The cruise era of assigned tables and seating times appears to have run its course and is fast being eclipsed by one of the industry’s most attractive recent innovations: alternative eateries.
Food. Glorious food. A fundamental appeal of a cruise holiday, shipboard food has been consistently abundant since ships first started carrying passengers for leisure travel. Even when the ships offered little more than dolled-up mess halls, to which everyone flocked for one of two scheduled feedings, the fare was usually quite respectable and always plentiful.While the cruise lines go to great lengths to use fresh ingredients that go into their innovative or classic menus, the obvious fact is that the main galley is preparing meals for hundreds of guests at once, perhaps more than 1,000 on the biggest ships.
Getting everything ready and keeping it warm for simultaneous delivery is a precise dance that requires a few tricks that ultimately diminish the quality, at least somewhat. It’s still good, but it cannot be labeled fairly as gourmet.
But over the past two decades, since Norwegian Cruise Line introduced its first Bistro in 1988, the cruise lines have been reworking the rules while adding more dining variety. They softened the cattle-call approach to dining, giving guests control over when and where they eat. Even if they choose to use the main dining room, cruise travelers are no longer locked into one specific seating at an assigned time.
The cruise lines also added venues. Now it is not at all uncommon for a large ship to have more than a dozen dining places, and the cruise lines frequently promise that their passengers can eat in a different dining venue each evening, if they wish.
At first this movement was subtle, with small cafes and additional buffets incorporated into new ship designs, but since the cruise lines started building larger and larger ships in the mid- and late-1990s, the options have increased dramatically to include every type of hamburger joint, pizzeria, coffee house and ice cream parlor known to a healthy appetite.
The undisputed headliners among those options are the alternative or specialty restaurants, as they are known, and cruise travelers now frequently spend their first moments on board making reservations. The most popular alternatives often are fully booked within a day or two of departure, although many do now allow booking in advance before leaving home.
Providing a more customized meal in a smaller, more intimate environment, the alternative restaurants are typically the upscale, reservation-required restaurants that deliver a more sophisticated ambiance than found in the main dining rooms. The food is cooked to order, and diners are given time to linger and enjoy. Dishes are usually prepared to order, the wine list is extensive, and the service standard is impeccable.
Most often the cuisine is a regional fare, such as Italian, Southwest, Asian or what might be called Steakhouse. Leading chefs and cooking personalities — Wolfgang Puck, Todd English, Jacques Pepin, and Nobuyuki “Nobu” Matsuhisa, to name a few — are also putting their names on some of these restaurants, creating world-class dining experiences.
Among mainstream and premium cruise lines, there’s usually a moderate fee for these specialty restaurants, typically in the range of $10 to $30 per person. The luxury cruise lines may not charge for dining in specialty restaurants, although there may be an expected but nominal gratuity. The cost of dining in a comparable land-based restaurant would frequently be three or four times greater than what the cruise lines charge.
New dining venues — including Asian, Italian trattorias and even fast food chains — have exploded the number of choices available to cruise passengers. Steakhouse dining at sea also benefitted from the alternative dining revolution.
Steakhouses, in particular, are a real bargain for anyone who appreciates the value of a perfectly aged cut of beef. And make no mistake, this is beef the likes of which never make it to a supermarket. Only about 25 percent of all beef is even considered for serving in these restaurants.
Alternative dining venues now rank with private balconies as a favorite feature. All are primarily adults-only venues, although children over 13 are welcome with an adult. Dress is typically smart casual, meaning jackets for men, dresses or pantsuits for women. On formal evening, formal attire is appropriate.
It would be nearly impossible to list all the alternatives now available since several can now be found on nearly every ship. Instead, here is a listing of some of the most noteworthy.
Carnival Cruise Lines
Walk into Harry’s on the Carnival Liberty, and you feel you have arrived in another era. A duo sings jazz classics, a couple or two might be dancing, and everywhere diners are enjoying huge portions of steak and seafood specialties. And while this is a slightly dressy environment, especially on formal nights, the atmosphere is one of friendly and attentive service. It’s a classic 40’s supper club with contemporary food and great wine.
Carnival’s supper clubs, on the Spirit, Splendor and Conquest class ships, have been a huge hit. They go by different names on different ships, but the concept is nearly identical, whether it’s The Point on Carnival Conquest or The South Beach Supper Club on the Carnival Triumph or Harry’s on Carnival Liberty.
The elegant steak-house format, featuring an excellent wine list, strikes an old-school chord, serving beautifully marbled steaks and seafood. Prime dry-aged steaks range from a 14-ounce New York Strip to a hefty 24-ounce Porterhouse. There is even a classic surf-and-turf or steak and lobster along with a whole Dover sole. Where these restaurants stand out, however, is in the presentation. Lamb chops are carved and presented in a standing rack, vegetables are arranged as art on the plate, desserts are accompanied by lavish displays of pastry and sauce.
Begin with a trio of Escargot or the beef carpaccio, press on to a spinach and mushroom salad with warm bacon dressing and then tuck into a perfectly cooked steak. And you’ll know what great dining can be. If you have room try the warm apple tarte tatin with some vanilla ice cream. After dinner you’ll have to dance the night away as a jazz group performs throughout, and there is dancing after dinner.
