As with all but three of Princess' ships, Crown Princess offers "anytime" and "traditional" modes of evening dining. (The line's mid-sized "R-class" ships only have traditional dining.) Botticelli is home to those who prefer the tradition of set time, table and dinner-mates; on our Caribbean cruise seatings were at 6 and 8:15 p.m. Michelangelo and Da Vinci are open restaurant style (typically from 5:30 - 10 p.m.). All offer the same Princess menu with various theme nights. (Of primary importance are formal nights, when the chef goes all-out with lobster or beef tenderloin.) We chose the "anytime" option, and rarely -- if ever -- did we wait, though it can get a bit crowded around 7:30 p.m. If you want to avoid the rush, it's best to make reservations ahead of time. Service was excellent in both dining rooms. Food, too, was generally decent, and mostly focused on predictable basics (short ribs for lunch, roasted tom turkey for dinner, beef Wellington on formal night), but there were occasional and always pleasant surprises (roasted pheasant, quail and venison saddle terrine). There's also a nightly designated "Homestyle" offering, which focuses on what Princess might define as all-American favorites from mom's kitchen, like pork roast with crackling, Texas chili and meatloaf. An "always available" menu includes options like steak, chicken breast and salmon.
A vegetarian menu is offered each night. Baked eggplant lasagna, Moroccan ragout, fettuccine alfredo -- of which the chef told us about 400 are ordered a night -- are among the choices. Lotus Spa options like broiled chicken and seared fish are marked with a flower and are said to be "lower in fat, cholesterol and sodium," though I'm doubtful that the slow-roasted prime rib with fully loaded potato should have been included.
: A word on open seating … while there is a fair amount of tables for two and four, you may be asked first if you'd like to be seated with others -- a result of filling an anytime dining-style banquet hall.
One dining room is open for breakfast and lunch; both meals are open-seating. A nice touch at lunch is the inclusion on menus of "late riser" breakfast fare; each day it features an omelet, French toast or some other selection.
The Horizon Court is pretty much a standard buffet, open for breakfast, lunch and casual dinner. It's tucked away on two sides of the lido in a station setup (though during slower periods, only one side may be open); you'll find deli fare, made-to-order sandwiches and meats, and a whole host of sides and salads. There's a separate pasta "cafe" (though it is still located within the confines of the Horizon Court), and it serves up a couple of specials every day. Out by the main pool is the Trident grill. It offers the usual burgers, hot dogs, chicken and veggie burgers (veggie burgers arecooked to order) along with a special each day. The fries are delicious! There's also a pizza counter that dishes out massive slices, and next to that is a free ice cream option (milkshakes are $3.75, however).
The more interesting part of the buffet region is Cafe Caribe. It's located completely aft beyond the Horizon Court, and features themed buffets at lunch and dinner, which were absolutely outstanding (and fun besides). One that was especially memorable was a lunchtime Asian repast, which included potstickers, sweet and sour pork, and sushi. Evenings at Cafe Caribe were even more special; the tables get linen cloths, and the themes ranged from Provencal to an Indonesian rijstafel rice table buffet. Oddly, the night's theme is not posted in the Patter (the daily, onboard newsletter), so you'll have to wander up to see what's going on.
Adding to the variety are Crown Princess' two alternative restaurants. Crown Grill was a nice experience -- it's both a fish and chops kind of place ($25 per person extra charge) with an open kitchen, where live lobsters writhe on crushed ice and meaty steaks are smoking on the grill. Menus here are eclectic -- the standard menu includes appetizers (the carpaccio of pine nut-coated lamb loin was awesome, while the spiny lobster cake was a little rubbery), soups (try the black and blue onion soup) and salads and then takes a fork in the road. One side emphasizes seafood (vongole, seafood stew, striped bass), and the other focuses on chops (lamb, pork, porterhouse, filet mignon). There's a third main course option: the lobster menu. It requires a $9 extra surcharge on top of the service fee and allows you to choose between a 1.5- to 2-pound Maine lobster or a 12-ounce Brazilian lobster tail.
Sides are served family-style (delicious corn casserole, scalloped potatoes, asparagus, etc.). Desserts, as they were everywhere onboard, were inventive and fun; our waiter recommended the "crown dependence," which offers a bite-sized selection of the desserts. I also loved the seven-layer s'mores, a sophisticated take on the around-the-campfire legend.
Ironically, the meat was the weak link in our Sterling experience. Everything else was excellent (sides, salad, dessert), but the 22-ounce porterhouse wasn't quite up to snuff, with too much fat and gristle for a steak at a surcharge restaurant. But again, the surrounding courses -- goat cheese salad, lamb carpaccio, ridiculously good scalloped potatoes and dessert platter -- almost made up for any main course disappointment.
