Carnival Spirit Dining
The 1,300-seat, two-deck Empire Restaurant has a Napoleonic splendour, 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 grew on us.) Passengers can opt for assigned tables at one of two dinner seatings (6 p.m. and 8:15 p.m.) or choose Your Time Dining, open-seating on the starboard side of the upper level anytime from 5:45 p.m. until 9:30 p.m. There are tables for two, four and six, but fewer than usual for eight or more. (Intimacy was obviously the goal.)
Menus consist of starters (entrees, soups and salads), main meals and desserts, with healthier Spa Carnival choices and always-available Carnival Classics dishes like Caesar salad, French fries, grilled fillet of mahi mahi, 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. Food quality ranges from mediocre to excellent, but waiters provide song-and-dance entertainment in the dining room most nights.
Breakfast and lunch are also served in the dining room for those who want waiter service (though lunch service may not be available on all port days). Couples will typically be seated with another party. The breakfast menu had all the standards without much innovation, but the food there was a better quality than in the buffet-style La Playa Grille Lido Restaurant.
The reservations-only, 156-seat Nouveau Steakhouse Restaurant at the top of the ship features aged prime beef, including a 14-ounce New York strip, a 24-ounce classic porterhouse, an 18-ounce prime rib and a 9-ounce filet mignon, plus other dishes, for a service fee of A$35 per person. All beef is imported from the United States. If you appreciate great food and service, the experience is a must and definitely worth the price. The service is on par with luxury lines. Of particular note are the waitresses who know their meat, so to speak, and the sommelier who can walk you through the wine list and help you choose the perfect vintage.
The food, served over four courses, was so delicious and hearty that we regrettably only had room for fruit salad for dessert. We don't normally eat tartare but opted for the tuna tartare entree, and it was lovely; the surf and turf (steak and lobster tail) was gorgeous, and everyone at our larger table ordered it, while tablemates were cooing about their more caloric desserts. The cuts of meat are plump, juicy and attractively decorated with sprigs of rosemary. Vegetarians should not be worried by the steakhouse moniker, as the vegetarian options are just as tasty. For A$35 a head, it's a steal, 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.
Previously, the restaurant was called the Nouveau Supper Club and featured entertainment, which Carnival has phased out. The stage area has been taken away to allow more room for dining. It better suits the gourmet cruiser, who wants to enjoy a special meal without loud music. However, entertainment does occur during the Chef's Table experience, which affords a dozen passengers a multicourse dinner with a master chef, a private cocktail reception and a tour of the galley and its operations. This dining option takes place in Nouveau and costs A$75 per person. It can be booked onboard at the information desk.
La Playa Grille Lido Restaurant is the casual alternative for buffet-style breakfasts and lunches. The buffet is arranged in stations to improve passenger flow and reduce long queues. At lunch, you'll find an international "Taste of the Nations" food station, featuring a different cuisine each day, including Japanese or Indian (our favourite nation was chocolate!); an all-Asian buffet line; made-to-order deli sandwiches; a rotisserie; a disappointing salad bar (limp lettuce, soggy veggies and a general lack of options); and a dessert bar. Breakfast includes a made-to-order omelette station, in addition to typical breakfast pastries, fruits, cereals and hot items like pancakes and bacon. A pizzeria is open 24 hours a day (with excellent Caesar salad), and a small outpost of the Fountains Cafe serves up specialty coffees for a fee.
We found the buffet choices reasonable but not as good as we'd experienced on other mass-market ships we've travelled on. However, another cruiser recommends you grab the ribs if they are on the buffet menu -- they're said to be yummy.
The Fat Jimmy's C-Side Grill by the pool offers hamburgers, hot dogs, grilled chicken breasts, hot chips and, Aussie favourite, barbecued sausages from noon to 6 p.m. Both ice cream and frozen yogurt self-serve machines are stationed fore and aft of the Playa Grille. (Look out for afternoon sundae bars when fun ice cream toppings are available.)
At night, one section of the buffet is open as the Seaview Bistro, a no-fee casual dining option that's perfect for those who want a quick bite without the formality of the dining room. There's typically one hot line with a carving station, salad bar and dessert bar. You'll find some repeats from that evening's main dining room menu and other dishes prepared specially for the Lido buffet.
For late-night munchies, there is the "late night bistro" from 11:30 p.m. to 1 a.m.
The Fountain Cafe coffee shop serves specialty drinks (from around A$1 for tea to A$3.50 for large cappuccinos and lattes), milkshakes (A$3.95) and cakes, cookies and chocolate-covered strawberries (A$1.25 to A$4).
Afternoon tea is served in the Artists' Lobby. Waiters come around with hot water, a choice of teas and a cart with scones, pastries and finger sandwiches. The treats vary in quality (go for the scones), and the tables are too small for pots of tea (they're pretty crowded with the tea cups and dessert plates), but it's a delightful way to pass an hour in the afternoon. Just be prepared for the sugar rush that is bound to follow.
Twenty four-hour room service is also available from a limited menu of soup, sandwiches, salads, pies, pizza and desserts. (You cannot order room service from the dining room menu.) Each item costs between A$3 and A$5, with the most expensive items being the pies, sandwiches and pizza. There is a separate room service continental breakfast, with items ranging from A$2 for fruits and cereals to A$3 for breakfast breads with spreads beverages, hot and cold. Full stateroom bar service is available from 9 a.m. until 3 a.m. at bar prices.