The alternative dining trend, whose mysterious origins date to 1988 when NCL's Seaward introduced cruising's first for-fee restaurant, is sizzling anew. It's apparent in everything from new-builds sporting whimsical eateries with iPad menus to a growing demand for exclusive dining "experiences" like behind-the-scenes galley tours and even charges for food for people with special dietary requirements.
True, over the past decade big-ship operators have scrambled en masse to add their own specialty restaurants. But within the past few years, as more land-based brands and celebrity chefs have glommed onto onboard eateries (lending their reps and expertise to ships in the process), both the price and sheer number of dining options have expanded like an over-filled soufflé.
Most alternative venues at sea -- be they steakhouse, Asian fusion joint or French eatery -- charge between $20 and $30 per person for an evening away from the rabble. And if you don't want to spend that much, there are plenty of lower-cost options: the Johnny Rockets burger for $4.95, the late-night room charge of $3.95, the pizza that can be delivered anywhere on the ship for $5. When Allure of the Seas, the world's largest cruise ship, debuted in November 2010, it came loaded with some dozen extra-charge dining options -- the most afloat. Norwegian Epic, which debuted five months earlier, nearly matches it.
The latest culinary envelope-pusher is Disney Cruise Line. Dine at Remy, a "Ratatouille"-inspired French restaurant that debuted in January on the 128,690-ton, 2,500-passenger Disney Dream, and you'll shell out $75 per person -- the highest specialty restaurant surcharge in cruise travel by twofold. (Wine is extra, but you do get an included Champagne cocktail.) Remy aims for a Michelin-star-style experience via an eight-course tasting menu (including Wagyu beef and lobster nage), elegant chandeliers, Riedel glassware, Christofle silverware and china made exclusively for the space.
So how does the Mouse justify a $75-per-head fee? "Remy is an upscale dining experience unlike any other at sea," says Jason Lasecki, Disney Cruise Line's public relations director. "This is not just a specialty restaurant, it's an eight-to-nine-course culinary journey featuring dishes exquisitely crafted by two-star Michelin chef Arnaud Lallement and AAA five-diamond award winning chef Scott Hunnel."
Even more recently, Celebrity announced it was introducing "premium kosher meals" for cruise travelers who follow Jewish dietary laws. Up until now, all lines have offered special foods to passengers with dietary restrictions -- vegan, gluten-free, low-salt, etc. -- free of charge. Although Celebrity will continue to offer a limited selection of free kosher items, it's focusing on the for-fee items, with entree prices ranging from $13 for breakfast (lox and bagel with potatoes, pancakes with a side of oatmeal) to $19 for dinner (noodles with meatballs, beef brisket). Even snacks incur a surcharge, such as cookies for $1 or breakfast pastries for $3. Other cruise lines continue to offer kosher food as part of the cruise fare.
Disney and Celebrity certainly aren't alone in pushing new dining experiences with new, higher consumption costs. A survey of the industry reveals a general willingness from lines to create more and more for-fee options for hungry cruisers eyeing something beyond the all-you-can-eat buffet or 1,000-seat banquet hall, those bastions of "inclusive" cruising.
When Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas debuted in December 2009, its showcase restaurant, 150 Central Park, came with a seven-course tasting menu and a then eyebrow-raising $35 per-person charge. RCI sister line Celebrity Cruises followed suit in January 2010 by tacking on $5 to the surcharge for a number of its alternative eateries, including its popular ocean-liner-themed French restaurants, which are now $35 per person. (Interestingly enough, the original cost to dine in the Palm Restaurant on NCL's Seaward -- now sailing for Star Cruises -- was $35 per person.)
And let's not forget Holland America's "An Evening at Le Cirque," a recent brainchild between the line and the Manhattan foodie-approved venue. At $39 per person, the circus-themed dinner is the second highest up-charge at sea.
Besides the star-studded team behind Disney Dream's Remy, other celebrity chefs have found a place at the seafaring table. On Cunard's Queen Mary 2 and Queen Victoria, passengers pay $30 per person for dinner at Todd English, while P&O's Ventura features the White Room, a restaurant affiliated with British culinary superstar Marco Pierre White. The cost to dine at either is £15 (about $24) to £30 ($48) per person, depending on length of cruise.
For its part, luxury line Crystal Cruises hasn't followed the industry. Eating in Japanese super chef Nobu Matsuhisa's eponymously named venue means paying only a $7 suggested gratuity. (It's a "fabulous deal," says Cruise Critic Editor in Chief Carolyn Spencer Brown, who's dined there several times.) Likewise, Jacques Pepin's restaurant on Oceania's Marina, which debuted earlier this month, is surcharge-free. Additionally, Marina features three other fee-free restaurants, including the exquisite Asian venue Red Ginger. It should be noted, of course, that these are not mainstream operators, with a higher level of inclusion to be expected on these more up-market products.
