Mariner of the Seas' main restaurant spans three decks and features a music-themed design. Each of the three levels has an appropriately musical name (such as Deck 3's Rhapsody in Blue, Deck 4's Sound of Music and Deck 5's Top Hat & Tails), and the von Trapp family tableau at the bottom of the grand staircase adds a charming element to the room. Live music on the upper landing of the staircase is a nice touch.
Architects did a great job of carving out dining niches throughout the room, so the only time you really feel the size is if you're sitting at or near the captain's table, located in the atrium on Deck 3. For the best people-watching, request a table in the atrium on Deck 4. Most are set for four, six or eight. Tables for two are very hard to come by.
For dinner, passengers can choose between assigned early (6 p.m.) or late (8:30 p.m.) dining, or opt for RCI's My Time 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 or simply walk in when you're hungry. (Note: Those opting for My Time Dining will need to pre-pay gratuities.) The restaurant is open seating for everyone at breakfast and lunch every day. Cuisine is generally well-prepared, if not innovative, with options like pasta with a tomato sauce or broiled fish -- Royal Caribbean doesn't pretend to be a gourmet-dining cruise line. Each menu includes healthy fare options, 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 (simple pasta dishes, chicken breast and black angus top sirloin).
Breakfast and lunch are open-seating, though you shouldn't take that to mean that you can 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 (buffet), and the heaping plate of veggies can easily stand alone as a full meal, especially for vegetarians. 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, Mariner 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. Somewhat appalling was the buffet's grill at lunchtime, which, instead of the freshly grilled burgers and chicken you might expect, just handed over steam-table fare. Vegetarians will do much better in the main dining room at lunch.
But if it's hot dogs you're yearning for, head over to the Boardwalk Dog House, take a seat at the counter and load up on frankfurters, brats and sausages. There is no extra charge for the wieners. 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. On our visit, the "roasted tom turkey," served that same night in the dining room, was dried out and lukewarm.
Jade is the ship's Asian-influenced buffet area. It's located adjacent to the Windjammer and features selections representing Chinese, Indian and Japanese cuisines (sometimes an eclectic mix of all three). Its biggest draw, at night only, is sushi, and there's no extra charge for any of the food there.
The primo dining experiences onboard occur in Mariner of the Seas' two alternative restaurants. Chops Grille features a steakhouse atmosphere (the 10 oz. filet mignon is the standout here), and Giovanni's Table (which replaced Portofino) is an Italian trattoria-themed restaurant (offering herb foccacia, Caprese salad, pasta, braised meat dishes and other Italian favorites). Meals are served family style. While these are reservation-preferred restaurants (and can book up early, especially since reservations can be made online, pre-cruise), 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. Giovanni's levies a $20 surcharge ($15 for lunch); Chops Grille is $30.
Not to be missed for lunch or dinner is Johnny Rocket's, the old-timey burger joint found throughout RCI's fleet. (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!) Sit inside, and enjoy impromptu wait staff song-and-dance performances with your burgers and onion rings. Outside, in Mariner's only outdoor dining arena, you can sit in red booths and admire the view. (But, you'll miss the show.)
There's a $4.95 cover charge to eat Johnny Rocket's 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.
You can order room service around-the-clock on Mariner of the Seas. The "main" menu is relatively unimaginative, but offers the basics (Caesar salad, pizza, burgers). Breakfast items include hot dishes, as well as continental fare. At meal times, some of the main restaurant entrees are available, though the full dining room menu is only available to suite guests. Service was consistently efficient and pleasant. There's a $3.95 fee for ordering room service between the hours of midnight and 5 a.m. (excluding breakfast orders).
Another great source for quick, round-the-clock snacks is the Cafe at the Promenade. Its central location makes it ideal for grabbing a snack on the way to a show or activity, as well as a fun place to sit and people-watch on a more leisurely break. In the morning, you can get croissants and danishes; otherwise, there are sandwiches, pizza, cookies and cakes. Seattle's Best coffee is served; there's no charge for the basic brew, tea or hot chocolate from a mix at a self-service station, but espresso, cappuccino and iced coffee drinks are sold at the bar for an extra fee ($1.95 to $4, or $6.25 for caffeinated beverages spiked with liquor). A Ben & Jerry's ice cream parlor is adjacent (for an extra fee of $2.50 to $4).
There's also fee-free frozen yogurt at the Arctic Zone, tucked away in a corner of the pool deck.
Late night dining is available in the Cafe Promenade for small bites and sweets or room service.
Royal Caribbean offers all-you-can-drink soda cards (prices are determined by length of cruise with an average daily cost of $6.50 for adults and $4.50 for children, plus gratuity), but the price is so outrageous it converted this Diet Coke aficionado to iced tea for the duration of the trip. Without the card, a glass of soda is $1.95.