Norwegian pioneered the alternative dining concept and moved away from inflexible early and late dinner sittings and fixed mealtimes. In short, passengers can eat what they want, when they want. From casual grills by the pool and endless buffets, to pub grub, pizzas and posh nosh, you'll find it all. Specialty restaurants carry an extra charge, plus an additional 18 percent gratuity, but there are lots of free dining options onboard as well.
Taste (Deck 5): One of the two main dining rooms, Taste is at the foot of the three-deck atrium and the most elegant seating area can be found beneath the dramatic chandelier. This section leads into a larger dining space and in total, the restaurant seats 526. Breakfast features everything you'd expect, from light and healthy options through to omelets and eggs of your choice, pancakes and waffles, along with specialty items including traditional eggs Benedict and a version made with smoked salmon. If you're heading off on a shore excursion, or time is at a premium, opt for the handy express breakfast which comprises juice, yogurt, scrambled eggs with bacon and hash browns, pastries and tea or coffee. At breakfast, diners can expect to be seated with their cruise companion, or people in their group, and not have to share a table. The food is consistently good, but service can be patchy. Open 7 a.m. to 9 a.m.
A la carte lunch includes dishes like soup, salmon, chicken sandwiches, burgers, salads and lighter dishes. Open noon to 2 p.m.
At night, tables are set up for two, four, six or eight people (with larger tables available on request). As there are few two-tops, couples are likely to end up dining with other passengers. The main dinner menu always features a good choice, served with a dash of contemporary flair, with starters such as blue crab cakes or pork and vegetable spring rolls with a sweet and sour dip or soup. Mains might include Thai chicken and shrimp curry in coconut sauce, rib-eye steak and healthy choices such as grilled Atlantic salmon. There is always a vegetarian option. For dessert, expect options such as chocolate mousse, vanilla bean and lemon whipped cream and cheese plates. Open 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.
In common with the other dining venues, many wines are offered by the glass and start at $7.50. Bottles range from $28 for a Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon to $282 for the Napa Valley red Opus One. Fizz ranges from a $32 Zinfandel to a bottle of Dom Perignon for $199. North & South is Norwegian's proprietary own-label brand (the equivalent of a house wine) and includes Sauvignon Blanc for $32 and a Californian red for $36.
Manhattan Room (Deck 6): Only open for dinner, the second main dining room seats 592 and is a lovely venue. It's an art deco-inspired recreation of a New York supper club (albeit a very big one), with gorgeous two-deck floor-to-ceiling windows looking aft and a polished dance floor (where dancers from the show, rather than passengers, perform three times a week). Tables are mainly for four, but there is limited seating for two, plus tables for up to 12 (if advised in advance). Open 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Quality and service, even at rush hour (around 8 p.m.) is consistently good. The menu features an extensive list of appetizers, such as yellow split pea soup with garlic sausage, smoked salmon tartare with avocado, fried calamari or a beef burger slider. Main dishes might include Swiss veal ragout, garlic roasted pork loin or less fancy classic choices such as spaghetti bolognese, sirloin steak and roast chicken. The dessert menu proved a talking point with its warm chocolate volcano (recommended) and curiously named snickerdoodle pound cake a la mode (which turned out to be the teatime favorite) served with vanilla ice cream, white chocolate curl and strawberries.
O'Sheehan's Neighborhood Bar & Grill (Deck 6): The inviting dining arm of the ship's open-all-hours pub is open for breakfast and dinner, with a snack selection available outside these times. Seating 180, it's a popular venue with an accent on American favorites and comfort food.
Breakfast options include generous portions of corned beef hash or a country breakfast of eggs, bacon, sausage, baked beans, hash browns, tomato, mushrooms and toast. Main meal choices include Buffalo wings, hearty soup or fried mozzarella sticks to start, followed by chicken pot pie, burgers, hot dogs, fish and chips or sandwiches. If you've still got room to fill, desserts include apple pie and cheesecake. Meals can be washed down with cocktails starting at $7.95, a glass of white wine for the same price (red is $8.95) or a choice of beer from around the world from $5.95.
