Eating well at a great restaurant is one of life's finest indulgences, whether it's leave-you-speechless haute cuisine or greasy, salty guilty pleasures. The good news for cruisers is you don't have to leave dining choices behind on dry land when you set sail. Cruise ships are continually upping the ante with specialty restaurants that feature international dishes, celebrity chefs, intimate venues, innovative menus and all-round delicious food.
Partnerships with such storied chefs as Jacques Pepin, Jamie Oliver and Nobu have certainly raised the food bar at sea, but even in-house culinary teams are turning out novel cruise ship fare. Look for onboard venues embracing the gastropub movement, advanced cooking technologies and even molecular gastronomy.
Many, but not all, of these dining venues come at a price, but the extra fees are often worth it. If you're an avid foodie, a couple looking for a romantic splurge or to celebrate a special occasion, or anyone wishing to cap a vacation day with an especially memorable dinner, you will relish this list of our favorite onboard alternative restaurants.
1. Azamara Club Cruises
At the Helm: Executive Chef Robert van Rijsbergen
Why We Love It: Rotating menus mean passengers can have two different dining experiences in the same space.
The Dish: Aqualina offers two menus, its original Mediterranean bill of fare and an Italian menu that was introduced in 2014. The newer menu -- which includes gnocchi, prosciutto with melon and limoncello souffle -- is swapped with Mediterranean offerings (such as osso buco, lobster thermidor and filet mignon) every few days.
Ships: Azamara Quest and Azamara Journey
Cost: A surcharge of $25 per person applies; there's no charge for suite passengers. Reservations are recommended but not required.
2. Carnival Cruise Lines
Restaurant: Guy's Burger Joint
At the Helm: Restaurateur and Food Network personality Guy Fieri
Why We Love It: Carnival proves you don't need fancy clothes or lap napkins to enjoy a high-quality meal.
The Dish: Found on a number of ships after Fun Ship 2.0 upgrades, Guy's Burger Joint serves fresh-off-the-grill burgers and hand-cut fries in a fun, laid-back poolside setting. Diners can order prepared menu items or head to the toppings bar to customize their burgers.
Ships: Carnival Breeze, Carnival Conquest, Carnival Freedom, Carnival Glory, Carnival Liberty, Carnival Sunshine and Carnival Triumph
Cost: It's free. To grab some grub, you'll need to wait in line.
3. Celebrity Cruises
Restaurant: Tuscan Grille
At the Helm: Celebrity's culinary team
Why We Love It: In addition to scrumptious fare, the venue offers the best views of any restaurant onboard each ship, thanks to an entire wall of glass.
The Dish: The line's Italian steakhouse serves up traditional regional fare with a contemporary flair. The menu features steaks, seafood and pasta, all with corn-fed USDA Choice beef. Diners can start off with plates of antipasto and top their meals off with chocolate fondue and limoncello. Lunch is served at least once per cruise.
Ships: Celebrity Eclipse, Celebrity Solstice, Celebrity Silhouette, Celebrity Constellation, Celebrity Equinox, Celebrity Reflection
Cost: You'll pay $35 per person. Reservations are required.
4. Crystal Cruises
Restaurant: Silk Road and the Sushi Bar
At the Helm: World-renowned master chef Nobuyuki "Nobu" Matsuhisa
Why We Love It: The onboard chefs were all personally trained by the master himself -- and it shows.
The Dish: Nobu's menu is a blend of classic Japanese, Peruvian and European cuisines. Some of his popular entrees include lobster with truffle-yuzu sauce and the Nobu Box, a sampler of his famous beef, cod and rock shrimp dishes.Don't miss the sushi and sashimi at the sushi bar.
Ships: Crystal Symphony and Crystal Serenity
Cost: The first reservation is complimentary and can be booked pre-cruise; additional reservations are $30 per person, based on availability, and they must be made onboard.
Restaurant: The Verandah
At the Helm: Cunard Global Culinary Ambassador and Michelin-starred chef Jean-Marie Zimmermann
Why We Love It: The Verandah restaurant pays homage to the exclusive Verandah Grills found on the original Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary. A meal there will upgrade any cruise into a luxury one -- at least until the last crumb of dessert has been devoured.
The Dish: The dishes represent France's culinary heritage, with options from various regions: the Pyrenees, Alsace, Burgundy, etc. Dishes might include a crab meat starter with tomato caviar, monkfish and rascas fish bouillabaisse, magret duck served with baked brie, and hot vanilla souffle infused with Edmond Briottet peach liqueur. The menus on each ship vary slightly.
