. No reservations needed.