Meridian Restaurant (Deck 2 and 3): Spanning two decks, the Meridian is the main dining room, with an eye-catching central staircase and pretty glass design features. It serves good-quality food marred by what is, at times, a pretty chaotic environment with impersonal and inconsistent service.
Breakfast features everything you'd expect, from light and healthy options to the full-on British fry-up. The waiter service can vary, with some being very co-operative about individual likes and dislikes (for instance not including elements of a cooked breakfast) and others not quite as accommodating.
Lunch is a la carte with dishes including soup, pies and lighter dishes while afternoon tea includes tasty treats of sandwiches, toasted tea cakes, scones and cakes. This is served during a small window of opportunity in just one section of the restaurant, which can lead to large queues. Again, the waiter service can be erratic. Sometimes there is constant attention with instant food and tea refills, other times it can be difficult to get service.
At night the Meridian operates the familiar dining system of two sittings, where passengers dine at the same table each night. The upper tier of the restaurant is for passengers who have opted for Freedom Dining, which in theory means you can turn up at any time. In practice many people all pitch up around the popular time slot of 8 p.m., leading to a wait for tables (particularly for groups wanting to sit together) and daily announcements asking passengers to consider dining earlier.
Tables are for two, four, six or eight people (with tables for 10 available on request). There are few two-tops, so it is likely you will end up sitting with other passengers. Although it is unreasonable to expect waiters to constantly walk up and down the cavernous dining room to show guests to their tables, being summoned to your seat by a chain of arm-waving staff is akin to a school canteen and there must be a more subtle way of steering passengers in the direction of their table.
The main dinner menu always features a good choice, with starters such as chicken liver parfait or wild mushroom risotto. Mains include British staples including roast pork and beef in Guinness or plaice served with crab souffle. There is always a vegetarian option. For dessert expect choices such as sticky toffee pudding, fruit meringue and ice cream. The menu always includes P&O's "Classic Favourites" for those who prefer no-nonsense simpler dishes, with the accent on retro rather than contemporary. This is where you'll find melon, prawn cocktail, tomato soup and egg mayonnaise to start, a featured daily dish such as lamb hot pot, plus the always available mains of salmon with hollandaise sauce, steak and mushrooms and chicken breast. To follow there might be fruit salad and cream or bread and butter pudding. The Meridian also offers a full vegetarian menu on request, where you place your dinner order the day before.
The culinary highlight comes on formal nights, which feature "Marco's Menu", showcasing dishes you would normally find in the for-fee Ocean Grill, such as lobster. The menu might also include fresh asparagus spears with a poached egg or mushroom and white wine soup to start, followed by mint-crusted lamb, breast of Gressingham duck with black cherry sauce, and twice-baked goats' cheese souffle. Pear tart tartin and chocolate mousse cake are among the featured desserts.
Despite some of the hiccups in this restaurant, one thing that leaves a good taste is the very affordable wine (in all restaurants), starting at £15.50 for a bottle of Barbera del Monferrato Italian red and £16.50 for an Australian Chardonnay and up to £42.50 for a bottle of Lanson Champagne.
Mealtimes are: breakfast from 7:30 a.m. to 9 a.m., lunch from noon to 1:30 p.m., afternoon tea from 4 p.m. to 4:45 p.m., first sitting dinner is at 6:30 p.m. and the second at 8:30 p.m. Freedom Dining is from 6 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.
The Belvedere (Deck 9): Arcadia's casual dining buffet is a bright area with great views, especially if you get a seat near the large windows. The early continental breakfast includes juice, fresh fruit, cereal, breads and pastries, while later you can fill up on bacon, eggs, sausages, baked beans et al, or head for the healthy section that includes the smoothie of the day, yoghurts and fruit. There is also brunch for late-risers, which finishes shortly before lunch starts. As always, P&O firmly caters to British tastes, so lunch will include a pie of the day, roast and hot pudding. There's an extensive salad bar, with dishes such as coronation chicken, Waldorf salad, coleslaw, seafood, meat and cheese. Despite the busy environment, members of staff are very efficient at replenishing food on the buffet and clearing tables.
Afternoon snacks are sweet or savoury, and at dinner curry fans will enjoy P&O's trademark Indian section, a regular feature on the buffet. For late-night snackers who have mourned the demise of the midnight buffet on many cruise lines, P&O upholds the tradition with 'late night bites', available from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. and featuring sandwiches, cakes and biscuits and hot items such as cheese and pickle toasties, pizza, Cornish pasties and, of course, chips.
Mealtimes are: continental breakfast from 6:30 a.m. to 7 a.m., full breakfast from 7 a.m. to 10:30 a.m., brunch from 10:30 a.m. to 11:45 a.m., lunch from noon to 3 p.m., afternoon snacks from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. and dinner from 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.
Neptune Grill (Deck 9): This poolside grill offers sandwiches and baguettes made to order, with fillings including gammon, chicken, tuna, egg mayonnaise and cheese, along with filled jacket potatoes and burgers. Open from 11 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.
Room service: Room service offers snacks, sandwiches all day, and full meals at the relevant times. Some items carry a small charge (e.g. £1.50 for a chicken and bacon sandwich, £3.95 for a burger and £4.50 for a seafood pie). Available 24 hours, with breakfast from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Ocean Grill (Deck 2); £17.95: Featuring dishes created by Marco Pierre White, this light and airy restaurant specialises in steaks and seafood and the supplement is well worth the money. The atmosphere is refined without being stuffy and the service is excellent. Expect starters such as deep-fried soft shell blue crab, quail eggs with hollandaise, creamed cauliflower soup and potted duck rillettes. Portion sizes are surprisingly large, for a fine dining restaurant, and I would have been happy if my main course, a posh vegetarian pie served with tempura of mushrooms and white truffle oil mash, had been half the size -- but that's hardly a gripe. Other typical mains include 16oz T-bone steak (£5.50 supplement), Gloucester Old Spot pork chops, rack of lamb and the perennial cruise ship favourite, lobster. There are also additional side orders, such as buttered French beans with shallots, tomato and red onion salad and roasted vegetables.
Spoilt for choice with desserts, the waitress suggested we pick various ones to taste. They included the unusual popping candy Black Forest mille feuille with cherry ice cream, Eton Mess with shortbread and an imaginative artisan cheese plate served with truffle-infused honey and quince paste. Each one was absolutely delicious.
East (Deck 11); £20: The ship's second signature restaurant was introduced following the refurbishment (replacing Orchid) and features an Asian fusion menu designed by Michelin-star chef Atul Kochhar. Our evening was a standout experience with exceptional, beautifully presented dishes served in a sophisticated and tranquil environment. Charming and knowledgeable staff set an unhurried pace for the evening and spent time at the table to answer any questions and make recommendations. We got the impression that nothing was too much trouble.
Typical starters include mango and paw paw salad, braised ribs marinated in candied ginger, garlic and chilli, and warm roast duck with lychee salad. If you can't make up your mind there are starters to share -- featuring four fish and meat appetisers or a vegetarian selection. Main courses follow a similar format, with individual dishes such as spiced sea bream fillets, 24-hour slow-cooked lamb, lobster (naturally) and scallops. Alternatively, there are two signature plates to share, again one with fish, poultry and meat dishes and the other vegetarian. Tempting desserts might feature rice pudding with mango, peanut butter parfait and dark chocolate surprise (spoiler alert: the surprise is in the middle).
Note: The speciality restaurants can get booked up early in the cruise, so it's recommended to book early to get the day and dining time you want.