Ships: Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria
Cost: It's $25 for dinner and $15 for lunch, per person, with supplemental fees for select menu items. Reservations are required for all passengers, including World Club members.
6. Disney Cruise Line
At the Helm: Chef Arnaud Lallement from l'Assiette Champenoise -- a Michelin two-star restaurant in France -- and Chef Scott Hunnel from the award-winning Victoria & Albert's at Walt Disney World Resort
Why We Love It: Exquisite service, rich French fare and luxury touches will wow even the toughest food critics.
The Dish: Remy takes its name from the lovable rat, who stars as a chef in the hit Disney Pixar film "Ratatouille." Start out with a Taittinger Champagne cocktail made tableside. Then choose from dishes that include smoked bison with melted fennel and leeks, Alaskan king crab cannelloni and Tanzanian chocolate timbale.
Ships: Disney Dream and Disney Fantasy
Cost: At $75 per person, it's the most expensive restaurant at sea. Even more of a splurge, diners may choose the Wine Experience for an additional $99 ($174 total), during which the sommelier selects wines to pair with the tasting menus. Reservations can be made online in advance or onboard. Certain sailings offer a Champagne Brunch at Remy for $50 per person, where diners may also opt for the Champagne pairing (an additional $25 per person).
7. Holland America Line
Restaurant: Pinnacle Grille
At the Helm: Rudi Sodamin, master chef and culinary consultant for Holland America Line, and member of the Academy Culinaire de France, Master Chef Society and Club des Chefs des Chefs
Why We Love It: Combine a gorgeous setting and fantastic food, and you've got a go-to destination for romantic dates and special-occasion dinners.
The Dish: The Pacific Northwest-inspired Pinnacle Grill boasts creative menus prepared with regional ingredients and hand-selected aged Sterling Silver beef and fresh seafood. Try the spicy chicken coconut soup or filet mignon with a choice of complementary sauces. It also has an extensive wine list, featuring wines from the Pacific Northwest, where the line's headquarters are located. Once per cruise (or once per week on longer sailings), the Pinnacle Grill transforms into An Evening at Le Cirque, featuring dishes and wine selections from Sirio Maccioni's famous New York restaurant of the same name.
Cost: There's a $10 per-person cover charge for lunch; it's $29 for dinner ($12.50 for children ages 13 to 18). The surcharge for An Evening at Le Cirque is $49 per person. Dinner reservations are required in advance, while lunch can be reserved onboard.
8. Norwegian Cruise Line
Restaurant: Ocean Blue
At the Helm: New York-based Iron Chef Geoffrey Zakarian
Why We Love It: Considering Ocean Blue's high-quality food and upscale ambience, dining there is a steal. The cover charge alone is less than Zakarian's famed Dover sole, sold at his NYC establishment for $68.
The Dish: Ocean Blue is Norwegian's most upscale dining venue. Its emphasis is on seafood; diners can choose from eight starters and eight main choices that include a daily special, black sea bass, monkfish, salmon, crab risotto and scallops. The restaurant also has an adjacent raw bar, which features primarily crustaceans and wine by the glass, as well as a la carte pricing.
Ships: Norwegian Breakaway and Norwegian Getaway
Cost: The surcharge there is $39 per person. Reservations are not required but are recommended.
9. Oceania Cruises
Restaurant: Red Ginger
At the Helm: Master Chef Jacques Pepin, personal chef to three French heads of state, including Charles de Gaulle
Why We Love It: The Feng Shui-inspired decor, which includes three glowing Buddha heads adorning each table, sets the stage for a memorable Asian-fusion meal.
The Dish: Red Ginger offers contemporary interpretations of Asian classics, such as claypot caramelized chicken and miso-glazed seabass. Extensive tea, wine, sake and dessert menus add to the experience.
Ships: Marina and Riviera
Cost: It's complimentary. Reservations are not required but are strongly recommended, as the venue tends to fill up quickly.
10. P&O Cruises
Restaurant: The White Room
At the Helm: Marco Pierre White -- the youngest British chef to be awarded three Michelin stars
Why We Love It: A refined atmosphere and impeccable service complement the mouthwatering dishes. Menus change three times during a two-week sailing, so you have yet another reason to return.