The cost is $30 per person, and the reviews are consistently enthusiastic. With capacity of about 100 in each supper club, passengers tend to make reservations early during each cruise.
From its beginnings just 20 years ago, Celebrity Cruises has paid special attention to the dining experience it provides and was among the first to name a celebrity chef to oversee the ships’ menus when it aligned with Britain’s French chef, Michel Roux, in 1995.
On Celebrity’s Millennium ships — Infinity, Millennium, Summit, Constellation and Century — the restaurants, decorated to match the décor of classic old steamships, deserve recognition as some of the best at sea. With seating for 134, the restaurants feature continental cuisine with tableside cooking, carving and serving. The entire experience takes about three hours, and at $30 per person, it’s well worth it.
Each restaurant also has a dine-in wine cellar for small groups as well as an open galley. Menus at each of the restaurants include nostalgic recipes such as Waldorf Pudding, but the most popular options are a bit more cutting edge, such as the goat cheese soufflé, foie gras or rack of lamb en croute.
With the recent introduction of Celebrity Solstice (and for the upcoming Celebrity Equinox), Celebrity created several alternative dining venues including the Tuscan Grille, Italian flair highlighted by superb steaks ($25 per person); Silk Harvest, serving a fusion of Asian selections ($20 per person); Blu, a specialty venue exclusively for guests booked in Celebrity’s new AquaClass category of accommodations; Murano, reflective of the specialty restaurants on the Millennium-class fleet, serving classic and modern Continental cuisine ($30 per person); and Bistro on Five, serving a variety of specialty crepes as well as sandwiches, soups, salads and a selection of entrees ($5 per person).
Spend an evening at Matsuhisa Restaurant in Beverly Hills, and you can easily rack up a tab totaling a few hundred dollars. But at the famed chef’s restaurants on the two ships operated by Crystal Cruises, you’ll need to pony up only $7 per person after you’ve laid down your chop sticks for a final rest.
Long a land-based favorite, sushi has returned to the sea at Master Chef Nobuyuki “Nobu” Matsuhisa’s restaurants on Crystal Serenity and Crystal Symphony. And at what a price. That $7 per person? It’s for suggested gratuities; Crystal charges nothing for dining at Nobu’s Silk Road and The Sushi Bar.
Anything served by Crystal Cruises is going to be first class, but Crystal’s reservations-only Asian restaurants are world class. Every detail is perfect, right down to the chopsticks, sake cups and decanters and the thick, blocky glass platters for serving sushi.
To watch the action of master chefs, take a seat the sushi bar to see such Nobu specialties as yellowtail sashimi with jalapeño and tuna tataki with ponzu sauce prepared right in front of you. Or sit at a table to choose from more than two dozen menu selections, including Nobu-style lobster with truffle-yuzu sauce, saikyo miso black cod and beef with three distinctive sauces.
Cunard Line’s infamous Queen’s Grill and Princess Grill are reserved for guests who book suites or upper-level categories. but anyone can dine at the alternative, reservations-only Todd English restaurants on Queen Mary 2 and Queen Victoria.
Known for the success of his restaurant Olives of Boston, Todd English serves up Mediterranean-influenced cuisine on the famous Cunard liners. Start with the Truffle Potato Love Letters and follow with the sumptuous main course of Roasted Duck Breast, Confit Duck Leg and Ginger Carrot Cannelloni.
Lunch carries a $20 per person cover, while dinner carries a $30 per person charge.
Disney Cruise Line
Sleek and trendy in style, Palo, on both the Disney Wonder and the Disney Magic, allows parents and adults to escape the kids for a relaxing evening dinner or Sunday brunch.
The Northern Italian menu — featuring signature dishes such as Chilean sea bass, calamari, souffle, smoked fish and fresh shellfish — is enhanced by the open-air kitchen and top-deck views.
Reservations are required, and Palo does carry a $15 per person charge for both brunch and dinner.
Holland America Line
Candlelight and fine décor create a romantic ambiance that sets the stage for fresh Northwest dishes and select wines at Pinnacle Grill, available on all of Holland America Line’s ships.
Elegantly appointed with Bvlgari china, Frette linens and elegant Riedel stemware, the Pinnacle Grill features a Pacific Northwest menu, with specialties such as broiled, troll-caught salmon, lobster tail, cedar-planked black cod and select cuts of prime hand-selected beef.
Starters include the Pinnacle Ocean Platter, comprised of carpaccio of lightly smoked salmon, hot smoked salmon, sea scallops and wasabi cream and Dungeness crab cakes with spiral shaved cucumber and sweet chili-mustard sauce.
Grilled items are prepared in a 1,600-degree clamshell grill that seals in juices and closely approximates an open ?re grill ashore. Choose from five prime cuts of beef, grilled and served with hand-crafted sauces.
And because this is a cruise ship, desserts include baked Alaska with a contemporary touch (one of the ingredients is Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ice cream). As you might expect, there are some outstanding wines from the Paci?c Northwest on the list.
