Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served daily in the ship's main dining room, all open seating to encourage mixing and mingling. There are four- and six-tops throughout the picture window-lined, chandeliered room, but no real tables for two or for larger groups. Breakfast is served from 7 until 9 a.m., buffet-style, with pastries, breads, fruit, juices, cereals, smoked fish and cold cuts making up the bulk of the menu. Buffet stations change daily, but generally include scrambled eggs, home fries, breakfast meats (sausage, bacon) and something sweet for carb-lovers (pancakes one day, French toast the next). Every morning there is also a made-to-order egg station where you can get the omelet of the day or eggs prepared to your liking. Waiters are on hand to serve coffee and deliver items from the egg station to your table; everything else is self serve.
Time-wise, lunch service begins at around the same time every day, but exact times vary depending on the day's shore excursion schedule (times will be printed in the daily newsletter). Each day, the lunch menu features one soup, one entree and one dessert, all available by waiter service, as well as a full self-service buffet. This meal is very flexible. You can have all three courses served to you for a true sit-down experience. Or, you can have a soup, get up and indulge in the buffet, and then end the meal with the waiter-served dessert. Or, you can skip the menu items altogether and just hit the buffet. Really hungry? Have it all! Buffet options change daily, but there is usually a theme. For example, an Asian-inspired lunch featured curry shrimp, fried rice, sweet and sour chicken, and a sushi display. Draft beer is served complimentary at lunch; you can also ask for complimentary house wine if you'd rather have that with your midday meal.
Dinner, too, is scheduled to accommodate tours, starting later, for instance, if a full day ashore means passengers returned to the ship in the early evening. Unlike breakfast and lunch, which are more casual (arrive whenever you like, graze the buffet), dinner is a full sit-down, multi-course affair and passengers are expected to arrive at the same time. An amuse bouche is served to all, followed by a choice of two soups, a choice of two salads and a choice of two or three entrees. There's one dessert each night, which you can have served at your seat. You can also choose to partake of a buffet of cheeses and crackers and an ice cream bar with all the fixings. Red and white wines are served complimentary at dinner, though you can also request a draft beer.
Special diets are well catered to and the maitre d' personally sits down on day one with all passengers who have specific requests (vegetarian, gluten-free, low salt or sugar). Upon check in, the reception desk staffer made sure to ask me if I was a vegetarian or had any food allergies or aversions; the maitre d' consultation is also well promoted in the daily program.
Meals were always served hot and meats cooked to the temperature requested. Some dishes were underwhelming (bland soups, gummy gnocchi) and repetitive (lots and lots of beef tenderloin), while others were exceptional (roasted duck that was not at all greasy, served with polenta, a welcome change of pace from rice or potatoes). However, the biggest area we saw for improvement was in tying the offerings in to the places the ship was visiting. I was not alone in hoping for some goulash after a day touring in Hungary.
With staffers doing double duty (was that the lounge bartender busing tables? Yep!), service often exceeded expectations. I alerted my waiter one evening not to bring me dessert as I'd be leaving early to make a late-night spa appointment; dinner had been pushed back due to our shore tour coming back later than scheduled. Not wanting me to have to rush my meal, she took the initiative to contact the massage therapist and delay my start time by a few minutes -- it was a much-appreciated gesture. I did overhear one woman voice a complaint after being bumped into by a waiter carrying a tureen, who proceeded to soil her blouse with soup; it was an accident that was handled with a sincere apology and a prompt offer to clean the article of clothing on the house.
There are other dining options beyond the main dining room, mostly centered on the Lido Bar on Deck 3. A light breakfast of pastries, cereal, juice, tea and coffee is served in the Lido Bar from 6 until 10 a.m., a good option for early risers or for grabbing a quick croissant al fresco (tables and chairs inside seat about 20, with a few more scattered out on the adjacent patio). There's also a light lunch served in the Lido Bar daily, which consists of salad fixings and a stir fry station.
In the evenings, the Lido Bar is transformed into an alternative dining option -- unusual, and a nice touch, for a river boat. A set Italian menu is served nightly for up to 20 people (there's no charge, but reservations are required and can be made at reception). Focaccia and cubes of sharp provolone greet passengers on white-clothed tables. Nearly everything on the menu is brought to the table automatically, including individual antipasti of roasted vegetables, melon and prosciutto, and a chopped green salad. There are two entrees, both vegetarian so all have a choice -- penne with vegetables in a light pesto sauce or cannelloni stuffed with an artichoke mixture in tomato sauce. A panna cotta dessert ends the meal (though the ubiquitous cheese and crackers option also exists). This is a lovely, intimate experience.
Some excursions include meals ashore. In Arbanassi, Bulgaria, we split up into groups of 10, each to be treated to a home-cooked lunch in a local's home. For me, this was one of the most memorable of the trip because the dining experience really centered on traditional fare in the region -- shopska salad (similar to a Greek salad, with tomatoes, cucumbers and salty, firm "white cheese" akin to feta), veal stew, homemade wine and bread, a shot of Rakia (local brandy) and a dessert similar to rice pudding, but made with sweetened noodles.
Finally, a limited room service menu is offered, complimentary, between 2 p.m. and midnight. You won't find sandwiches or meals, just snacks. Choices include "Snack Attack" (cheese and cracker assortment), "Sweet Time" (cookies or baked goods), "Fruit Basket" (you guessed it), "Ice Cream Break" (flavors change daily) or "Pretzel Break" (hot pretzels).
With such a busy schedule day in and day out, I was hard pressed to find time for a snack, but I finally did indulge one afternoon, enjoying cookies -- including Oreos and mini Belgian stroopwafels (caramel-filled wafers). You can have your order delivered wherever you are on the river boat in 30 minutes or less. My "Sweet Time" arrived within the timeframe quoted, about 10 minutes.