What's the best [fill in: pizza, steak, dessert] you ever had at sea?
If you're like us, food is a key component of your vacation experience. You plan for it ("let's visit the steakhouse on the first sea day"), you talk about it ("I'm so excited for ribs at lunch today"), you inquire ("where on the buffet did you find burritos?") and -- once you're back home -- you reminisce ("do you remember that luscious creme brulee we had on our Caribbean cruise?").
And, when you meet other cruise travelers, you compare. You want to know where the best food finds are; have you had the epitome of amazing onboard dining, or have you been missing out? Perhaps the tale of a heavenly meal will convince you to try a new cruise line -- or your story of a dinner not to be missed will persuade a shipmate to book at the specialty restaurant after all.
The staff here at Cruise Critic is no different. We talk a lot about cruise food, arguing about which menu items are "best," based on our favorite binges. To include you in our food-focused conversation, we've come up with our top picks for a number of foods, based on our collective cruise experience. Just like Johnny won Most Likely to Succeed in high school, these cruise food superlatives are Most Likely to be Scrumptious (and, many times, even free). Spoiler alert: The chocolate melting cake did not make best dessert, and the best hamburger may be overshadowed by its fries!
To find out what did win, click through our slideshow. A word of warning: You may be drooling by the end.
Photo: Cruise Critic
Best Hamburger: Guy's Burger Joint (Carnival)
"They must put crack in those burgers," Cruise Critic member Romey050500 writes about our best burger winner. "Once you have one of those you're hooked." Guy's burgers do not contain drugs, but donkey sauce (defined as "jacked up secret mayo") and S.M.C. (super melty cheese) top these juicy, handcrafted beef burgers to produce an irresistible delight for carnivores. Plus, there's no extra fee to chow down. Don't count out the hand-cut fries, though. They're coated in a spicy signature seasoning. Try eating them outside -- the combination of zesty fries and salty ocean air makes the snack extra tasty.
Photo: Jen Wesolowsky/Cruise Critic
Best Sushi: Sushi Bar
Located inside Crystal's Silk Road restaurant, the aptly titled Sushi Bar boasts the handiwork of Chef Nobu Matsuhisa, highly acclaimed for crafting exquisite and outlandish sushi worldwide, from Dubai to Hawaii. If the words "Japanese-Peruvian fusion" don't pique the interest of your taste buds, then how about tuna tataki with ponzu sauce, yellowtail sashimi with jalapeno or sashimi-style Wagyu beef? Silk Road and its interior Sushi Bar are available at no additional charge on both Crystal ships.
Photo: Crystal Cruises
Best Pizza: Alfredo's Pizzeria (Princess)
We've had more lackluster pizza than memorable on cruise ships, so thank goodness for Princess, which delivers a satisfying slice. Alfredo's Pizzeria, our top choice (found onboard Grand, Royal and Sapphire Princess), keeps even the skeptics satisfied with six hand-tossed pies on its menu, created by Alfredo Marzi, the line's master chef. Minimalists will appreciate that pizza is the only thing on the menu. The crust is wafer-thin, but it easily accommodates fresh and sumptuous ingredients like Parma ham with cherry tomatoes and avocado with squash. Lucky for you, these Neapolitan-inspired pies won't cost you extra -- Alfredo's is a casual dining, no-fee restaurant.
Photo: Princess Cruises
Best Pasta: MSC Cruises
Keeping with its undeniable Italian heritage, MSC honors "the masterpiece of Italian gastronomy" with its homemade pastas, available on every ship, winning our top marks. The line uses only the highest quality semolina from select Italian mills, and pappardelle, tagliatelle, caserecce, gnocchi and ravioli are just a few types of fresh pasta that sound almost as fun rolling off the tongue as on it. Aside from the pasta du jour in the main dining room, alternative, for-fee restaurants like Le Obelisco, onboard MSC Poesia, offer delectable dishes that include sauteed vermicelli pasta with carpet-shell clams and cherry tomatoes, and tagliolini pasta with lobster sauce, prepared in front of you.
Photo: MSC Cruises
Best Indian Food: Sindhu (P&O)
Atul Kochhar is the first Indian chef to win a Michelin star, so it's no surprise his restaurant, Sindhu, onboard P&O's Azura, tops our charts for its South Asian cuisine. The limited menu features contemporary Asian dishes paired with Indian classics. One aromatic whiff of Kochar's spices will put your senses at attention, and dishes like traditional lamb curry and pan-roasted lobster in coconut sauce will make you a believer. The venue is a cut above the average land-based Indian restaurant; the dishes are beautifully presented, and the spice is more subtle than overpowering. However, there is a cost to spicing up your life -- Sindhu requires a cover charge to dine.
Photo: P&O Cruises
Best International Cuisine: Qsine (Celebrity)
The highlight of Qsine may be the whimsical presentation and the variety of choice even more than the food itself. The meal is fun, with spring rolls arriving in metal springs, sushi balancing on lollipop sticks and Mediterranean mezze perched on shelves in a window-frame type display box. Plus, there’s a ton of choice, as the menu comprises dishes from a variety of cultures. Meat-and-potatoes types can stick to sliders, tacos and filet mignon, while more adventurous palates can seek out Indian food, Persian kebobs, ceviche and the aforementioned mezze. Throw in quirky decor with upside-down lamps, iPad menus and puzzle-box dessert lists, and you've got a dinner that's unlike any other meal you've eaten onboard or off. Qsine is a for-fee dining experience, currently available on six Celebrity ships.
