The Crystal Dining Room serves as the backbone of the ship's restaurant operations. Elegantly wood-paneled and with a minimum of flash and fuss to take your attention away from the experience itself, the restaurant is open-seating at breakfast and lunch (and we appreciated, time and time again, the sensitivity of maitre d's in not forcing shared encounters). At night, for most passengers, it's tradition all the way with seatings at 6:15 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. While our table for eight did comprise 40-something travelers, we shared little in common with the rest of the folks at our table. Still, the effort to seat like-aged folks together showed careful planning.
New to Crystal is the answer to its most commonly cited shortfall -- twin-seating fixed dining. Passengers now have the option to sign up for open seating. It isn't quite like the dining arrangements on smaller lines like Seabourn or SeaDream, where you can dine at any time with anyone you want. Instead, think of it more like a restaurant reservation; you tell the maitre d' when you plan to dine that evening and with whom, and he'll have a table arranged for you. So far, it is proving to be popular, with approximately 30 percent of passengers opting for this program.
Generally, cuisine ranged from quite good to downright excellent. At breakfast, for instance, the menu offered virtually every item imaginable (including lamb chops and sirloin) and some that weren't (like the scrambled eggs with truffles served with chicken breast, for instance).
At lunch, the menu is fairly limited but hits all the bases, with a sandwich of the day, a hot entree and a range of salads. In all cases, menus are designed with icons to help identify various special requests (heart-healthy, low sodium, etc.).
Kudos to both the service staff and the chefs -- several times I made off-the-menu requests and once changed my order in mid-service, and each instance was handled flawlessly.
One of our favorite casual options was The Bistro. A Crystal tradition that harkens back to Crystal Harmony, this is a larger bistro with attractive wicker-like chairs, Guy Buffet-designed china, and a perfect light-fare buffet. Mornings featured bagels, lox, cereals and Danishes, with breakfast served from 9 a.m. The all-day lunch consisted of an array of cold cuts. Our only complaint? The 9 a.m. opening time was often too late if ports of call beckoned for a full day off the ship.
A traditional Lido buffet is open for breakfast and lunch. While the selection is impressive, the food well prepared and the decor pleasant, I found the room to be not particularly memorable. That may be because of the adjacent casual restaurant, Tastes, which was one of our favorite spots on the ship. With tables set up around the covered swimming pool, Tastes combines casual dining with waiter service. It is open for all three meals, including a late breakfast (until 11:30 a.m.) and a late lunch, featuring a fairly limited but genuinely imaginative menu. (Ever had peanut butter and jelly French toast? It's tastier than you'd think!) Attractive and appealing during the day with light streaming in through full length windows, the room is equally appealing at night, softly lit with electronic "candles" glowing, the area elegant but not fancy. This space has been so successful that Tastes is the casual option for dinner each night as the less attractive Lido is shut down.
We also became regulars at the Trident Grill, which every day offered made-to-order burgers and sandwiches. Again, the opening hours were terrific in terms of flexibility; it was open from 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, along with the nearby well-stocked ice cream bar, Scoops.
The ship's two outstanding alternative restaurants are Prego and Silk Road. Make reservations early on in the sailing, or book online prior to embarkation; these restaurants are justifiably popular, and booking can be tough later in the cruise. Both are open for dinner, only from 6 to 10 p.m. Menus remain the same throughout the cruise (though they're tweaked during the year), but with so many tempting options, it's no hardship to dine there more than once.
Prego may look a tiny bit kitschy with overly dramatic Italian cityscape paintings on the walls, but the atmosphere and northern Italian fare are hard to beat. We especially loved the lobster ravioli and the pea and shrimp risotto. Even standards like carpaccio were so well done -- and with tableside dressings that included layers of pepper, capers, mustard sauce, olive oil and balsamic vinegar -- that my mouth still waters to this day thinking of it. Quiet and with a good mix of small and large tables, Prego seats only 70.
Opposite Prego is Silk Road, offering Asian cuisine designed by the famed Nobu Matsuhisa. Nobu is known for imposing strict guidelines on preparation and training to ensure consistency in quality, and many consider it a real coup that Crystal was able to satisfy him that those same high standards could be kept at sea. Tastefully redone during 2011, Silk Road seats 55. Favorite dishes include Nobu-style lobster with truffle-yuzu sauce and grilled Wagyu beef ribeye steak. One popular feature of Crystal Serenity is its fabulous sushi bar, located at the entrance to Silk Road. Seating about 10 diners, the sushi bar features a first-come, first-served policy. There's no extra charge, and it's a great place not only to indulge in sushi, but also to mingle with other passengers.
Hint: Silk Road's maitre d' told us that formal nights in the dining room render these restaurants nearly empty and so are a good time to get a second reservation. We also found that, even at the last minute, tables were often available if you didn't mind dining at 9 p.m. or later.
There's no extra fee to eat at either Prego or Silk Road, though it is recommended that folks tip a quite reasonable $7 per person. (At Prego, where service was particularly phenomenal and engaging, we made a point to tip well above that minimum.) However, beginning on May 8, 2012, all tips -- including specialty dining gratuities -- will be included in Crystal Serenity's cruise fares. Beverages, from wine and spirits to soft drinks, will be included, as well.
For well-heeled passengers who want a night to remember, Crystal offers the Vintage Room. For $2,100 (and up, depending on the wine you select), you can reserve the room for yourself and 13 of your closest friends. (Feeling particularly romantic? That $2,100 fee would be the same if you want dinner for just you and your date.) So what do you get for a meal that costs as much as many cruises? A private dinner with a custom-designed menu (if you want) with an emphasis on fine wine education and pairing. Separately, occasional food and wine theme cruises will also feature Michelin-starred chefs, and for $1,000 per guest, you can have dinners prepared by the chef in the Vintage room.
As if all these options aren't enough, Crystal serves up one of the best afternoon teas at sea. Held in the serene and spacious Palm Court, tea is done properly, with live musicians playing softly in the background, white-gloved waiters offering a variety of teas and an extensive selection of sandwiches, scones and tasty treats. There are also popular themed afternoon teas, such as the famous Mozart Tea. Waiters dress in period costumes with velvets and brocades, a classical quartet plays some of the famous composer's pieces, and an especially large selection of Austrian desserts is on offer.
No matter which cabin type you book, you can dine in your stateroom off the main dining room menu for dinner, or choose from the extensive 24-hour room service menu. Those in the ship's many penthouses have the privilege of ordering off the popular Prego and Silk Road menus, too.