Carnival Spirit has seven options for free dining, which is quite a wide selection. Three new free eateries were added to the ship in August 2015.
Empire Restaurant (Decks 2 and 3): The 1,300-seat, two-deck Empire Restaurant has a Napoleonic splendour, with the ceiling domes painted with murals and hung with crystal chandeliers. Even the large portholes are trimmed in gold, and the grand circular staircase is decorated with a sculpture of Napoleon at his coronation. Flanking the entrances are pilasters in the form of female statues. You'll either love it or find it over-the-top. (It is over the top but it grew on me). Passengers can opt for assigned tables at one of two dinner sittings (5:30 p.m. and 7:45 p.m.) or choose Your Time Dining, open-seating on the starboard side of the upper level, anytime from 5:30 p.m. until 9 p.m. There are tables for two, four and six, but fewer than usual for eight or more.
Menus consist of starters (entrees, soups and salads), main meals and desserts, with healthier Spa Carnival choices and always-available Carnival Classics dishes such as Caesar salad, French fries, and grilled fillet of fish, grilled chicken breast and steak. Vegetarian items are always on the menu, but they aren't marked; be warned that the hot soups are typically made with chicken broth. Vegans and others with dietary requirement are catered for; on my cruise my vegan companion was well looked after. Food quality at dinner ranged from average to excellent. Waiters provide song-and-dance entertainment in the dining room most nights and patrons seem to love it. Newcomers look at little bemused but soon get into the swing of it.
An open seating breakfast is served from 8 a.m. until 10 a.m. on Deck 2 only and a new Sea Day Brunch has been introduced for days at sea. This takes place from 8:30 a.m. until 1 p.m. and replaces breakfast and lunch in the dining room. This is perfect for late risers or those who want an early lunch away from the hot sun and the buffet restaurant. The menu consists of breakfast items such as omelettes and eggs to order, as well as some interesting options such as "Hey Pork Chop", a thick-cut chop served with caramelised onions, Gorgonzola cheese and a side of chips and beans. Fruit platters, French toast and Caesar salads are also available.
Afternoon tea is held in the Empire Restaurant daily for an hour from 3 p.m. although you have to call ahead and book earlier that day. Waiters serve the usual small sandwiches and cakes to individual diners.
The Taste Bar (Deck 2): This little kiosk hands out small morsels of what's on offer in the dining room that night. It's only open in the early evening, so pop by on your way to the RedFrog Pub or a show. Two chefs make and serve the little bites on the spot.
The International Food Plaza (Deck 9): This buffet eatery is referred to by both its names -- The International Food Plaza and Lido. It occupies a large area on the Lido deck between the main Dome pool and the adults-only Serenity Retreat. There are 10 food stations serving a variety of food for lunch and dinner including Asian, carvery meats, deli sandwiches and wraps, salads and desserts. The pizza and ice-cream bars, which are found in this eatery, are open 24 hours.
Breakfast includes a made-to-order omelette station, in addition to typical breakfast pastries, fruits, cereals and hot items such as pancakes and bacon. The decor and layout of this area is uninspiring and could do with an update.
BlueIguana Cantina (Deck 9): This Mexican-style cantina was added to the area around the main midship pool (the Dome pool), which is likely to morph into party central with the addition of the new south-of-the-border style eateries and bars. The cantina is open for breakfast from 7:30 a.m. until 10:30 a.m. with a limited offering of 'breakfast burritos' (with egg and bacon and a hit of chili) and for lunch from noon to 2:30 p.m. Lunch offerings including a range of soft tacos with chicken, beef, fish and vegetarian fillings, and burritos, too, with plenty of relishes, sauces and salsa to add to the mix. The food is tasty and while one is quite substantial, two of these will hit the spot if you're feeling hungry.
Guy's Burger Joint (Deck 9): This new open-air hamburger bar is located just a few metres from the cantina. This American-style burger joint is named after US chef, restaurateur and TV's Food Network personality Guy Fieri. Apart from the usual burger offerings, Fieri has created the Boomerang Burger which will see Australian passengers returning for a burger with that must-have ingredient: beetroot. But rather than adding a few slices of the canned stuff, the burger features a more refined beetroot relish together with Fieri's signature Donkey Sauce (a blend of tomato relish and aioli). It's open from noon to 6 p.m.
Fat Jimmy's C-side BBQ (Deck 10): Directly above the pool deck is this indoor-outdoor barbecue serving sizzling Italian-style sausages, chicken wings, pulled-pork sandwiches, salads and roast vegies. The smells waft over the top deck at lunchtime making a 'snag' a must-have snack. Open from noon to 2:30 p.m.