Photo: Erica Silverstein/Cruise Critic
Best Fish: Remy (Disney)
Sure, you get intimate service, inspired plating and spectacular French cuisine at Disney's Remy (onboard Disney Dream and Fantasy), but the surprising standout there is the seafood. Our top pick for best fish onboard -- it's harder than you think to do fish right, even in the middle of the ocean -- Remy offers dishes that are elegantly prepared and perfectly cooked. The black cod is delicious, subtle yet flavorful. Forget "Finding Nemo"; you'll swear you hear Chef Louis from "The Little Mermaid" singing "Les Poissons," his love song to a seafood diet. Eating delectable fish will come at a price; Remy is one of the most expensive specialty restaurants at sea.
Photo: Disney Cruise Line
Best Ice Cream: Ben and Jerry's (Royal Caribbean)
Their funky flavors have long been staples in living rooms and college dorms across America, but, for years, Ben & Jerry's has been bringing a taste of Vermont to international waters aboard a dozen Royal Caribbean ships. How could we not vote the purveyors of Cherry Garcia and Chunky Monkey over the standard vanilla and chocolate soft-serve dispensers found on the Lido Deck? This ice cream will set you back a few bucks, but it's well worth the cost for anyone with a serious cookie dough milkshake craving at sea. Just know that the ships stick to tried-and-true standards; the full Ben & Jerry's menu is not available onboard. (Tip: Book cabin 6305 on Freedom-class ships, and you'll get free frosty delights to make up for the cow's behind that blocks your Promenade view.)
Photo: Royal Caribbean
Best Dessert: Cupcake Cupboard (Royal Caribbean)
The frosting versus cake debate rages in many inner cupcake circles, but there's no debating that cupcakes are delicious, winning our Best Dessert at Sea category. Those who have eaten from the Cupboard cite the baked goods as a meal unto themselves; the oversized cupcakes can feed a hungry couple or small family. (Two to three people to a cupcake is recommended.) Minis are also available for less ambitious appetites. The bakery's best-selling flavor is red velvet, but you'll also find variety for satisfying any voracious sweet tooth, including bubblegum, coconut, cola, turtle and, of course, traditional chocolate and vanilla. Frosting fans will rejoice in the amount of sugary goodness layered thick on top of these dominating desserts, available for purchase onboard Allure and Oasis of the Seas.
Photo: Royal Caribbean
Best Specialty Buffet: Chocolate Buffet (Norwegian Cruise Line)
If you love all things chocolate, this gratis late-night buffet is a dream come true. From tasty cakes and scrumptious pastries to beautifully carved chocolate sculptures, Norwegian's Chocolate Buffet will bring chocoholics to their knees -- and impress even the most adamant salt- and savory-lovers. Just beware of sensory overload on the Sun- and Jewel-class ships, which lay out these rich, mind-boggling variations of cocoa, crafted to appeal to both your sight and taste receptors.
Photo: Norwegian Cruise Line
Best Afternoon Tea: Oceania Cruises
Oceania takes cruise ship afternoon tea service to the next level and wins our top award. If you're the type who cares for a spot of tea, you'll be delighted with the white-gloved waiters who push trolleys laden with pastries, finger sandwiches, and scones with jam and clotted cream. Even those typically unaccustomed to the mid-afternoon tradition will be enticed to partake in this free special snack, complete with white-linen tablecloths, silver, china and a string quartet. Tea is served in the Horizon Lounge, which provides stellar panoramic views, especially on sea days.
Photo: Oceania Cruises
Best Steak: Prime 7 (Regent Seven Seas)
If a fine cut of meat tickles your fancy, the steaks at Prime 7 onboard Seven Seas Voyager and Seven Seas Mariner get our stamp of approval. They're USDA Prime and dry-aged for a minimum of 28 days. Choose from 12-ounce New York Strip, 18-ounce bone-in rib steak, the classic Filet Mignon, prime rib, American Wagyu chopped steak and a whopping 36-ounce Porterhouse, which is carved tableside. Explore other meats with New Zealand double-cut lamb chops, center-cut milk-fed veal rib chop, double-cut Kurobuta Berkshire pork chop or an oven-roasted half chicken. Seafood is also present on the menu, with plenty of options for surf and turf. Even the appetizers excel, offering delicacies like foie gras sliders with rhubarb chutney. Prime 7 is part of Regent's all-inclusive dining, so there's no additional charge.
Photo: Regent Seven Seas Cruises
Best Authentic Pub Grub: Golden Lion (Cunard)
If you want the real English pub experience on a British cruise ship, look no further than Cunard's Golden Lion Pub, available on all three of the line's vessels. People go as much for the atmosphere and the real ales as the classic pub lunches. After the elaborate dishes they get in the other restaurants onboard, passengers relish the simpler comfort food of this truly authentic pub at sea. Staples like bangers and mash, fish and chips, chicken korma and cottage pie complement the vast beer selection quite nicely. The Golden Lion is open for pub lunch only, but it's free of charge. Drinks are additional.
Photo: Cunard Line
Best Faux Pub Grub: O'Sheehan's (Norwegian Cruise Line)
The British lines may offer more authentic pubs, but the American ships offer a slew of fabulous faux options, and we wanted to give props to our favorite, Norwegian Cruise Line's O'Sheehan's. Billed as the first Irish pub at sea, O'Sheehan's has a distinctly American overtone. Food is offered 24/7, and options range from create-your-own omelets and breakfast platters to comfort food spanning chicken pot pies, meatloaf, wings and more. A popular dessert is the strawberry pound cake. An international beer selection is available to accompany your meal, along with other beverages (even malts and root beer floats) for an added fee. The food at O'Sheehan's -- found on Norwegian Epic and Breakaway -- is available at no additional charge.
Photo: Teijo Niemela