Passengers accustomed to round-the-clock cafeterias may take a short time to get used to Balmoral's dining arrangements. The restaurants and cafes have different mealtimes, but this adds up to a far more satisfactory experience. The main restaurant, the Ballindalloch, is traditional in style, stretching the width of the ship on deck 6. Two smaller, very attractive restaurants, the Avon and the Spey, are on deck 10 in the new section and have extensive views from floor-to-ceiling windows. All three serve formal dinner in two seatings -- 6:15 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. -- and have open-seating for breakfast (8 a.m. until 10 a.m.) and lunch with a limited waiter-service menu in addition to a buffet in each venue. It's wise not to order two courses from the waiter at the same time, as they may arrive together, but service is efficient and pleasant. Lunch specials ranging from roast beef and Yorkshire pudding to bouillabaisse are often available in these three restaurants, and there is an invitation for solo travellers to join their fellow guests for breakfast in the Ballindalloch.
The Palms Cafe is situated beyond the Morning Light Pub on deck 7, and it has open-seating for all meals. Breakfast is normally from 7 a.m. until 9:30 a.m., lunch from 12:30 p.m. until 2:30 p.m., dinner from 6:30 p.m. until 9 p.m. There is an extensive self-service buffet, as well as waiter service for tea and coffee. In between these times, the Palms Cafe and deck 11's Marquee Bar offer coffee, biscuits and snacks from 10:30 a.m until 11:30 a.m. and from 3:30 p.m. until 4:30 p.m., and the Palms Cafe has a supper club from 11:30 p.m. until 12:30 a.m. The Marquee Bar also offers soup, sandwiches and specials of the day from noon until 2 p.m. This clever arrangement ensures that nobody needs to go more than an hour or so without food, yet the waiters have time to clear the tables to create a pleasant environment, avoiding the search for a table often encountered in a 24-hour cafeteria. One thing that is open 24 hours is a self-service tea and coffee station in the Palms Cafe with many different varieties of tea and coffee. An unusual addition there is a ready-made decaf tea dispenser.
Another welcome touch is a specialist dinner buffet in the Palms Cafe on certain nights during the cruise. These include Chinese cuisine, tapas and paella or Thai cuisine, when the Cafe and pub are decorated in the same theme and waiters are dressed accordingly. Even more special are bottles of Champagne placed on the breakfast buffets on formal nights so that cruisers can start the day by celebrating with a buck's fizz or just a glass of bubbly.
Formal dinner offers a wide choice of dishes from around the world in addition to traditional British fare, from starters, soups, salads and main dishes to desserts and a cheeseboard. There are specialities recommended by the chef, and it's always possible to have simple fare like omelettes. Vegetables are normally served al dente, but a note on the menu says that well-cooked vegetables are always available.
Also onboard is The Bookmark Café - a dedicated coffee and chocolate shop in the area around the Library on Lounge Deck 7. Relaunched as The Bookmark Café in September 2015 (previously Café Venus), it offers a range of speciality coffees and fine teas from Taylors of Harrogate. Coffee starts from £1.55 for a single-shot espresso and tea is served in a pot for £1.85. They also offer an extensive choice of handmade chocolates, including Pralines and Champagne Truffles, all for a fee while the cafe is open from 7:30 a.m. to midnight.
Cabin service is available from 10 a.m. until 11 p.m., except during embarkation and disembarkation. The menu offers soup, a selection of cold main dishes, sandwiches, desserts and afternoon tea pastries, plus tea, coffee, fruit juices and milk. There is also an extensive in-cabin bar service ranging from Dom Perignon Champagne at £98.95 to soft drinks at £1.40. A Special Occasion Selection of canapes and party platters is available at various prices. Continental breakfast is served in-cabin from 7 a.m. until 9 a.m. if ordered by 2 a.m.
There is no speciality restaurant with an additional fee, but a "white glove service" afternoon tea is offered in the Observatory Lounge on deck 11 for £6.95 per person from 3:30 p.m. until 4:30 p.m. on certain days during the cruise. This includes speciality loose teas, mini pastries and warm scones. There was also an enormous selection of cakes on two long tables outside the card room on one afternoon towards the end of the cruise, to accompany the Grand Tea Dance in the Neptune Lounge, where there was also waiter service for tea and sandwiches. Finally, the grand gala buffet on the last formal night in the Ballindalloch richly deserved the half-hour photo opportunity it was given before eating began at 11:45 p.m. It was truly magnificent.
All in all, Balmoral can stand up to any cruise dining experience, and it has some special touches of its own.