Room Service: A 24-hour room service menu is available with items individually priced. The limited menu includes soup and salad at AU$4 per item, sandwiches, pies and pizza for AU$7, desserts for AU$4 and all non-alcoholic beverages are AU$3. There is a separate room service continental breakfast, with items ranging from AU$2 for fruits and cereals to AU$3 for breakfast breads with spreads. Full stateroom bar service is available from 9 a.m. until 3 a.m. at bar prices.
There are four alternate dining options charging a fee. The variety is terrific and all are very good, particularly Bonsai Sushi and the Chef's Table, which is outstanding value for money.
Bonsai Sushi 2 (Deck 2); a la carte pricing: This latest addition to Carnival Spirit is a winner, serving really fresh food at very reasonable prices. We ordered too much, not realizing that the servings are quite large. Starters such as Wagyu Kakuni (braised Wagyu short ribs with caramelised onion) are delicious and are just AU$5; miso and bonsai noodle soup are AU$3 each and a large California roll (which is in reality about 10 small pieces) was just AU$6. A Bento Box of soup, side salad, pieces of sushi and California roll is $12. There are two desserts (a green tea cupcake and yuzu custard) at AU$2, Japanese beers, wines and sake. Open for lunch (noon to 2:30 p.m.) and again from 5 p.m. to midnight.
Fountain Cafe (Deck 2): Just outside the RedFrog Pub is this cafe for those who like good coffee -- the baristas are Australian-trained and can whip up a flat white, long black, latte and cappuccino in no time. Do expect long queues at certain times of the day when passengers are craving their hit of caffeine. There are also cakes on offer, all at a reasonable price.
Freshie's Corner (Deck 9): Previously located out on the pool deck, this market-style "fish and chip shop" has moved into the Lido Restaurant. It opens in the afternoon in the space also occupied by the deli at lunchtime. Bearing the nickname of Sydney's famous Freshwater Beach, this eatery serves pots of fresh prawns and mussels, classic fish and chips, grilled chicken focaccias and a nutritious snack of turkey burger on a chia and quinoa bun devised by TV's The Biggest Loser trainer Shannan Ponton, who runs boot camps at sea on both Australian-based Carnival ships.
Nouveau Restaurant (Deck 10); AU$40 per adult; AU$12 per child: The reservations-only, 152-seat Nouveau Restaurant at the top of the ship features aged prime beef cooked to order, classic dishes such as surf and turf (beef and lobster), lamb chops, grilled fish and vegetarian options. There are also some 17 gourmet appetisers, entrees, soups, salads and desserts to choose from to make up a superb four-course meal. The service is excellent, the wait staff 'know their meat' so to speak and the sommelier will walk you through the wine list and help you choose the perfect vintage.
The cuts of meat are plump, juicy and attractively decorated with sprigs of rosemary. For AU$40 a head, it's a great deal, and the area has its own bar, which is the perfect place for pre- and post-dinner drinks. One enters this lovely restaurant via lifts or via a somewhat scary see-through glass staircase. It's OK walking up, but going down the staircase is a little disconcerting, especially after a few drinks.
Also in Nouveau, on days when there are no ports of call, is the Long Lunch at Sea. For $30 per adult, four courses are served (entree, soup or salad, main and dessert) while you enjoy a lazy afternoon of great food and service.
Chef's Table (Deck 2): This wonderful degustation begins in the galley with free-flowing Champagne and the sampling of fine delectable morsels. This is followed by seven courses served in the Dancin' Nightclub where an elegant table set on the illuminated dance floor has to be one of the best experiences and best deals on the high seas. The experience is held a few times during a cruise depending on demand, with up to 10 and sometimes 12 people on each occasion. Beginning with a tour of the main galley with executive chef Soumen Banerjee, (or whoever is at the helm at the time) guests then stand around a table, watching all action, and enjoying appetisers such as little cornets of salmon tartare and beef carpaccio on an air pillow. This part of the experience can be a little noisy as the pots and pans clunk away in the background but it's all part of the fun. The group then proceeds to the nightclub where a beautifully decorated table has been set up right under the mirror ball and disco lights (which are subdued). Here the seven dishes, many prepared using molecular gastronomy methods, are served on elegant crockery on a table with exquisite decorations. Dishes may include blue swimmer crab stack, duck textures, bisque, barramundi and Wagyu beef, while the dessert is likely to be a beautiful tasting plate of six or so sweet treats. While each dish appears small, they are rich and many people may find it a struggle to get through it all. Don't eat lunch is the best advice. With Champagne for starters and red and white wine served throughout the sit-down meal, it's hard to believe it only costs AU$75 a head. Book it as soon as you get on board and frock up for the occasion.