Credit larger ships with more expansive public areas and more creative uses of indoor and outdoor onboard space for the increase in alternative dining venues -- not to mention the cruise lines' never-ending quest for more revenue sources. (Though, to be fair, many of the new venues are free of charge.) Plus, by expanding menu options and partnering with some of television's most popular chefs, average-Joe cruise lines are embracing a more customizable gourmet experience onboard.
Of course, cruise traditionalists can still opt for a more classic -- not to mention fee-free -- dining scenario, or even combine both the old- and new-school options throughout their sailing. If you're not sure where to start, here's what's cooking on today's cruise ships.
More Creative Alternative Restaurants
In the past decade, every mainstream cruise line has instituted the for-fee alternative restaurant. Passengers can splurge on everything from sushi and hibachi to gourmet French fare and spicy Tex-Mex. The first for-fee dining venues stuck to traditional winners: steakhouses, Italian trattorias and French bistros. But lately, lines have been branching out and getting a bit more experimental.
Since the launch of Norwegian Epic in 2010, cruisers can indulge at Brazilian-style steakhouses, a concept introduced to cruising with the line's Moderno Churrascuria. Royal Caribbean quickly followed suit with Samba Grill, which debuted aboard Allure of the Seas less than a year after Norwegian's Moderno. Also in 2010, Celebrity debuted Qsine -- a whimsical international venue where dishes are served in odd containers (i.e. no plates) -- and the following year presented the Lawn Club Grill, an outdoor venue where diners can opt to participate in the dinner prep.
Remy, Disney's newest restaurant concept is bringing a gala-like experience to the specialty dining experience with an ultra-formal dress code, a menu created by a Michelin two-star chef and a $75 industry-high service fee. Holland America takes the dining experience at its Pinnacle Grill up a notch by transforming the venue one night per sailing into a copy of the famous land-based Le Cirque. At these dinners, passengers dine on some of that restaurant's most popular dishes.
Accommodations for Dietary Restrictions
It's rough traveling with restricted diets, as it can be very difficult to discern whether certain ingredients like milk, flour and chicken stock are used in restaurant dishes. Cruise lines have taken it upon themselves to make onboard dining easier and more accommodating for passengers with food restrictions and allergies. There are typically at least a couple of low-calorie, vegetarian/vegan, gluten-free and dairy-free options offered daily in the main dining rooms on most modern ships, as well as in some alternative restaurants. To add to the convenience factor, these items are usually clearly marked on the menu.
In fact, Royal Caribbean recently increased its efforts to label menu and buffet items as gluten-free, vegetarian and dairy-free, and we're seeing more attention to this kind of labeling industry-wide. Holland America and Seabourn have started highlighting vegetarian dishes in their onboard menus, and SeaDream has added a raw food menu -- starring organic and vegan foods -- to its main dining venue. And, as always, if passengers contact the cruise lines in advance, the ships can usually accommodate special requests for items not always carried onboard (gluten-free bread, soy milk, etc.)
Nearly every recent or upcoming new-build features some sort of comfort food eatery. In fact, Carnival Cruise Lines recently revamped the menus in its main dining rooms fleetwide to include such items as bacon macaroni and cheese, meatloaf and fried chicken. Some passengers weren't thrilled with the addition of such common foods to the formerly more formal MDR menus, but for the most part, the uproar has died down. More typically you'll find pizza, burgers and hot dogs in specialty venues -- though without the added fee -- such as Royal Caribbean's Sorrento's Pizza and Boardwalk Dog House; Carnival's Fat Jimmy's C-Side BBQ, SeaDogs and Guy's Burger Joint; and O'Sheehan's, Norwegian Cruise Line's 24-hour pub, serving such homey dishes as chicken pot pie, fish and chips, meatloaf and all-day breakfast items like omelets and corned beef hash.
Passengers who like the idea of incorporating an air of exclusivity to their time onboard can now choose to book a chef's table experience. An intimate group of about a dozen passengers will get to tour the galley during a regular dinner service and enjoy a specially prepared meal hosted by one of the ship's top chefs. The experience will run you about $75-$100 per person and needs to be booked well in advance, due to the limited space available. A chef's table dinner will typically feature a custom menu that includes drinks, hors d'oeuvres and a multicourse dinner with wine and dessert. Often even small details like the place settings allude to the upscale vibe of the event. On Holland America's Nieuw Amsterdam, passengers dine on Versace china and Frette linens.
A number of mainstream cruise lines are taking a cue from river and luxury lines and building alfresco dining venues on their newest ships. Most lines have had poolside grills for some time, but the ante has been upped with restaurants like Celebrity's Lawn Club Grill, an outdoor enclave offering steak, fish and kabobs that you can opt to prepare alongside a professional chef. Aboard Norwegian Cruise Line's Breakaway class of ships, passengers will find The Waterfront, a Boardwalk-style area featuring eight alfresco dining options, including Moderno, La Cucina and Cagney's -- some of the line's most popular restaurants -- as well as Ocean Blue, an upscale seafood venue that debuted aboard Norwegian Breakaway in 2013.
Famous chefs have been leaving their mark on the high seas for several years now, but, in the past, these famous foodies have mostly stuck to partnerships with luxury cruise lines. These partnerships include Jacques Pepin's position as executive culinary director with Oceania Cruises, Crystal's collaboration with Nobuyuki "Nobu" Matsuhisa and Cunard's Todd English Restaurant. But, of late, big cruise lines are bringing big names onboard.
In 2011, Carnival Cruise Lines launched Guy's Burger Joint aboard Carnival Liberty in partnership with platinum-haired TV chef Guy Fieri, and the line has been busy adding the venue fleetwide ever since. Cat Cora, Food Network's only female Iron Chef, is also making her mark on the cruise industry. In 2012, she became godmother to luxury line Oceania's Riviera, and, in summer 2013, she'll partner with Holland America and Food & Wine Magazine for a culinary theme cruise aboard Nieuw Amsterdam. Norwegian Cruise Line's aforementioned Ocean Blue is actually a joint effort with Food Network Iron Chef and New York restaurateur Geoffrey Zakarian, who not only designed the food and cocktail menus, but will be present for meet-and-greets and enrichment programs on select sailings.
And it's not just Food Network celebs that are gracing the high seas. Norwegian Breakaway sports Carlo's Bake Shop, which sells freshly baked cookies, cakes, pies, cannolis and other treats by baker Buddy Valastro, star of the TLC television series "Cake Boss." And, in 2013, personalities from Bravo's hit reality show Top Chef -- including famous chef and restaurateur Tom Colicchio and other renowned chefs like Hubert Keller, Richard Blais and Spike Mendelsohn -- sailed aboard Celebrity Constellation for a theme cruise that featured private cooking lessons and social events. Based on the success of the sailing and the onboard venues, we're betting even more celebri-chefs will be getting cozy on cruise ships in the future.
--Updated by Shayne Rodriguez Thompson, Cruise Critic contributor