Norwegian Epic Dining
NCL pioneered the freestyle dining concept (that is, eat whenever you want with whomever you want and wherever you want), and it's taken it to a new level on Epic. Expect to pay a little extra (or a lot, depending on your perspective) for the specialty restaurants onboard, though there are plenty of places to nosh that are included in the cruise fare.
Whereas most mega-ships feature a massive, swanky dining hall where strangers mingle at large tables under glistening chandeliers, Epic goes another route. The closest you'll find to the standard here is the fee-free, 592-seat Manhattan Room, an Art Deco-esque maze with gorgeous two-story windows looking aft and a polished dance floor (there's frequently music for hoofing, and the Legends in Concert show takes place here three times a week). It's a beaut, but it offered up one of the least satisfying meals I encountered thanks to an overwhelming din and sub-par food (for the record, a soggy salad, cold prime rib and a rock-hard baked potato).
Oddly enough, I preferred the chow and the atmosphere at the Garden Café, the ship's buffet-style eatery awash with flowery décor and made-to-order food stations. As crowded as Epic was, I never had a problem finding a seat, plus there's a plethora of window tables -- so even if you're eating alone there's something to watch outside. Steps away and almost poolside is the Great Outdoors, an extension of the buffet offering breakfast, lunch and dinner with easy access to well-spaced tables tucked under attractive tent-like canopies.
There are two other open-to-all, fee-free options onboard. Because I'd heard mixed reviews from fellow Epicureans about Taste, which proffers eclectic fare for breakfast, lunch and dinner, I approached the atrium restaurant with some skepticism. No worries: I loved the unconventional décor -- a modernistic mix of twisted wood, a giant LED chandelier and free-form walls -- and the sophisticated vibe, and the food wasn't half-bad (tip: try the fish and chips). Less sophisticated and more fun is O'Sheehan's, a new concept for NCL: a sprawling bowling alley-cum-eatery that's open 24 hours and decked out in dark wood and stained glass. It dishes out breakfasts (scrambled-egg wraps, create-your-own omelets and the like) and pub grub.
Still, the gratis options never really measured up to the offerings at the for-fee specialty restaurants. Several venues make their debuts here: Shanghai's is a free, compact, dinner-only Chinese restaurant decorated in deep reds and greens; it has an adjacent noodle bar that was always packed for lunch and dinner. Both are worth a stop, though I'd advise ordering the more exotic fare at Shangai's (read: no lo mein) to shake things up a bit.
Meanwhile, passadors hauling towering skewers of beef and other carnivore cravings make the rounds at Moderno Churrascaria, an all-you-can-eat meatfest ($19.95 per person) sharing space with Cagney's Steakhouse, an NCL dinner-only stalwart. Two words: Go hungry. But perhaps the latter should have its own space -- Moderno's giant salad bar looks out of place within the classy Cagney's ($29.95), which on this vessel is too bright, too busy, too loud and too crowded. While the food was fine, the atmosphere suffers in comparison to Cagney's on other NCL ships.
More successful is the $19.95-per-person, dinner-only Le Bistro, another NCL standard-bearer that gets the royal treatment on Epic. Delicious French fare is presented with panache in a dining room bedecked with sculptures, gorgeous flowers and paintings. Interestingly, this was the only tough reservation I had while onboard. Even more interesting: I could only nab a 5:30 p.m. reservation on the night I wanted to go, but when I finished dinner at about 7:30 p.m., more than half the room was empty.
Looking for romance? Ok, I wasn't, but La Cucina, a relatively low-end Italianate tucked under the Garden Café, was a lovely surprise. A crack team of servers wove in and out of comfortably spaced tables that either hug expansive windows or sit under a faux tree adorned with lanterns. Add in subtle lighting, a quiet vibe, good food (including a grade-A bread basket) and a relatively $14.95 surcharge, and you have a winner.
Two other for-fee options fill the bill admirably if you want something a tad more exotic. Wasabi -- featuring tile floors and comfy high-top chairs set at counters sporting fake wheatgrass in little wooden pots -- offers expertly prepared a la carte sushi and sashimi, plus a full sake menu. I had a delicious, filling combo plate at lunch for $10, and it would have been even cheaper except I wanted to try the vegetable roll. NCL expanded its popular Teppanyaki lair for Epic, which you'll either love or hate depending on your tolerance for knife play, singing, cheering and other non-sedate meal antics while a master chef performs at a grill. I adored it, and at $25 I'm torn over whether the fee is for the food or the entertainment.
Guests bunking in the private Courtyard Villas complex can also choose to dine for free in the Epic Club, a chic nook on Deck 16 swathed in splashy colors, modern furniture and beaded curtains. Its outdoor component, the Courtyard Grill, serves breakfast and lunch and is similarly light on seating (the Club accommodates 62, the Grill 36).
Finally, don't scoff at the 24/7 pizza advertised everywhere on the ship (seriously, you can't avoid the signs for it). I tested out the delivery service by ordering a veggie pie at 3 a.m. one morning and marveled at a) how quickly it arrived, b) how large it was and c) how good it tasted. For $5, it's one of the best bargains onboard.
Additional for-fee room-service options include a jumbo-shrimp platter ($20) and a cheese selection ($42, serves four). Otherwise, there's standard gratis fare available for delivery, including breakfast (juices, coffee, cold cereals, yogurt, breads, etc.) and all-day selections like chicken soup and a three-egg omelet. For the most part, I found service prompt and pleasant.