The Long View: Cruising's Specialty Restaurants - My Family Travels

Hear what FTF's cruise expert has to say about what passes for “fine dining” aboard today's major cruise ships.

Lately, when I mention cruising to friends and family, the topic of dining comes up almost as often as questions about destinations and children’s activities. I think the reason people are starting to talk about cruise cuisine is simple: it’s increasingly worth talking about. Gone are the days when even mid-price cruise lines could get away with serving bland generic fare and limited menus, thanks in part to the proliferation of specialty restaurants industry-wide.

Although everyone laments the inevitable weight gain that goes with a typical seven-day cruise, the truth is that all-inclusive dining is one of the joys of today’s cruising. No menus to prepare, no dishes to wash and – best of all – no bill at the end of the meal.

What, then, to make of the proliferation of specialty restaurants – most of which incur an additional charge — increasingly available on today’s cruise ships? The idea behind the trend is to alleviate passenger boredom brought on by dining at the same table every night at a pre-designated hour and staring at the same companions – and more or less the same menu – at each meal.

Anyone who has ever traveled with young children and seen them drop their heads on the table during a late seating – or been forced to eat a full dinner every night during what at home would barely be considered cocktail hour – can appreciate the concept.

Of course, families were always able to choose a buffet meal on the lido deck – available on most main-stream cruise lines – or opt for room service, whenever they want, but who wants to miss lobster and baked Alaska night, not to mention the fun of being waited on, by standing in the buffet line?

With specialty restaurants, passengers eat according to their own schedules and sample what is often the best dining on the ship, usually tied to a particular theme, such as Italian or sushi. Best of all, families with kids who hate to dress up can avoid formal night altogether, as specialty restaurants don’t usually adhere to the main dining room dress codes.

Is there a downside to all this? Yes, and the first is cost. Most specialty restaurants typically charge between $10 and $20 per person. While that’s a steal for a lavish surf and turf dinner, it adds up for a family of five, especially if you do it every day.

Another glitch is availability. Don’t expect to just show up at a specialty restaurant and get a table – it’s a good idea to make reservations as far in advance as possible. And if you’re planning to leave younger kids with a baby sitter while you have a special meal, you may have to reserve that in advance, as well.


Galley Gossip Aboard Major Cruise Lines

Here is a sampling of the specialty restaurants aboard each line, and what’s worth planning ahead for.

Norwegian Cruise Line leads the specialty restaurant trend with its Freestyle Dining concept, offering passengers so many choices that they could conceivably eat somewhere different every night on a typical weeklong cruise. The Norwegian Jewel, for example, has 10 restaurants, only six of which charge a supplement.

Of those, our hands-down favorites – which you can also find on other NCL ships – include Cagney’s Steakhouse for surf and turf; Le Bistro for French cuisine and the Japanese Teppanyaki Room for an in-your-face stir-fry.

Princess Cruises offers an Anytime Dining plan that allows you to eat whenever you want in the main dining rooms (reservations are a good idea, however) as well as several specialty restaurants. The Sabatini’s serves groaning portions of fresh seafood and pasta, while the Sterling Steakhouse grills prime steak to order.

On Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, the newest restaurant is Jade, which features Asian fusion cuisine for no extra charge; Portofino serves up a mix of traditional and innovative Italian fare, while the Chops Grille features prime steaks in an intimate setting. For the younger kids or anyone who craves a juicy burger and a chocolate shake served in a 50s ambience, we also love the Johnny Rockets restaurants on some Royal Caribbean ships (for a modest surcharge). This line, like many more to follow I am sure, has banned the use of all trans-fats in its food preparation.

Carnival Cruise Lines has unveiled a Total Choice Dining program that features reservations-only supper clubs on nine ships (ten when Carnival Splendor debuts in July), including Harry’s on the Carnival Liberty for hand-cut, dry-aged U.S.D.A. prime beef.

On Holland America Cruise Lines, the Pinnacle Grill serves fine wines and Pacific Northwest specialties on all its ships, including aged, prime beef and fresh seafood on Bvlgari china.

Another favorite is the Palo restaurant on Disney Cruise Lines, an adults-only eatery with an elegant Northern Italian menu and a serious wine list. Because this is the only specialty restaurant on the two Disney ships, book on embarkation day if possible.

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