There are two new eating venues on Independence, following its upgrade: an Italian Trattoria, Giovanni's Table and The Cupcake Cupboard, which follows the current trend of installing cafes and bakeries onboard (Norwegian Breakaway, Royal Princess.)
Giovanni's Table (6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.), on Deck 11, is a new for fee, family friendly place with 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. Dinner is $20 p.p. and $15 p.p. for lunch (on the last sea day, 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.).
The Cupcake Cupboard has been added to the main thoroughfare of the ship, the “High Street”, offering 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. The Cupcake Cupboard is 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.
The vast, three-deck-high dining room (called Romeo and Juliet on Deck 3, Othello on Deck 4 and King Lear on Deck 5) 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. 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. I chose the My Time option, which is still relatively new to Royal Caribbean, and had a consistently outstanding experience. 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 I sat. (Waiters from previous nights who passed by my 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 (salads, soups, appetizers), entrees and desserts. An "every night" series of selections includes vegetarian pasta, broiled salmon, chicken breast and sirloin. Overall, food quality in the dining room was quite good for banquet-style dining, bearing in mind that it's produced in mass quantities. The fruit soups were standouts (light, delicious, flavorful), pancakes were fluffy and served hot, and the aforementioned lunchtime antipasti offerings were delicious. Dinner in any of the three main restaurants is a lovely, elegant affair; I loved the fact that musicians played classical music throughout the evening.
The "Chops Grille filet mignon" is available for $14.95. I 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.
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.
Also good options for very casual dining are two Promenade-based cafes. Sorrento's (generally open from 11:30 a.m. – 3 a.m.) serves thick, doughy pizza along with antipasti and Italian desserts. (The tiny tiramisu was divine.) The Cafe Promenade, the ship's only 24-hour restaurant, offers breakfast pastries, mini-sandwiches and desserts, and it serves specialty coffees. There's no fee to dine in either restaurant, though coffees and other drinks do incur a charge.
You can snack on soft ice cream at the pool-adjacent Sprinkles (no charge) or splurge on Ben & Jerry's in the promenade.
Johnny Rocket's is the only eatery onboard to offer outdoor seating. This 1950's diner-style national chain eatery 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 is about ready to break into a dance. Linger over your meal, and you'll be treated to several versions! Most of the time, the staff looks rather bored while dancing. (Perhaps the music selection could be mixed up a little?) But, on one visit, passengers, from teen girls to dads who probably should know better, got up and danced along, and it was a lovely, joyful scene. The cost to dine at Johnny Rocket's is $4.95 per person (no matter how much or how little you order) and does not include drinks, such as sodas, beer or milkshakes. It may be that the hefty cover charge is limiting Johnny Rocket's popularity. I was surprised how easy it was to find a seat there -- even on sea days. On a previous cruise on a Voyager-class ship, it was almost always tough to score a table.
One oddity: On my first visit, the restaurant was nearly empty, and all but one outside booth was unoccupied. But when, dining solo, I asked for an outdoor table, the host told me those were saved for families. I insisted, and he gave in, but it was a rare moment of poor service on Independence of the Seas. (Interesting, too, that his influx of families never materialized; the booths remained relatively unoccupied throughout the time I sat there.)
The ship has a pair of more upscale restaurants: Portofino's and Chops Grille. Portofino's is the better of the two. The Italian restaurant is also the most romantic onboard, and service is as excellent as the cuisine. The cost is $20 per person, and dishes include starters like risotto with tiger shrimp, caprese salad and soups. There's also a pasta course, and though the menu varies, choices on my visit included spaghetti with lobster, penne pomodoro with prosciutto and pappardelle with mascarpone and mushrooms. Entrees are rich and substantial, with choices like tenderloin (and truffle mashed potatoes), saltimbocca, halibut and chicken. The tiramisu is, as would be expected, exceptional as a dessert choice, but you can also order panna cotta and other Italian favorites, or opt for a cheese course.
Portofino also offers a once-a-cruise wine dinner. At $54.50 per person, the five-course meal was fantastic. It started with tuna carpaccio, moved on to pan-seared scallops with a sweet-and-meaty chunk of lobster, a light salad and beef medallions, then finished with mascarpone and strawberry crepes. Each course was matched with a different wine (included in the price), though the pairings seemed rather disconnected; there was no significant explanation about why we were eating each course with the chosen wine. Ultimately, what was fun about the event was the chance to meet fellow passengers who were enthused about food and wine.
Chops Grille was a disappointment all around. It's the ship's steakhouse restaurant, and it's the most expensive alternative eatery with a service charge of $30 per person. 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.
The menu is fine but the quality of the service was appallingly bad on my visit, beginning with a chilly greeting on arrival and proceeding downhill from there.
Dithering between ordering lamb chops or braised short rib, I asked the waiter for his recommendation. "One's grilled, and one's braised, so what you order depends on the preparation," he said rather curtly. Actually, no: One's lamb, and one's cow. On his way out, another diner stopped at the maitre d's station to calmly express his disappointment about the experience, calling the night "diabolical." And yet another complained about his romantic table-for-two that was slammed right up against a boisterous group of a dozen people who overwhelmed the room.
Note: You can make reservations at both Portofino and Chops Grille before your trip, via Royal Caribbean's Web site. (If you have a special date in mind, I highly recommend you do so, as both restaurants regularly "sell out.") A heads-up, though: When you book pre-cruise, you're required to guarantee with a credit card, and the charge is put through immediately, rather than being added to your onboard account.
Room service is available 24 hours a day, with a $3.95 charge for orders placed between midnight and 5 a.m. The breakfast menu (you fill out a card and hang it on your door before going to sleep) 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.
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.
The Murder Mystery Dinner show blends entertainment and dining. It's kitschy fun! On our trip, the show was called "The Curse of the Dark Star Diamond," and members of ship's dance troupe handled the acting roles. Diners gathered at the Olive or Twist lounge for glasses of sparkling wine and watched the first scene. Then, we moved on to Portofino's for a multi-course, set-menu dinner. While the writing and performances will never win an Oscar Award, the event, which attracted about 70 passengers, was simply good fun. The cost is $49.50 per person, including wine, and you can book, pre-cruise, via Royal Caribbean's Web site. However, Royal Caribbean is phasing out all Murdery Myster Dinner shows, with the last shows performing in November, 2012.