Shanghai's Noodle Bar (Deck 6): This bar is the casual sidekick of the adjoining Chinese restaurant of the same name. Seating 15 around the bar, the venue makes it easy to order: simply tick the boxes of your choice on the order form, hand it over and wait for the chefs to prepare fresh and tasty noodles, dim sum and stir-fried dishes. Open noon to 1:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.
Shanghai (Deck 6): This dinner-only restaurant is decorated in deep reds and greens and serves a selection of pan-Asian fare. It seats 94 and typical dishes include egg drop and corn soup, chicken lettuce wraps, orange peel beef, Peking-style chicken and shrimp, and green tea ice cream. To complement the cuisine, the drink list includes Asian beer for $5.95 and cocktails such as Asian Pear Mojito at $5.75. Open 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.
Garden Cafe (Deck 15): Occupying the front of the ship, Epic's casual dining buffet is a bright area with great views, a logical layout and plenty of made-to-order food stations. Although the ship was pretty full during our cruise, it accommodates 680 and we never had a problem finding a seat, even if it took a bit of looking around. For obvious reasons, passengers head to the tables closest to the buffet stations, but it's worth the walk to find a quieter spot in the furthest port or starboard areas or the particularly attractive section that stretches across the front of the vessel. With an army of staff constantly tidying and cleaning, the food never looks tired and the dining area is spotless. Service can be overzealous at times, with plates whipped away before you've finished or when you have nipped back to get something else to go with your meal. I ended up asking passengers at the next table to guard my grub while I stepped away.
The breakfast spread includes juice, yogurt, fresh fruit, cereal, breads, pastries, cooked meats, cheese, bacon, eggs and sausages, and healthy options like smoothies. Lunch runs late and features all manner of salads, snacks, burgers, pizza, pasta, hot and cold dishes, excellent Asian and Indian food sections and sweet treats. Food is clearly marked for vegetarians.
At dinner you'll find a plethora of choice, from fish and chips to fancier dishes. There's a different culinary theme each night at one of the buffet stations, such as 'Taste of Asia' which features dishes like Peking duck or shrimp stir fry or a Mediterranean extravaganza with all manner of grilled meat, fish and more.
The buffet stations are well divided, and with no vast counters serving a combination of different dishes the lines are never overly long, even at busy times. Open 7 a.m. to 10.30 a.m., noon to 3 p.m. and 5:30 to 9:30 p.m.
Great Outdoors (Deck 15): Steps from the Garden Cafe, and almost poolside, is the Great Outdoors. This extension of the main buffet seats 366 and offers easy access to well-spaced tables, tucked under attractive tent-like canopies. Open 6 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. and noon to 3:30 p.m.; snacks are served until 5 p.m. (weather permitting).
Spice H2O (Deck 15): On certain days, this 166-seat adults-only complex offers a lunchtime buffet from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. From 6 p.m. daily it serves light appetizers such as Indonesian chicken satay, spicy popcorn chicken and sweet potato fries, which make a good accompaniment to a sundowner cocktail.
Le Bistro (Deck 5); $19.95: Savor a taste of France in this high-end formal dining room (think starched white tablecloths, sculptures, beautiful flowers and paintings). It seats 126 and the charming and attentive waitstaff add to the chic atmosphere. The large menu lists the dishes in French, with the English translation beneath. Set the scene with a $12.95 French Manhattan cocktail or a $6.95 sparkling kir royale while you browse through the mouth-watering starters and soups. Highlights include French onion soup, the traditional fish soup bouillabaisse, grilled asparagus with hollandaise sauce, and, naturally, escargots in herb butter. Mains include coq au vin, breast of duck served with duck confit and roast rack of lamb. Items from the small premium selection carry a surcharge; for example, $9.99 for lobster tail and $19.99 for rib-eye steak for two, which is carved at the table. Portions are well-sized, and not overwhelming, so that means there's room for desserts such as creme brulee, apple tatin with walnut cream, a chocolate fondue for two or a selection of French cheeses. Each course is absolutely delicious. Open to 9.30 p.m.
