Overall, the quality of the free dining was quite good, particularly in the main dining room (s), which was high for banquet-style dining.
Main Dining Room (Decks 3, 4, 5): The vast, three-deck-high dining room is named after Shakespeare plays: Romeo and Juliet (Deck 3), Othello (Deck 4) and King Lear (Deck 5). It is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Daytime meals, which are open-seating, are limited to Romeo and Juliet, and there's rarely a wait for a table.
At breakfast, a standard American menu offers cruise basics, from eggs Benedict and pancakes to granola and omelets. There's always a special; chocolate-chip pancakes and almond-crusted French toast were among them. Kudos to the staff for not forcing passengers to dine communally, though the more sociable could be seated at big tables.
At lunch, there's a new twist with the introduction of RCI's Brasserie 30. Borrowing liberally from European cruise lines for whom a buffet/menu combo is a staple, Independence of the Seas has added a buffet setup to Romeo and Juliet for the midday meal on sea days. It features a make-your-own-salad bar (actually, you pick your toppings, and a crewmember mixes it for you) and a wonderful antipasti selection for those who want light fare. It's a terrific choice if you want a quick lunch in the quiet and elegant atmosphere of the dining room, and it's one of the better lunchtime offerings for vegetarians.
And, of course, still offered is a menu of lunch entrees, featuring hot dishes, soups, salads, sandwiches and desserts.
For dinner, passengers can choose between standard two-seating arrangements (6 and 8:30 p.m. on my cruise) or My Time Dining, a flexible option where you choose your own dining time each day. Either way, the food's the same, and largely, so is the ambience. What you give up with My Time is the chance to have the same waiter and tablemates every night -- but the service was exceptional, no matter where we sat. (Waiters from previous nights who passed by our table would make a point to say hello.) You can pre-reserve My Time Dining on the Royal Caribbean Web site. If you wait until you embark, you must choose My Time on the first day by reporting to the dining room on Deck 5, and you can't switch between traditional seating and the flexible option during the cruise. With both the online and onboard options, you must pay all gratuities (including cabin steward) up front. They're added to your onboard account, and you can't opt out of paying them later.
Menus offer a list of starters, which might include eggplant and kalamata olive tartare, a Spanish tapas plate, pan seared scallops and a soup selection. Entrees will include a chicken, meat (lamb or beef) and a fish dish, such as battered cod fillet with scallops. and desserts. There's also a "Classics" selection (available every night), which will include a vegetarian option includes vegetarian pasta, broiled salmon, chicken breast and sirloin. Desserts include Key Lime Pie, ice cream or souffle.
Dinner in any of the three main restaurants is a lovely, elegant affair; we loved the fact that musicians played classical music throughout the evening.
There are a number of upcharge options, including whole Maine lobster ($29.95) and Surf and Turf ($34.95) and the "Chops Grille filet mignon" ( $16.95) -- we tried it, and it was delicious -- cooked perfectly to order and accompanied by a better quality mashed potato side than the usually-very-dry versions that had come with other dinners. Worthy of note is the ship's Vitality menu -- dishes created for passengers with healthy lifestyles. There are ample vegetarian options in most eateries, as well (save for Johnny Rocket's). The Vitality offerings are available in the main dining rooms and the buffet venue.
Sorrento's (Deck 5, Royal Promenade): serves thick, doughy pizza along with antipasti and Italian desserts. (The tiny tiramisu was divine.) Generally open from 11:30 a.m. – 3 a.m.
Cafe Promenade (Deck 5, Royal Promenade): This is the ship's only 24-hour restaurant, and offers breakfast pastries, mini-sandwiches and desserts, and it serves specialty coffees (for a charge).
Windjammer Café (Deck 11): Food quality was generally good for cafeteria-style fare and was best when sticking to the basics. Somewhat disappointing is the fact that there's no outdoor seating in the Windjammer. (The room stretches all the way to the back of the ship.) Also, the only grill fare available is steam-table stuff. It would be nice if the ship had a casual poolside grill. Off to the side of the Windjammer is Jade, its Asian-themed buffet. The offerings vary between Thai and Chinese, primarily. Quality is fair.