And these days, the choices go well beyond the addition of stand-alone dining venues. Some lines, like Carnival and Royal Caribbean, have introduced for-fee main dining room steaks, choice cuts that come at an extra $15 to $18 per entree. For amateur chefs, many lines are now taking passengers behind the scenes to see how their lobster thermidor is made -- and charging them $55 to $75 for the experience. Variations of the Chef's Table -- a concept in which diners get a peek into a cruise galley during the dinner rush, followed by a multi-course meal with the executive chef -- are now offered by Princess Cruises (the pioneer), Carnival and Royal Caribbean, among others.
Lines are quick to make the point that passengers are paying for something special -- and they can just as easily opt out.
"Specialty restaurants really offer guests more choices while on a cruise vacation," said Royal Caribbean spokesman Harrison Liu. "Many of these specialty restaurant options offer a more intimate dining experience, for which we ask a nominal service charge. They offer an immense value when you look at a comparable dining experience on land." When asked about the perception of nickel and diming, Liu said the line thinks most of its passengers understand the "great value being offered and what a great value cruising offers them for a vacation."
A spokeswoman for NCL, a line that, fairly or not, is most often associated with "nickel and diming," echoed Liu's statement. "The hallmark of Norwegian Cruise Line is Freestyle Cruising, which means freedom and flexibility in a guest's cruise vacation," said Courtney Recht. "A cruise offers a tremendous vacation value for money (especially when compared to a land-based resort) ... It's up to the guest as to what they want to enjoy."
Meanwhile, public opinion is divided about these up-charges. At this point, some cruisers cry "nickel and dime" at the mere mention of a new dining option with a surcharge.
"What's next?" asked MrPete when the news broke that Carnival was testing a for-fee steak option (alongside the freebie) in the main dining room. "Charge for ice cream, burgers, and midnight room service? Stop it NOW folks!" (Royal Caribbean charges for room service ordered between midnight and five a.m. as well as specialty ice cream.) Meanwhile, Lardan wondered on the Cruise Critic boards if evening shows would catch the for-fee wave.
"They are making more and more venues available for a 'small fee' and it seems to be getting to the point where you're not really getting the full experience unless you do try some of these out," posted Stags14.
Many others have welcomed (with open mouth) -- or at least accepted -- at-sea dining's new normal.
"If I had a Nickel for every poster on the NCL boards who complained about nickel & diming, I'd have a lot of nickels," wrote NYcruzzer. "All the mainstram cruiselines now have multiple dining options that require a surcharge. These are OPTIONAL. You still have the buffets and MDR. Cruise fares are cheaper now than they were 10 years ago. I'd rather have lower fares, and have the option to pay extra for specialty dining options." (Remarkably, today's fares are nearly the same as they were 20 years ago; a 1992 issue of Cruise Travel magazine advertises three- and four-night Bahamas cruises on RCI's Nordic Empress from $365.)
"To me, it's more about choice," posted Merion Mom. "There are many, many more choices today than there were 'back in the day,' when you had your assigned table not only for dinner but for breakfast and lunch. That dining room was your only option. I'm happy with all of the choices."
But the big question remains: Is this new culinary reality here to stay?
Simply put, if passengers continue to pony up for a finer level of service and cuisine, the lines will be happy to oblige them with more and costlier options. Thus, there's little reason to believe that the for-fee feeding frenzy is going anywhere.
Case in point: When Royal Caribbean first began offering a $15 steak in its main dining rooms, a large number of vocal Cruise Critic readers yelled "bull!" Two years later, the program still exists -- fleetwide.
And big-ticket refurbishments for 2011 show a commitment to stuffing up-charge eateries into ships. Royal Caribbean is poised to spend millions overhauling Radiance of the Seas, which will emerge from dry dock in June sporting Mexican and Japanese restaurants and a Brazilian steakhouse. All will levy a fee. It's the same recipe for Celebrity Infinity during its fall 2011 makeover. The middle-aged Celebrity ship will gain a for-fee Italian steakhouse, a creperie and Qsine (pronounced "cuisine"), a whimsical venue melding comfort food, flashy presentation (soups are delivered shot-style, spring rolls are served in . . . .springs) and technology (iPad menus).
Now it's your turn: Do the higher fees and slew of new for-fee offerings give you indigestion? Or do you welcome the improved dining options at sea? Comment here.
--by Dan Askin, Associate Editor