The food onboard River Empress is outstanding: fresh, locally sourced and usually reflecting the region in which the ship is passing through, with wines to match. Service is equally as impressive, with wait staff quickly knowing your preferred seating spot, wine and the type of after-dinner drink you like. Endlessly attentive, engaged and knowledgeable -- sometimes even anticipating your need -- this really is service at its best.
All meals are served in the restaurant, unless the weather is favorable and an al fresco dinner is also offered in the Sky Lounge; Afternoon tea is served in the lounge.
The restaurant (Deck 4): The main dining area is lined with floor-to-ceiling windows so all diners have a view. Although it can accommodate all passengers at once, the room still has the warm, intimate atmosphere of a small restaurant. The tables seat four or six; there are no tables for two, but if the ship is not sailing full, you can always request not to share. The only jarring notes are the bright red chairs, which look out of place in such a calm space. There is a marble walkway inset; the carpeting is beige with coral accents.
Breakfast and lunch are served at a buffet set up on the center bar, which has a marble surface.
Breakfast: There is an omelet station, where you can request an omelet or various eggs of your choice. There is also always a daily hot special, such as eggs Benedict, which the wait staff are always keen for you to try. The spread is sumptuous, and sets you up for the day: cold cuts, smoked salmon, gravlax, sausages, two types of bacon, tomatoes, potatoes, scrambled eggs, a selection of pastries and different breads; cereals, yogurts, smoothies -- even Prosecco, if you wish. You won't go hungry. Breakfast is served from 7 a.m. or 7: 30 a.m. to 9 a.m. daily.
Lunch: Unless you're out on an all-day excursion, most people return to the ship for lunch. Lunch will often reflect the region that you are in, and might include a selection of local specialties, accompanied by a regional wine. It is served buffet style and tends toward the light, so expect lots of fish such as salmon, plaice and sea bass, served with rice pilaf and new potatoes; as well as heartier dishes such as meatballs and pasta dishes. Lunch is served dependent on itinerary and can start as early as 11:30 a.m. but is usually noon to 2 p.m.
There is an extensive salad bar -- which goes beyond lettuce, carrots and tomatoes -- to include tzatziki or hummus, for example, hard-boiled eggs, artichoke hearts and potato and Caesar salads. Try the dressing; it's the favorite of the owner's wife, Beatrice Tollman.
There is always an extensive and delicious selection of desserts, served in tiny pots so you can justify more than one. There is also a cheese plate, featuring three regional varieties, plus dessert wine.
What is particularly heartening is how knowledgeable and engaged all the wait staff are, often going into detail about the provenance of the food and the wine.
Dinner: Dinner is a four- or five-course set meal served by the wait staff. There is always a choice of three starters, two soups and three entrees, followed by a selection of desserts and a cheese board. On Gala dinner evenings, expect an extra appetizer. Starters might include escargots a l'Alsacenne (when in the Alsace region), prawn cocktail, cottage pie with oxtail rather than beef mince, marinated salmon with creme fraiche or "Capitan's salad."
The soups are outstanding -- German split pea soup, Marseille bouillabaisse, cappuccino of mushrooms.
There are a lot of fish choices with the main dishes -- plaice, John Dory, sea bass -- presented in grilled, breaded or a la meuniere. Meat dishes might include New York strip steak, chicken breast, Wellington of veal tenderloin, all served with vegetables and rice or potatoes (you can always request an alternative accompaniment). The Chef's Recommendation highlights the signature dish of the day. Our only slight complaint was that the portions were a little small.
Desserts are delicious and might include fruit ice creams or perhaps a Bavarian cream of bitter almonds, Black Forest gateau or a chocolate mousse. There is also a cheese plate, again showcasing regional cheeses such as boursin, Brie or Roquefort.
Wines are suggested and reflect the region (we had never heard of any of them, but loved sampling the local Rieslings), and act as an ideal accompaniment to the dishes. However, if you would prefer another label, just ask.
There is always a full vegetarian menu available, which is not just a main without the meat. It might include a fruit cocktail to start and eggplant parmigiana, arborio risotto or quiche as a main.
There is also a 'Traveling Lite' option, which will include the lowest calorie dishes on offer from the menu. All food intolerances are catered for on the spot, or advise the line or your travel agent at time of booking.
If you want a bit of privacy, you can request to have your meal served to you in the Captain's Lounge, at the other end of the ship.
Patio (Deck 2): Various types of coffee (from a machine), hot water and tea are always available along with cookies or candies. Pastries are laid out here, too, from 6:30 a.m. for early risers.
Sky Lounge (Deck 5): If the weather is good, then an al fresco BBQ lunch will be served in the 20-seat Sky Lounge, as an alternative. You can still choose to eat in the main restaurant, if you wish.
Room service is available 24/7 at no extra charge. Passengers can also choose to have their entire meal served to them course by course in their rooms.