These days, almost all contemporary cruise lines and their ships offer some form of anytime dining , and many have at least one alternative restaurant. What makes Regatta (and the other Oceania ships) unique is that the top-notch dining program includes alternatives (reservations required) at no additional charge.
The Grand Dining Room, Regatta's main restaurant, is a "come when you please, with whomever you please" open-seating venue located at the aft end of Deck 5. As are many dining rooms of this ilk, it's surrounded with windows on three sides. Unlike many of the other dining rooms of this type, however, Regatta offers an unprecedented number of two-tops for those who do not prefer forced intimacy with strangers. The décor is positively heavenly -- literally. Celestial frescoes cover the ceiling; the center of the restaurant is on a raised platform under a domed painting of seraphim. If not for the endless ocean views, passengers would hardly know they were in a ship's main dining room; rather, it looks and feels like one of the more precious restaurants found in New York, Chicago, Miami or Los Angeles.
Of course the decor and ambience are only precursors to the Grand Dining Room's real star -- the cuisine. Author and celebrity chef Jacques Pepin serves as the line's culinary director, and since the top onboard chef and shoreside culinary director are both French, Gallic influence is standard in the menus. From crispy duck à l'orange to garlicky scampi Provençal, the food reflects a bit of France. Even the anytime menu -- which is available in the Grand Dining Room and features standbys like grilled salmon or chicken breast and New York strip steak -- is offered with a garlic-herb butter, designed by M. Pepin.
Although the Grand Dining Room is open for all meals, most of Regatta's guests choose the casual Terrace Café for breakfast and lunch. Located at the aft on the pool deck, it also boasts an al fresco dining area at the fantail, partially covered by a shady canopy. The café serves its food cafeteria-style; in other words, portions are served to guests as opposed to guests serving themselves. (The exceptions are the pre-plated desserts and the breads.) During breakfast, guests can find the usual cereals, sausages, scrambled eggs and bacon in addition to an omelet station, fresh fruits, muesli and spectacular breads, rolls, pastries and croissants. Lunch is filled with innovative salads and carving stations, often with a theme (Oriental Day, Mexican Day, Italian Day and the like). For supper, the restaurant is transformed into Tapas on the Terrace, complete with tablecloths and chi-chi chair covers. The tapas -- always interesting and enjoyable -- are joined by a carving station, vegetables and salads, and fresh sashimi and sushi with the requisite accompaniments.
The two restaurants that require reservations are Polo Grill -- a steak-and-chop house -- and Toscana, which features a northern Italian menu. (Guests in concierge level cabins and above are guaranteed two reservations in both restaurants, while guests in standard accommodations are guaranteed one.) If I ran the Michelin Guide, I'd give each of these restaurants three stars; the service is attentive, and the cuisine is unprecedented for a no-fee restaurant on the sea. In Polo Grill, for example, you can choose a full two-pound Maine lobster. Want it with a side of filet mignon? No problem. A 32-ounce porterhouse steak is also offered, but no one has yet been able to finish it.
At Toscana, the dishes come prepared just like your grandmother would have made them -- if your grandmother was a six-star chef from northern Italy with access to the freshest meats, seafood and produce imaginable.
Oceania also prides itself on its extensive wine list, which features some surprising choices. Wine regions from around the world are recognized, including Chile, Australia, France, Italy and California. My preference was the excellent Chateauneuf du Pape I enjoyed at the Polo Grill. I was also intrigued by the description of the 1999 Alfredo Prunotto Barbaresco D.O.C.G., listed as "Firm, tight and earthy, with intense raspberry, plum, berry and anise flavors that gain a touch of tea and spice."
All of these restaurants offer complimentary espresso and cappuccino during meal times.
Early risers can take advantage of pastries and coffee offered in the Horizon Lounge -- one of the best places to sit quietly and watch arrival in port -- after 6 a.m. Afternoon tea is also served there, and -- even though the scones seem more like sweetened buttermilk biscuits and the clotted cream more like unsweetened whipped cream -- the tiny, crustless sandwiches are dainty, the cheery yellow tablecloths and elegant crockery set the tone, and it's one of those Oceania traditions that just shouldn't be missed.
Lunch also is available at Waves' Grill, located between the pool and the Garden Terrace, where food is literally prepared while you wait. Each day, there is an array of salads from which to choose (one of the rare self-serve spots on the ship), which is good because if there is a long line, the wait for that perfectly prepared fish sandwich, burger or chicken breast can be excruciating. They even make Reubens, which look fantastic. I wanted one until I saw hand-made sirloin patties, mushrooms and the Swiss cheese, at which point I chose a mushroom-Swiss burger instead. Mmmmmm. Elbow-lickin' good, as they say in the southern U.S.
Room service is one area in which improvement is needed. Breakfast is boring (we would love to see bagels and smoked salmon on the menu -- if Carnival ships can offer it you'd think Oceania's could too), and there were several menu missteps -- some of which were downright funny. At one point, I ordered a glass of cranberry juice, but what was delivered was a bowl of cranberry sauce. The room service waiter was totally puzzled. "We don't even have this on the ship," he told me, looking at the bowl with a sense of wonder.
Still, the room service menu is more extensive than most. The trays are always served with a smile and are always beautifully presented.
Two notes: One night -- the night after joining the cruise -- my jetlag got to me, and I conked out until midnight, missing supper completely. I awoke famished and ordered the Captain's Pantry salad from room service; it was fantastic -- perfect for a midnight meal. I recommend asking for the Caesar dressing on the side. I don't know exactly how chefs make its Caesar dressing, but Oceania could increase revenue substantially if they would bottle it for sale.
Also, I got kind of clever one morning and ordered a toasted bagel with cream cheese from the breakfast menu and paired it with gravlax, onion and capers from the 24-hour menu. "Aha," I thought! Bagels and smoked salmon! Well… kind of. Gravlax is the Swedish version -- more pickled than smoked, with a base of brown sugar. The consistency was perfect, but the slightly sweet taste of the salmon wasn't 100 percent perfect. Stick with the to-die-for double-rolled chocolate croissants.