The restaurant is open for lunch with lighter portions and more salads included on the menu. There is a cover charge of $15 for lunch and $20 for dinner and Holland America passengers can pre-book before the cruise. A nice feature, as the room frequently sells out. Open to upper-level suite guests for breakfast.
In addition to the Pinnacle Grill, Holland America Line’s new Eurodam debuted the Asian-inspired Tamarind restaurant, specializing in sushi and sashimi. Tamarind carries a $15 cover charge for dinner, while lunch is complimentary.
Princess Cruises offers an array of alternative dining choices on its ships, but two stand out: Sabatini’s, the Italian grill; and the Crown Steakhouse.
Sabatini’s offers a multi-course Italian extravaganza that is a dining experience to remember. The Italian restaurant also incorporates an adjacent bar, Adagio, a cozy venue for diners to enjoy a pre-dinner cocktail and full wine list as they listen to relaxing piano music. Special touches include an exclusive selection of Italian-inspired cocktails and special after-dinner beverage selections. The reservations-only Sabatini’s carries a $20 per person charge.
Featuring premium beef and seafood items, plus upscale appetizers and special desserts, the Crown Grill offers a showplace eatery with an open, theater-style kitchen where chefs custom-prepare steamed shellfish — such as lobster, scallops, clams and mussels — and cooked-to-order steaks and chops.
Diners can choose to sit at the kitchen’s eat-up counter and watch the show as they dine, or settle into a comfortable booth with an order of grilled tiger prawns or a filet mignon. The 160-seat restaurant features rich décor, leather appointments, fresh seafood displays, and a choice of booth, table and counter seating. The Crown Grill also offers a dedicated cocktail bar, wine display cabinets and a new signature 16-ounce Crown Grill Margarita. A $25 fee applies for dinner, and some items may carry an additional charge.
Royal Caribbean International
Entering Chops Grille is like stepping into a ?ne steakhouse in New York or Chicago. And that’s the idea, from the “Rat Pack” era jazz in the background to the red velvet banquets and dark woods in the décor.
Only the ?oor-to-ceiling windows reveal that you are sailing on a ship. Chops has a casual club-like elegance that makes for comfortable and relaxed dining. The open kitchen allows diners to watch the chefs grilling the prime dry-aged beef.
At Chops you might begin with Dungeness Crab and Shrimp Cake or a Not So Traditional Caesar salad. The steaks include the popular 10-ounce Filet and the 10-ounce New York Strip. There are also lamb chops, a veal chop and even a braised pork shank for something different. Sides are traditional including a large baked potato and creamed spinach.
The Chocolate Mud Pie is a popular dessert as is the Croissant Pudding Pie.
The $25 service charge includes gratuities (as do the cover charges on most ships).
Regent Seven Seas Cruises
Regent Seven Seas Cruises’ new Prime 7, introduced in January 2009 on Seven Seas Voyager and Seven Seas Mariner, is a classic American steakhouse serving up a menu of prime-aged steaks, chops, seafood and poultry. No additional charge for dining here.
Also on Regent: Signatures is the only restaurant at sea to operate under the auspices of “Le Cordon Bleu,” staffed by chefs trained at France’s pre-eminent culinary academy.
Seabourn Cruise Line
Seabourn’s yachts alternative dining venues include the indoor/outdoor Veranda Café, located all the way aft overlooking the wake when the ships are underway, and converted each evening into Restaurant 2, serving innovative tasting menus and themed dinners in a casual setting.
The Sky Bar, overlooking the sun deck and whirlpool spas, is a popular gathering spot both day and night, but Sky Grill dinners are occasionally served. Sky Grill (normally just a lunchtime venue) features grilled steaks and lobster and more on evenings when open.
Celebrated Chef Charlie Palmer creates the innovative menu for Seabourn. The alternative dining venues do not carry a fee.
Best alternative restaurant for . . .
- Honeymooners and special occasions: Disney Cruise Line’s Palo. Don’t be so surprised. Lots of people celebrate special occasions, such as anniversaries and honeymoons, on Disney ships. Where better to escape the kids than Palo?
- Families: Forget about it, unless your kids are older than 13, the typical cut-off age for alternative dining venues. But to escape the main dining room, go to the top deck, where the Lido restaurants typically are open for dinner.
- Vegetarians: Vegetarians can now find something on almost every menu in every alternative restaurant, including the steak houses, but Crystal’s sushi’s restaurants may just be the best bet for fish-eating vegans.
- Entertainment: The Supper Clubs on Carnival’s Fun Ships, which offer live music and dancing.
The Future Of Alternative Dining Venues
While it’s unlikely, given the main dining rooms that are already operating on cruise ships around the world, that the traditional cruise-dining framework will be usurped by the new alternative restaurants, it does seem safe to say that the strong popularity of the new, smaller restaurants will drive the cruise lines to develop more new dining concepts that will expand options for an evening meal on their ships.
To wit, Celebrity Solstice, was launched with 10 dining venues, the most in the entire Celebrity Cruises fleet. Look for the cruise lines to introduce more alternative dining venues on new ships.