Sprinkles (Deck 11): You can snack on soft ice cream at this pool-adjacent soft serve ice-cream machine.
Room Service: Delivery is available 24 hours a day, at a cost of $7.95 per order (which includes a gratuity). The breakfast menu is rather more generous than some of RCI's big-ship competitors, going beyond Continental fare to offer "country breakfast" items like eggs and bacon. It's available for delivery between 7 and 10 a.m. The rest of the time, the selection, though limited, offers a blend of healthy and fast food choices, such as fruit plates, salads, sandwiches, burgers, pizza and chili, along with desserts.
The quality of the food and service levels in the specialty restaurants, in particular Chops Grille, is generally high and worth a splurge if you're on a seven-night cruise.
The Cupcake Cupboard (Deck 5); a la carte pricing: New to the Royal Promenade, this offers a cute display of gourmet cupcakes. It has regular cupcakes at $2.75, Minis at $1.50, Cake Pops at $1.50 and Giant Birthday Cakes at $24.95. Decorated with soft yellow, wooden panelling and mint green finishes, it is the perfect spot to sit and enjoy a coffee and a cake. There is also a display by the entrance selling an assortment of cupcake themed trinkets like greeting cards, pens and other small souvenirs that are a perfect memento for children and those who love all things sweet. The shop also offers design classes for the budding culinary enthusiast. These are priced at $22 for adults (11 years-up) and $15 for children (five years-10 years). Each class has a maximum of 10 people so it is best to turn up early to make your booking. Open: On late arrival from 2:00 p.m. to 10:30p.m., early arrival from 3:00p.m. to 10:30p.m. and sea days from 10:30 a.m. to 10:30pm.
Ben & Jerry's (Deck 5, Royal Promenade); $4.75 or less: Ben & Jerry's ice cream bar, across from Cafe Promenade and next to Cupcake Cupboard, makes delicious fresh waffles. The ice cream selection varies and tops a dozen flavors. They also make floats and shakes and let you sample flavors before committing.
Giovanni's Table (Deck 11); Dinner $30 p.p. and $15 p.p. for lunch: This is a new for fee, family friendly place which replaced upscale Portofino. It has a relaxed theme and good, hearty if not outstanding cuisine. The waiters greet you with a warm welcome in Italian and guide you to your seat. Neat and simple tables and decor -- ideal for a family with young children who may fidget during the meal. The food is beautifully presented and still maintains a rustic charm in its blend of Italian herbs and seasonings. One of the starters, focaccia della casa -- a flat bread with potatoes, marinated artichokes, olives and pesto -- is a perfect example of well cooked, homely food. The oven baked, almond crusted scallops with red bell pepper are a more delicate starter and a lighter option, which is good to know if you wanted to choose from some of the more hearty, carb-filled mains. There are dishes for vegetarians and those with a specific dietary requirements. Open: For lunch on the last sea day, 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.; Dinner: 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.
Chops Grille (Deck 11); $35: Chops Grille is the ship's steakhouse restaurant, and is a mainstay across the fleet. The menu is steakhouse-influenced with starters like shrimp cocktail -- nice, fat ones! -- and Caesar salad; various cuts of meat, including filet mignon, lamb and pork; and family-size side dishes, such as succotash and mashed potatoes.
Johnny Rockets (Deck 12); $6.95; Johnny Rocket's is the only place onboard to offer outdoor seating. This 1950s diner-style national chain features its trademark gut-busting hamburgers, chili dogs, onion rings, fries and milkshakes. (The Oreo sundae is worth trying!) If you hear the Bee Gees starting to rev up on "Saturday Night Fever," you'll know that the wait staff are about ready to break into a dance. Linger over your meal, and you'll be treated to several versions. The cover charge does not include drinks, such as sodas, beer or milkshakes.