Cagney's (Deck 7); $29.95: Norwegian's signature restaurant is Cagney's steakhouse, which shares space with Moderno Churrascaria at the aft of the ship. Two words: Go hungry. Expect starters such as a selection of salads or the rather curious baked potato soup, followed by steaks ranging from a 5-oz. filet mignon to a mighty 18-oz. bone-in rib eye, served simply grilled or with a choice of seasonings and sauces. There are some fish dishes, but it's not the place for vegetarians. It seats 146. Open 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.
Moderno Churrascaria (Deck 7); $19.95: Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the room, and open at the same time, passadors hauling towering skewers of beef and other carnivore cravings make the rounds at this 144-cover all-you-can-eat meat-fest. Diners are handed a green for go chip to put on the table to signal they want more, along with a red chip when they want to halt the feast, perhaps to rustle up some greenery from the salad buffet. To complete the Latin theme, the drinks list includes classic and strawberry caipirinha cocktails priced at $6.75.
Teppanyaki (Deck 7); $29.95: Culinary art is the name of the game at this Japanese eatery, which is perfect for groups (and if you go solo or as a couple, you'll soon get to know your fellow diners). Cruisers sit around a cooking station while the chef serves up equal amounts of food and theatrical effects, including juggling, jokes, singing and other antics. Start the experience with a wasabi cocktail or a Japanese martini -- both $9.95 -- while the chef gets to work on the large iron griddle. After a first course of miso soup and seaweed salad with a ginger dressing, mains include chicken, seafood, meat or vegetables served with noodles and other accompaniments, or combo dishes such as Samurai (chicken and jumbo shrimp), Shogun (steak and chicken breast) or Shinto (sea scallops and jumbo shrimp). Green tea cake with cashew nut brittle (nicer than it sounds) or fresh exotic fruits bring down the curtain on a brilliantly entertaining dinner. Seats 104. Open 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.
Yakitori & Sushi (Deck 7); a la carte: If Teppanyaki is not your style, then stop off at the 20-seat a la carte sushi and sashimi bar at the entrance and enjoy Japanese delights in more serene surrounds. Dishes served in this cozy venue start with appetizers such as miso soup and sesame seaweed salad followed by ura maki rolls and grilled yakitori dishes. Drinks include a Lychee Saketini, a vodka and lychee liqueur cocktail priced at $8.95, six-month aged sake, served warm or chilled, for $5.75 and Momokawa Pearl rice beer for $6.25.
La Cucina (Deck 14); $19.95: Accessed via stairs from the Garden Cafe or an elevator close to the aft cabins on Deck 14, this 182-cover Italian restaurant is tucked out of the way, and a lovely surprise (once you find it). With subtle lighting, well-spaced tables, a quiet vibe, good food, and panoramic views out of the windows, it's the best spot onboard for a romantic dinner. Starters include calamari, minestrone soup and tomato bruschetta topped with anchovies, followed by classic Italian osso bucco, or veal shank, pork scallop served with gnocchi or pasta dishes including lobster linguini and beef lasagna. To top it all off, desserts include tiramisu and panna cotta. Bellissimo! Open 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.
Room Service; $7.95, except Continental breakfast: Room service is available 24 hours, with breakfast from 6:30 a.m. to 10 a.m., and a menu of other dishes including sandwiches, salads, hot dogs, burgers and snacks, available the rest of the time. Children's options include chicken fingers with barbecue sauce, macaroni and cheese, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Some items carry a charge, such as $20 for a platter of a dozen jumbo shrimps and $18 for a selection of international cheeses for two. A $7.95 "convenience charge" is applied to all room service orders, except for Continental breakfast and any meals ordered by Haven and suite passengers.
Note: Specialty food-lovers can dine out for less by purchasing the Specialty Dining Package, which can be bought online or onboard. Providing the opportunity to experience the restaurants for one set price, it costs $59 per guest for a three-day cruise, $74 for four-day cruises, $89 for five days, $104 for six days and $119 for seven-day cruises.