Explorer of the Seas Dining
The three-level formal dining room is one of the most stunning in moderately priced lines: a magnificent space linked by a grand staircase, dramatic fluted, gold-leaf columns, golden velvet curtains and a ceiling dome with gold sky burst rays, stars and fiber optics. Each of the three levels is themed to a legendary explorer: Columbus, Da Gama and Magellan, with mosaics on the walls celebrating their journeys.
Explorer of the Seas offers Royal Caribbean's flexible My Time Dining program at dinnertime. Passengers can choose between assigned early (6 p.m.) or late (8:30 p.m.) dining with pre-determined tablemates, or opt for flexible dining, in which you pick a preferred mealtime (anytime between 6 and 9:30 p.m.), but can change your reservations on a daily basis. (Note: Those opting for My Time Dining will need to pre-pay gratuities.)
Cuisine is generally well-prepared, if not innovative. (Royal Caribbean doesn't pretend to be a gourmet-dining cruise line.) Each menu includes healthy fare options (such as grilled sea bass with ginger lemon sauce), vegetarian dishes (at least one, like vegetarian chili, but sometimes there's an Indian vegetarian dish in addition) and a standard in-case-nothing-else-appeals selection of entrees (rigatoni with marinara sauce, Atlantic cod, chicken breast and black angus top sirloin). Service by the international staff was attentive and friendly.
Breakfast and lunch are open-seating, though you shouldn't take that to mean that you can always snare a quiet little table for two. The ship's best-kept secret may be that lunch in the dining room is one of the better meals onboard. The salad bar is staffed by chefs, who create salads according to your instructions; the ingredients (fresh vegetables, meats and cheeses) are fresher and more varied than in the Windjammer, and the heaping plate of veggies can easily stand alone as a full meal. Plus, the Brasserie30 option, which allows you to choose two menu items and finish your meal within 30 minutes, is a terrific choice for those who want to get back to the pool or other onboard activities.
The Windjammer Cafe, Explorer of the Seas' buffet restaurant, is open for breakfast and lunch, and it features mediocre, steam-table cuisine. Kudos must be given, however, to the egg station at breakfast (where you can request a variety of prepared-to-order dishes) and the carving station at lunch. Baked goods are consistently excellent. The Windjammer is also open for dinner and is an option for those nights when flexibility is preferred. The buffet features the same items as are on the main dining room menu, but be forewarned: quality was especially mediocre.
Other complimentary options include Jade Sushi and Asian-Fusion (adjancet to the Winjammer complex), with self-explanatory cuisine. On the Royal Promenade, the Cafe Promenade features light fare at all times (pastries in the morning, sandwiches at night); try the pizza, it's excellent.
The primo dining experience onboard occurs in the intimate, 88-seat Euro-Italian Portofino Restaurant. Menu items include risotto, three types of pasta, Caprese salad and other Italian favorites. Service and cuisine are exceptional, but be prepared for a long dinner. While Portofino is a reservation-preferred restaurant ( pre-cruise reservations can even be made online), the first night of any cruise tends to be very slow, so walk-ins are accepted. Otherwise, peak times occur between 7 and 8:30 p.m.; if reservations seem tough to snare (and they can be), go earlier or later. Portofino levies a $20 surcharge.
Not to be missed, either, is Johnny Rockets, a 1950's-style dining venue. (On our cruise, particularly around noon, it appeared that most of the passengers on the ship were attempting to eat there at the same time!) Enjoy impromptu waitstaff song-and-dance performances with your burgers and onion rings. There's a $4.95 cover charge to eat Johnny Rockets food. (No matter how much you order, the fee is still the same, and iced tea, milkshakes and draft beer are a la carte.) A couple of hints: If you don't like to wait in line, aim to arrive at 11:30 a.m., just after it opens, or after 3 p.m. (and anytime at night). Another tip: You can order food "to go," and there's no additional charge, beyond the cover.
Royal Caribbean's room service options are available around the clock via 24-hour menus that offer a range of snacks and sandwiches. At breakfast, continental dishes, along with a handful of egg entrees, are available both in cabins and suites. Items off the main dining room menu can be ordered at dinner. There is no charge for room service between 5 a.m. and midnight (though a buck or two gratuity is recommended); late-night orders incur a $3.95 fee.