The Dish: Marco Pierre White may be British, but his restaurant features upscale French cuisine. Try the fried egg on toasted brioche, lobster spaghetti and hot raspberry souffle. Other favorites include the halibut with citrus fruits and baby fennel, as well as the crab linguini with chili.
Ships: P&O Ventura
Cost: The cost to dine there is £25 per person on three-night or longer holidays and £30 per person on short-break cruises. You can pre-book dinner reservations at least three days prior to departure (valid only on eight-night or longer cruises).
11. Princess Cruises
At the Helm: Princess' culinary team
Why We Love It: Sabatini's offers some of the best dining value for your money at sea.
The Dish: Sabatini's serves up Italian and Mediterranean fare with an emphasis on seafood. Choose from antipasti like hand-formed cow's milk burrata cheese on tomato carpaccio or crisp buttermilk soft-shell crab over baby arugula. Second courses include baked striped bass in zucchini crust and a roasted veal rack with mushroom ragout. There's also a variety of pastas.
Ships: The venue is found on all Princess ships, except for Sun Princess, Sea Princess and Dawn Princess.
Cost: The fee is $25 per person for adults and $12.50 for children ages 3 to 12. There's no charge for children younger than 2. The venue books up quickly, so reservations are encouraged.
12. Regent Seven Seas
Restaurant: Prime 7
At the Helm: Regent's culinary team
Why We Love It: Prime 7 epitomizes a classic steakhouse, and its U.S.D.A.-approved beef has all been dry-aged at least 28 days. While meat-lovers will pay hefty surcharges for this kind of fare on other lines, Regent's best beef is complimentary.
The Dish: Like any steakhouse, the menu features steaks and seafood. We recommend the ahi tuna tartare or jumbo lump crab cake starters, huge entrees like prime porterhouse (carved tableside), whole Maine lobster or surf and turf (6 oz. filet mignon with your choice of lobster tail or Alaskan king crab legs). For dessert, treat yourself to Regent Seven Seas' famous 14-layer Valrhona chocolate cake with roasted pistachio sauce.
Cost: It's gratis, but reservations might be limited to once per cruise so every passenger gets to try the venue.
13. Royal Caribbean International
Restaurant: Jamie's Italian
At the Helm: Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, one of Britain's most acclaimed chefs
Why We Love It: Unique twists or traditional fare, indoor or alfresco seating -- you decide how you want to dine at Jamie's Italian. Either way, you can't go wrong with high-quality ingredients and delicious dishes.
The Dish: Debuting on Royal Caribbean's first Quantum Class ship, Jamie's Italian serves up dishes like Oliver's famous wood plank with cured meats, pickles and cheese; pumpkin panzerotti; and zingy prawn linguine, as well as a variety of small plates.
Ships: Quantum of the Seas and Anthem of the Seas
Cost: You'll shell out $25 for dinner and $15 for lunch, per person. Reservations are not required, although we recommend them, especially if you plan to dine during peak hours.
14. Seabourn Cruise Line
Restaurant: Restaurant 2
At the Helm: Seabourn's culinary team
Why We Love It: Who doesn't love tapas? Restaurant 2's small plates are not only some of the best tasting at sea, but they are also easy to share and almost guarantee room for dessert.
The Dish: This intimate venue offers Mediterranean fine dining with a tapas-style menu. Start with delicacies like foie gras creme brulee and smoked duck carpaccio; continue with lobster and lemongrass presse and pan-seared quail breast; and finish with a white chocolate mousse and passion fruit sorbet.
Cost: It's on the house, but reservations are required.
15. Silversea Cruises
Restaurant: Le Champagne
At the Helm: Silversea's culinary team
Why We Love It: It's the only restaurant at sea belonging to Relais & Chateaux (a network of more than 500 luxury hotels and restaurants around the world).
The Dish: Le Champagne is upscale, even by Silversea's luxury standards. The small French-inspired restaurant, which can host only a limited number of diners per night, offers six-course meals inspired by wine regions around the world. While menus change continuously to reflect itineraries, dishes might include meat-filled pastries and foie gras, shellfish with asparagus sorbet and roasted Bresse chicken.
Ships: Silver Cloud, Silver Wind, Silver Spirit, Silver Shadow, Silver Whisper
Cost: It'll set you back $40 per person. Reservations are required.
--By Erica Silverstein, Senior Editor; updated by Gina Kramer, Associate Editor