Sabatini's ($25 per person charge) is the line's upscale, trademark Italian eatery. On Crown Princess, it's a little different than it is on older Princess ships in both substance and decor. Substance-wise, there's still a great menu of food to choose from, and the experience is more about the Italian use of tastings, like the Spanish tapas. Basically, you only choose your main course ("second piatti"), which includes entrees such as sea bass, grilled lobster, stuffed chicken, veal chop and prawns. For the three courses leading up to it, waiters bring around platters of antipasti (chunks of aged parmesan, melon and prosciutto, porcini mushrooms, artichokes, calamari), soups and salads, and then two pastas. You simply choose which you want and how much of it. Desserts aren't as creative as those in the Crown Grill, but they're just as delicious; tiramisu, a classic, was perfectly prepared.
Sampling a bit of everything left me unable to finish even half of my main course, the sea bass. Then, you're expected to eat dessert after that. Pacing is key here.
The placement of Sabatini's -- atop the ship on Deck 16, right next to Adagio and with great, expansive views -- is also a plus. The restaurant itself feels peppy and fun, complete with festive Italian-themed wall murals. And, tables are spaced for privacy. Note: Adagio is a great venue for a pre-dinner drink, as it's usually quiet and relaxed with an undiscovered quality. Also, feel free to ask your waiter to have dessert served in Adagio's -- a nice way to end the evening.
As previously mentioned, Sabatini's breakfast, first introduced on newer sister ship Ruby Princess, has also been added to Crown Princess. Suite passengers can enjoy their first meals of the day in the ship's specialty restaurant from 7:30 to 10:30 a.m. There are some unique menu items, such as brioche French toast and poached eggs dressed with potatoes and vegetables, that you won't find in the main dining rooms.
The outstanding Chef's Table concept, first introduced on Emerald Princess, has been added fleetwide and is not to be missed. A group of up to 10 (and not necessarily all known to one another -- you just sign up for designated evenings) start the night off with Champagne cocktails and appetizers (foie gras, king crab salad in a martini glass, pate) in the working galley. Anyone who's done a tour of any ship's huge galley will understand that these are nearly always held, for obvious reasons, when there isn't much going on! What's neat about Chef's Table is that your group occupies a corner of the main galley at the height of dinnertime, and the looks from some busy waiters
were priceless. The chance to see chefs and waiters in action -- a real behind-the-scenes experience -- is worth the price of admission ($75 per person, which includes a keepsake chef's coat). Then, you're taken out to specially designated tables in a private dining area and served a multi-course menu, paired with wines that are selected just for the evening.
Two of the most popular dining destinations aren't even in the mainstream. The International Cafe, located on Deck 3 and in the heart of all the Piazza action, offers pastries in the morning, quiche and finger sandwiches in the evening and tapas at night (open 24 hours). It's actually got a pastry chef working right there, so the smell, say, of a buttery croissant or the addictive chocolate chip cookies wafted around the Piazza. The scents were the International Cafe's best advertisement. It's also the place to go for designer coffees. (Note: Princess is the first in the industry to offer a coffee card; for $24.95 you get 15 specialty coffees, which works out to a 20 percent discount.) The coffees available include the usual stuff -- espresso, cappuccino, latte and mocha, along with hot chocolate and premium tea.
Prior to my trip, there was a lot of confusion over which food items (all beverages are a la carte) were "free" and which were priced separately. Most everything fell into the former category, and the items that did require a surcharge -- such as the chocolate fondue -- were clearly marked and obviously exceptional.
My favorite spot was the Vines Wine & Seafood Bar, which specializes in sushi-like tapas and interesting wines. Light bite choices include a rotating menu of three options (scallops with seaweed, tuna sashimi, California roll one night) and appetizers (little meatballs, mussels). Pair it with a glass of wine from the adventurous and worldly list, and it's a great light lunch or dinner. The sushi is included in your cruise fare. Hours vary depending on the day. In port, Vines is open from 4 to 11 p.m., and at-sea hours are 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
There was an afternoon tea service every day in the Da Vinci dining room.
On Crown Princess, room service goes beyond the standard continental breakfast and 24-hour menu with the usual offerings (tuna sandwiches, burgers, salads, desserts; note there's a surcharge of $3 for pizza delivery) -- especially if you have a balcony cabin. A don't-miss event is the Ultimate Balcony Dinner. At a cost of $50 per person, it's romantic and fun. (Even though we were in mini-suites, where there are no coverings over verandahs, everyone was inside, so it felt private anyway.) The meal is delivered course by course, starting with a cocktail while the waiter sets up your linen-covered table, complete with fresh flowers. A photographer takes a photo. And then, the four-course feast begins. The menu starts with choices like crab cakes baked in puff pastry, a salad of marinated chevre and mesclun, a choice between the lobster tail or beef tenderloin or surf and turf (a bit of both) and then dessert, which included a quartet of mousses -- lovely.
Princess also has the "balcony breakfast," and it's wonderful, though not quite as elegant as its more involved sibling; a waiter sets up the table and then dumps a pile of covered plates nearby. Inside are quiche, fresh fruit and lots of (way too many) pastries, as well as a split of Champagne. The cost is $28 per person.