Discover how to get the best from your culinary experience at sea.
Select your style of dining in advance: Some cruise lines offer an “Anytime Dining” option that lets you eat when you want as opposed to the traditional fixed seating where you are assigned a dinner table for an early seating (typically at 6:00 pm) or a late seating (usually 8:30 pm) for the duration of the cruise. Some passengers prefer to eat at the same table, with the same company, with the same waiters every night – in which case, the fixed dining option is best. Others prefer flexibility to accommodate their daily schedule even if it means a short wait to get a table. Whatever your preference, it’s best to let the cruise line know when you book your passage as opposed to waiting until you board the ship.
Experience the full range of dining options: Many mid-sized and large ships have a wide variety of free dining options including formal dining rooms, pizzerias, deli counters, outdoor grills, poolside theme lunches, ice cream bars, spa cuisine, pastry bars, and buffet-style cafeterias. Scout out all the options early on in the cruise so you can try as many different options as you like during the voyage.
Celebrate in style: Most ships have specialty restaurants that offer a more intimate, trendy, or upscale dining experience for an extra fee – usually $15 to $35 per person. On luxury cruise lines, these specialty restaurants are included in the fare. These alternative restaurants are great for special occasions or just to have an extra-special lunch or dinner. At a few cruise lines, there’s even something called the “Chef’s Table,” which can include a tour of the galley, a discussion with the executive chef, a specially designed menu, and an exclusive table ($75 or more per person). If these options sound appealing, book them as soon as you can – either before you board the ship or on the first day when doing a tour of the vessel.
Special dietary needs: Cruise lines go out of their way to accommodate special dietary needs including gluten-free, low sodium, lactose free, low calorie, diabetic and kosher foods as well as accommodating people with food allergies. They even stock baby food and can cater special orders such as wedding cakes to your personal design. Passengers should advise cruise lines in advance of any special dietary needs or desires so that the ship can stock necessary ingredients and prepare the right dishes.
Theme lunches and dinners: Some cruise lines organize special international lunches and dinners based on menus from countries like Japan, India, China, France, Germany, Mexico and Indonesia. On one cruise I took that was filled with Brits, they even held a series of English Pub lunches in the upscale Crown Grill (no extra charge) that included typical British fare such as bangers and mash, fish and chips, Scotch Eggs, and cottage pie. Theme meals can be held outdoors by the pool, in a section of the buffet cafeteria, or occasionally in one of the upscale alternative restaurants.
Room service: Most ships provide a range of complimentary food that can be delivered to your room at any time. Some cruise lines also provide a romantic champagne breakfast or a multi-course dinner menu that can be served on a table in your cabin or on your balcony, often for a small fee.
Snacks: In the old days cruise ships used to serve a variety of standard, pre-made hors d’ouevres in all of the bars before dinner. Now some cruise lines offer a range of freshly prepared snacks like sushi, tapas, cheese selection and shrimp in some of their bars. For example, some ships feature an International café serving freshly made shrimp cocktail, salads, pastries, cheese, and grilled sandwiches until early evening; and a wine bar that serves freshly prepared sushi and tapas – usually for free. In addition, ships usually have an afternoon tea service with hot beverages, finger sandwiches and cakes.
Check out daily menus in advance: Cruise ships usually post their lunch and dinner menus in various places around the ship including during the day. Some ships also post their daily menus on the closed circuit television available in your stateroom. It’s best to check out the various options in advance so you can decide where you would like to dine later that day, especially if a reservation is needed.
Wine tasting: Most cruise ships have one or more wine tastings during the voyage where passengers pay a small fee to attend a presentation of special wines with commentary from the ship’s sommeliers and head waiters. This event is worth attending not only for the quality of wine that’s provided, but also because it provides some great insight into the dining room’s wine list that can make ordering wines with evening meals a lot easier.
Cooking Demonstrations: Some cruise lines hold free cooking presentations where one of the ship’s senior chefs demonstrates how to cook some of the dining rooms main specialties including a wide range of appetizers, mains and desserts. These are typically held in one of the ship’s lounges or theatres, come with step-by-step commentary, and include close-up video footage projected on large screens so that passengers can follow the cooking process in detail. You may even get to sample the food!