Eat the Menu: Eat the Ship
To say I love cruising as much as I love eating is probably stretching the truth a bit, but I definitely love eating on a cruise ship as much as anywhere else. If not more so. Shocking? Maybe to someone who has never dined à la mer. Heck, before my own maiden voyage three years ago, I would’ve scoffed at the idea. Isn’t cruise food just one big all-you-can-eat buffet, filled with cheap gut-busting carbs and mediocre main dishes? Four cruises later and I can assure you, nothing could be further from the truth.
Yes, every major cruise line does offer an all-you-can-eat buffet and the quality, like all of the food onboard, varies from line to line, sometimes even ship to ship. However, the buffet is by no means your only option. Nor should it be. In fact, I would generally recommend you avoid it most days in favor of the main dining room. More on why in a bit. Regardless, there will be times you simply want a quick bite to eat before heading out on a snorkeling excursion or a lazy day at the beach and the buffet is perfectly suited for those very occasions.
Just as every major cruise line has a buffet, each also has its own main dining room. More civilized than saddling up to the buffet trough, main dining rooms typically offer breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And it’s our favorite way to eat on board. After all, you’re paying for the meals no matter how or where you consume them. Why not enjoy the luxury of a sit-down meal, served to you by overly attentive wait staff whose singular aim is to make your voyage as memorable as possible?
They know your name. What entrée you love. What ingredient you hate. Mention an allergy or aversion and it’ll never show up on your plate. Can’t get enough calamari and it’ll be on your table every night. And they never stop bringing bread baskets.
The variety often borders on the absurd with food and drink changing daily. If nothing strikes your fancy, never fear. There is usually a select group of classic entrées and items that stay on the menu throughout the entire voyage. And don’t let the small portions fool you. Order as many appetizers and entrées as you want. Like something? Great. Have another. Hate it? Send it back. It’s your fun-filled throw-caution-to-the-wind vacation. Live a little. Or a lot!
If the main dining room has lost its luster or you simply want to try something new, have a look around. Most ships offer a number of alternative dining options, some with an additional fee. My partner and I have had lifealtering steaks on board that would rival many restaurants in town for as little $35.
My best dining advice is do your homework before and during your cruise. Prior to departure, peruse the particular cruise line’s website for all your dining options and an explanation of what’s included and what might cost extra. Knowledge is power. You’re paying for it, get the most for your money.
Once on board, have a look around. Where are the dining rooms, specialty restaurants, and snack bars? Happening upon the fish and chips stand the last day of the cruise would be a real tragedy. Each day you’ll receive a schedule of food service times along with the activities and events. Read through everything. There’s nothing worse than arriving back from a long, arduous day of cave tubing to find that lunch ended 20 minutes ago. Hangry never needs to happen on a cruise.
Room service is another common option on most major lines. Read the fine print, though, to make sure late night calls don’t come with an added fee. We typically order room service for breakfast on mornings when we plan to get off the ship early. At the very least, have coffee delivered in the morning to put a little pep in your step as you get ready for another day in paradise.
Speaking of drinks, let’s not speak of drinks. There’s much to say on the matter. Too much, in fact, for me to cover here. And the discussion often requires math. I hate math. My best advice is to head to my singular favorite online cruise authority: cruisecritic.com. There you will find an endless supply of information, advice, and reviews about food, drinks, and, of course, every other possible cruise-related topic.
As I mentioned earlier, the quality of your dining experience varies by cruise line. My partner and I have now sailed on three different lines: Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and Celebrity. We loved each for different reasons. Fun is definitely the keyword on Carnival, food and otherwise. Nothing too fancy, you can always count on a heaping helping of comfort food on Carnival. If there’s a Guy’s (Fieri) Burger Joint on your ship, congratulations. You just won. Also, molten lava cake. Royal Caribbean’s attention to detail in the dining room was definitely on point. Above average, but not our overall favorite.
That honor goes to Celebrity. In April, we sailed on the Celebrity Summit out of San Juan. For seven days we found ourselves mouthing phrases like, “OMG can you believe this food?” “Isn’t this the best food we’ve had yet?” “Did you know they have an eggs benedict bar at the buffet?” “This is the best lobster I’ve ever had. ANYWHERE!” I can only imagine the eyerolling at neighboring tables.
It’s clear that Celebrity has made great food a priority. Remember how I said we generally avoid the buffet in favor of the main dining room? On the Summit we often found the food on the buffet as good as the main dining room. This is not typical. And a totally delightful surprise. We usually book a cruise for the itinerary, not the food, but let me tell you. If there’s an itinerary we want and multiple cruise lines offer it, we’d pick Celebrity every time.
If you’ve never cruised before and you love food, you’re missing out. We often come back from our trips with just as many memories of the meals we shared as the places we visited. If I were you, I’d hop on over to cruisecritic.com right now and begin planning your first/next trip, but be careful. Like the molten lava cake on Carnival, cruises are just as addictive. Bon Voyage!