Freedom of the Seas Dining
The three tiers of the main dining room (Leonardo on Deck 3, Isaac on 4 and Galileo on 5) offer traditional, assigned-seating dining during two sittings (5:30 and 8 p.m.) and My Time Dining, in which you pick a preferred mealtime (anytime between 5:30 and 9:30 p.m.), but you can change your reservations on a daily basis. (Note: Those opting for My Time Dining will need to pre-pay gratuities.)
Our three-course meals were generally very good. We especially liked the Fisherman's Plate with broiled lobster tail, and some retro desserts (like Baked Alaska) that debuted in the main dining room. Each night, there's a different regional theme, though there are always great standbys from the Chef's Signature Menu (like pan-fried pork medallions, broiled fish with vegetables and a filet of beef), which come with wine-pairing suggestions. We also liked all the information on the Vitality menu, which offers a three-course menu under 800 calories and, for better or worse, gives you the exact calorie count of everything you're eating. (Think sugar-free pot du creme at 125 calories -- not bad!) You can arrange in advance to eat kosher, and there are always vegetarian options and a kids menu.
Due to a seating request snafu, my 4-year-old and I were assigned late-seating dining when we needed early. (Our advice: If you love to eat at a consistent time and want the formality of a dining room, make sure your travel agent or booking representative puts in any main dining room requests you have -- early or late seating, number of tablemates, etc.) We ended up requesting early seating the first few nights of our cruise and did manage, after lengthy waits, to be placed at different tables. (It was awkward, so we generally settled with dining in Windjammer, the casual buffet restaurant.)
However, one of the advantages of table-hopping is the ability to compare service throughout the dining room -- and this was the only place service was inconsistent. Then again, since we never had the same waiters, we could hardly have expected the same rapport that regular dining room frequenters had established.
Breakfast (7:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m.) and lunch (noon to 2 p.m.) are served in the dining rooms with open seating. The advantage over Windjammer: If you don't like the communal, serve-yourself nature of a buffet, you'll love this. Although you might expect a protracted eating experience, you can be in and out in 45 minutes. You'll still be able to customize, with favorites like Thai chicken lettuce wraps that come with lots of fresh toppings and two sauces; Caesar salad to which you can add chicken or salmon; and delicious and fresh composed Nicoise salad. At breakfast, the main attraction is eggs Benedict, though we loved the Huevos Rancheros and customized omelets.
We liked the fare and atmosphere in the Windjammer Cafe, Freedom's lido buffet, for its flexibility and endless variety -- ideal for families with little kids. Plus, the waiters went out of their way to bring us things from the buffet so we wouldn't have to get up -- stellar service, especially considering the format.
The Windjammer is set up like a food court, with one long self-service line of hot and cold items, plus stations toward the back for salads, pizza, fresh sandwiches, carved meats, petite desserts, etc. In the mornings, an omelet station fixes made-to-order eggs; in the afternoons, we particularly like Jade, an area of the Windjammer that specializes in Asian dishes and goes a bit off the beaten path with ever-changing fare that includes Indonesian and Vietnamese specialties. The buffet is open five times a day: continental breakfast from 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 a.m., full-buffet breakfast from 7:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m., lunch from noon to 2 p.m., tea and snacks from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. and dinner from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.
A poolside grill offers up burgers, hot dogs and grilled chicken at lunchtime; Sprinkles' self-service ice cream machine is open on the lido from 11:30 a.m. until 7 p.m. Squeeze is a juice bar that also blends up energy drinks ranging in price from $4 to $6. Just choose your fruit (banana, strawberry) and your "power" option (fat-burning, protein-rich).
A casual buffet dinner is served at Windjammer, as well; menu options generally mirror what's being served in the main dining room, with the exception of Jade, which is attached to Windjammer and free of charge. Sushi chefs are hard at work every night, serving vegetarian and other maki rolls. The tables in this area are dressed with white cloths and small pitchers for soy sauce. Shiny black plates with spaces for ginger and wasabi are at the buffet, and servers are quick to offer drink service. In fact, this is the best room in the house. Even if you're not a sushi-lover, you can still visit the other buffet stations and take advantage of the spot-on service in the quieter Jade dining room.
If you crave a more gourmet experience, be sure to take advantage of Freedom's two specialty restaurants. Portofino is an Italian trattoria. It offers caprese salad, fried calamari and carpaccio among its appetizers, with pasta, seafood and veal dishes rounding out the menu. A great option for dessert is the sampler, which includes a small amount of flourless chocolate cake, tiramisu and panacotta. The cover charge is $20.
At Chops Grille, a steakhouse-style eatery, expect tuna tartare and crab cakes among the starters, several cuts of steak, plus other grilled meats and fish like lamb loin and halibut. If you are a chocolate-lover, do not -- I repeat: do not -- miss the Mississippi Mud Pie. It's a huge slice of velvety goodness with a cluster of caramel nuts in the center. The cover charge is $30. While both restaurants are intimate and worth the money, we found the cuisine and service in Chops to be a touch more impressive. We also loved the warm, dark-wood paneling and cushy velvet seating.
Johnny Rockets serves the same yummy burgers, hot dogs, grilled cheese, chili, tuna sandwiches, onion rings and fries as its land-based brethren. It operates from noon to midnight; while you'll likely wait about 30 minutes to be seated, you can take a pager to the arcade to pass the time until your table is ready. There's a $4.95 cover charge for dine in or take out; drinks are charged separately.
Cafe Promenade is open around the clock with complimentary pastries and sandwiches, coffee and tea. The adjacent Starbucks coffee bar offers for-fee cappuccinos, lattes, etc. This is a great option if you can't be bothered to go to the buffet or dining room and just want a light bite. Sandwiches include things like prosciutto on olive bread and egg salad on croissants.
Sorrento's, on the opposite end of the Promenade, is an an all-day pizzeria. (Check your Compass for certain times of the day when paninis are pressed -- yum.) In addition to a variety of pizzas that switch up daily, there's a front counter where you can choose any combination of seafood salad, grilled Italian veggies, marinated mozzarella or feta cheese, hunks of bread, artichokes, olives, etc. It's a fantastic midday snack spot!
Ben & Jerry's ice cream bar, across from Cafe Promenade and next to Cupcake Cupboard, is available to satisfy your sweet tooth. The waffle cones are made fresh -- get one with a scoop (or two) of your choosing -- from a rotating selection that tops a dozen flavors. Plus, they'll make floats and shakes and let you sample flavors before committing. Most items are less than $5.
As part of the revitalization, The Cupcake Cupboard, a vintage-style cupcake shop with a rotating selection of more than 30 cupcakes, replaced the original barbershop. The elaborate little cakes aren't cheap at about $4. Cupcake-decorating classes (for $15) pack in the little ones and make for a great photo op. Just make sure to reserve your space well in advance. We booked on the second day and clinched the last spot on the last day of decorating.
Finally, room service is available 24/7. The menu consists of just a few salads and sandwiches with fewer options than on other cruise lines. Still, a Mediterranean Chicken Salad with grilled marinated chicken and feta cheese, and the Seeded Rye Baguette with oak smoked salmon and brie were both winners, and they were delivered within 30 minutes. For nonmorning people, ordering breakfast via a doorknob card is a great option. Royal Caribbean still offers hot items -- even omelets -- on its room service breakfast menu, as well as Continental fare from cereal to fruit plates. Room service is free from 5 a.m. to midnight; late-night orders incur a $3.95 surcharge.