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 who cruise: ships are upping the ante with specialty restaurants that feature international cuisines, world-class celebrity chefs, intimate venues and all-round delicious food.
Partnerships with such storied chefs as Jacques Pepin, Wolfgang Puck, Nobu and Todd English have certainly raised the food bar, but even in-house culinary teams are turning out novel cruise ship fare. From menu planning to decor and dishware, no detail has been overlooked. The downside is that most of these specialty restaurants come with an added fee -- but it's worth it for a romantic or special occasion dinner to remember.
Carnival Cruise Lines
Venue: Carnival's Steakhouses
At the Helm: No celebrity chef there. Carnival's shoreside culinary team oversees the restaurants and their menus.
Palate Pleasers: The steakhouses, named differently on each ship, offer superb steaks, lobster, fish of the day and lamb chops. More adventurous starters like 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 land-based 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, filet mignon, pan-seared sea bass duck breast.
At the Helm: James Beard Award-winning Michael Schwartz, chef/owner of Michael's Genuine Food and Drink in Miami, creates and oversees the menus at these onboard venues. Each ship has a chef de cuisine, who manages the daily operations of the restaurant and executes Schwartz's dishes.
Palate Pleasers: 150 Central Park offers two menus that change per cruise, per season, and include ingredients that are sourced locally and use sustainable ingredients. 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 is found on Marina and Riviera. There's no cover charge.
At the Helm: Chef Jacques Van Staden, nominated by the James Beard Foundation as a Rising Star of the Year, and his team created Celebrity's ultimate destination-inspired restaurants. He parted ways with Celebrity in March 2012, and Chef John Suley now oversees Celebrity's culinary program. Suley, a 2010 James Beard Foundation Rising Star Chef nominee and 2007 Rising Star Chef of American Cuisine, has previously worked in upscale restaurants and hotels in Florida.
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 Angus Beef 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 seagoing 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 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. Now Restaurant 2 has its own chef on each ship, and menus are updated and overseen by Seabourn's culinary team under the direction of Bjoern Wassmuth, manager of culinary operations.
Palate Pleasers: This tapas-inspired menu emphasizes Mediterranean flavors. 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.
At the Helm: Rudi Sodamin, master chef and culinary consultant for Holland America Line, is the driving force behind the evolution of the line's fine dining. He's 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. 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, Le Cirque.
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 ages 13 to 18). The surcharge for An Evening at Le Cirque is $39 per person.
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 on Oceana, Cafe Bordeaux on Aurora and the Ocean Grill on Adonia.
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 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).
At the Helm: Disney Cruise Line tapped Chef Arnaud Lallement from l'Assiette Champenoise -- a Michelin two-star restaurant in France -- and Chef Scott Hunnel from award-winning Victoria & Albert's at Walt Disney World Resort to create the dishes and menus at Remy.
Palate Pleasers: Diners can choose one of two tasting menus or order a la carte. Start out with a Taittinger Champagne cocktail made tableside. Then make your selection from dishes that include smoked bison with melted fennel and leeks, Alaskan king crab cannelloni and Tanzanian chocolate timbale.
Sea for Yourself: Remy is found on Disney Dream and Disney Fantasy. At $75 a pop, it's the most expensive restaurant at sea. Add in wine pairings for $24 per person, and you're out 99 bucks for dinner. Reservations can be made online in advance or onboard. Certain sailings offer a Champagne Brunch at Remy for $50 per person ($75 with Champagne pairing).
Norwegian Cruise Line
Venue: Moderno Churrascaria
At the Helm: There's no celebrity chef from Brazil behind this venue. Norwegian's culinary team creates the steakhouse's menu, which is pretty similar to what you'll find in land-based churrascarias.
Palate Pleasers: Start your meal with a huge salad bar chock full of veggies, prepared salads (like tuna and French bean salad or shrimp and roasted garlic), ceviche, and meats and cheeses. Back at your table, "passadors" will come by to offer a selection of grilled and slow-roasted meats that they carve tableside until you tell them to stop. Try garlic steak, pork ribs marinated in red wine, chicken breast wrapped in bacon, lamb chops and flavored sausages. Follow that up with some fried sweet bananas.
At the Helm: The Verandah restaurant pays homage to the exclusive Verandah Grills found on the original Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary. It features menus of contemporary French cuisine, created by Jean-Marie Zimmermann, Cunard's global culinary ambassador. Zimmerman has worked in restaurants in France, Germany and England, earning a Michelin star and being named president of Euro Toques England. He previously served as corporate execute chef for Celebrity Cruises.
Palate Pleasers: 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.
Sea for Yourself: The Verandah is found on Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria. It's open for lunch (on sea days) and dinner. Everything on the menu is individually priced at $6 or $7 for starters and desserts and $17 or $18 for mains. Lunch is cheaper at $5 to $7 for starters and dessert and $11 or $12 for mains.
Regent Seven Seas
Venue: Prime 7
At the Helm: While Le Cordon Bleu heads up Regent's other specialty venue, Signatures, Regent's own culinary team is at the helm of Prime 7.
Palate Pleasers: The menu features steaks and seafood, with all U.S.D.A.-approved beef. Try 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, try Regent Seven Seas' famous 14-layer Valrhona chocolate cake with roasted pistachio sauce.
Sea for Yourself: This 70-seat restaurant is found on all three Regent ships: Seven Seas Mariner, Navigator and Voyager. There's no fee to dine, but reservations might be limited to once per cruise so every passenger gets to try the venue. It's open for dinner only.
At the Helm: Princess' culinary team plans the menus for this venue.
Palate Pleasers: The menu combines traditional Italian dishes and "new Italian cuisine," but it has changed from family style to a la carte. 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 duck with fava beans and pancetta and baked striped bass in an herbed salt crust. There's also a nightly pasta special.
Sea for Yourself: The venue is found on all Princess ships, except for Sun Princess, Sea Princess and Dawn Princess. 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.