Eating well at a great restaurant is one of life's guilty pleasures, whether it's leave-you-speechless haute cuisine or roll-up-your-sleeves indulgence. And there's good news for true gourmands. Some of the world's stellar chef-proprietors of those so-hot-you-can't-get-a-table citadels are jumping onboard.
What's fresh and enticing is that cruise lines have raised the food bar by developing partnerships with such storied chefs as Jacques Pepin, Wolfgang Puck, Nobu and Todd English. While you may rarely find these chefs in a cruise ship kitchen -- er, galley -- they do create menus, train chefs and consult on front-of-the-house operations ranging from wait staff training to ambience.
Check out a few of our favorites:
Carnival Cruise Lines
Venue: Carnival's Steakhouses
At the Helm: Georges Blanc, the Michelin-starred chef based in Vonnas, France, took on the job as Carnival Cruise Lines' first-ever celebrity chef and has taken the line's cuisine to new heights -- from the main dining rooms to steakhouses that are among the best restaurants at sea. His partnership with the line has since ended -- no word yet on whether another celebrity chef will take his place.
Palate Pleasers: The steakhouses, named differently on each ship, offer superb steaks, veal chops, lobster, fish of the day and lamb chops. More adventurous starters such as beef carpaccio and tuna tartare make for a more elegant experience than an average steakhouse, taking a bit of edge off Carnival's often frenetic pace.
At the Helm: Executive Chef Robert van Rijsbergen joined Azamara in late 2010 from SeaDream Yacht Club. The Amsterdam native has also served at Cunard and Seabourn, in addition to various restaurants.
Palate Pleasers:The menu, inspired by the coastal cuisines of Italy, Greece, France, Spain and northern Africa, focuses on simply prepared fare such as osso buco, lobster thermidor, rack of lamb, pan-seared snapper and duck breast.
At the Helm: Each 150 Central Park has a chef du cuisine. Frank Weber, Royal Caribbean International's vice president of Food and Beverage Operations, works with each chef du cuisine to design the seasonal degustation menus.
Palate Pleasers: 150 Central Park offers two menus that change per cruise and per season, and include ingredients that are sourced weekly. The six courses are served tasting style -- with vivid explanation.
At the Helm: Master chef Jacques Pepin, personal chef to three French heads of state, including Charles de Gaulle, works with Oceania's executive chefs to develop menus.
Palate Pleasers: Red Ginger offers contemporary interpretations of Asian classics, such as claypot caramelized chicken or miso-glazed seabass. Extensive tea, wine and dessert menus add to the experience.
Sea for Yourself: Red Ginger debuted on Marina. There's no cover charge.
At the Helm: Chef Jacques Van Staden, nominated by the James Beard Foundation as Rising Star of the Year, is Celebrity's vice president of Food and Beverage Operations. Van Staden and his team created Celebrity's ultimate destination-inspired restaurants.
Palate Pleasers: Striving to be playful and whimsical, Qsine lacks traditional courses, instead opting for a shared experience. Emphasis is on experimentation and adventure -- even going so far as to present the menu and wine list on iPads. Enjoy sushi lollipops, lobster escargot or grilled Kobe sliders.
At the Helm: Nobu, creator of the world-renowned Matsuhisa in Los Angeles, has now developed restaurants around the world. Crystal's Silk Road and the Sushi Bar are his only sea-going ventures.
Palate Pleasers: Exquisitely grilled black cod bathed in sake, mirin and miso with sweet and rich flesh, a fine example of Nobu's signature Japanese cuisine with an international flair, is among our favorites. Don't miss the sushi and sashimi at the sushi bar.
Sea for Yourself: Silk Road and the Sushi Bar are on both Crystal Symphony and Crystal Serenity. There's a $7 per person recommended service charge for the restaurant and the sushi bar.
Seabourn Cruise Line
Venue: Restaurant 2
At the Helm: Chef-restaurateur Charlie Palmer, known for his progressive American cuisine, oversaw recipe creation and menu planning at all the eateries on Seabourn's ships for nearly 10 years, before parting ways with the cruise line in December 2011. Palmer's claim to fame? New York's Aureole, California's Dry Creek Kitchen, and Charlie Palmer Steak (numerous locales from Las Vegas to Washington, D.C.).
Palate Pleasers: Even after 11 or so courses that emphasize Mediterranean flavors, you won't feel stuffed with this tapas-inspired menu. Butter-braised lobster and sweet pea leaf ravioli matched up with a carrot-ginger emulsion and sauteed escallops of foie gras with savory corn cakes. Pink roasted rack of veal gets the full treatment with a calvados cream on the side, and perfect potato tian -- baked sliced potatoes with herbs -- flatters the entree like good lighting. With a delicate browned sugar seal over the plushy custard, Palmer's creme brulee is a contrast of dark, milk and white chocolates.
At the Helm: Rudi Sodamin, master chef and culinary consultant for Holland America Line, is the driving force behind the evolution of fine dining at the line. He is the author of numerous internationally published cookbooks, including "A Taste of Elegance" (Rizzoli, 2009). Sodamin belongs to Academy Culinaire de France, Master Chef Society and Club de Chefs des Chefs.
Palate Pleasers: Pinnacle Grill boasts creative and innovative menus prepared with regional ingredients and hand-selected aged Sterling Silver beef and fresh seafood. Try spicy chicken coconut soup, Dungeness crab cakes or lobster macaroni and cheese. It also has an extensive wine list.
Sea for Yourself: Pinnacle Grill is on the entire fleet. There's a $10 cover charge for lunch; it's $25 for dinner, $12.50 for children.
Venue: The White Room
At the Helm: Marco Pierre White, the youngest British chef to be awarded three Michelin stars and head chef in the U.K.'s ITV show, "Hell's Kitchen," takes his creative cuisine to sea. White is also the force behind Cafe Jardin, the bistro on Oceana.
Palate Pleasers: Try the spaghetti lobster, a starter of salami mistadella Toscana (Italian tapas, really) and a hot raspberry souffle. Other crowd favorites include roasted veal chop with porcini mushrooms and pan juices, as well as the sardine starter.
Sea for Yourself: The White Room is found on P&O's Ventura. The cost to dine there is £20 per person on two-week voyages, £25 per person on seven-day holidays and £30 per person on short-break cruises. Or for £100 per couple, you can order from the White Room's full menu and dine on your balcony; the dinner comes with a bottle of Champagne, a butler and flowers.