You're never far from food on Carnival Magic -- the trick is finding what you want when you want it. With so many choices -- from slabs of cooked-to-perfection beef to pizza at 4 a.m. -- there's a lot to consider. Here's how the various eateries ranked.
Favorites: We're big fans of the Prime Steakhouse, the $30-per-person alternative space that's become a Carnival standard. With its upscale aura (think plush chairs, a wine wall, muted lighting, sedate color scheme), a menu that includes prime rib, surf 'n' turf and sublime sides (heck, we even like creamed spinach now), and the best service onboard, our three-hour meal sailed by. Be sure to make reservations early, though, as many save it for the final-night fling, and order the chocolate sampler for dessert. One note: Prime was moved from its upper-deck perch to Deck 5, so it's kind of weird (and distracting) to see people walking by on the promenade outside.
Cucina del Capitano -- a family-style Italian with singing waiters, Italianate flourishes, visits from the captain himself and a $15 fee. It's an open space partially looking down upon the Lido Marketplace buffet, so it gives off an Italy-meets-Vegas vibe, but the food makes it worth the climb up the steps. (It's one of the harder restaurants to find onboard, so ask.) There's nothing particularly exciting about the menu -- which includes chicken parmigiano, spaghetti, risotto, braised short ribs and a few fish dishes -- but it's deliciously rendered and cooked to order, and the photos of past Carnival captains on the walls make for some compelling viewing. Again, be sure to make reservations.
(As much as we liked dinner in Cucina del Capitano, we actually preferred it for lunch -- and not just because we're cheap. A free Pasta Bar takes over the space from noon to 2:30 p.m. Guests can choose from a variety of salads, pastas and sauces, and the cooks will whip you up a meal just the way you want it.)
Carnival has charged for specialty coffees and treats for a long time, but Magic is the first ship with a for-fee dining establishment featuring an a la carte menu. Enter the RedFrog Pub and its selection of tantalizing $3.33 bites, which include grouper fingers, conch fritters and roti -- all attractively presented, generously portioned and delicious. You can easily make a meal of them, but watch out: Those seemingly cheap appetizers really add up.
For grub that didn't come with an extra fee, we couldn't pull ourselves away from the tandoori bar in the vast Lido Marketplace eat-a-thon. There's a wide, wonderful selection of spicy, tender meats and other Indian specialties available -- and we're still puzzled why we found it empty most of the time. We also found that it shut down earlier than the rest of the buffet (lunch runs noon to 3:30 p.m., dinner 6 to 9:30 p.m.), so go sometime in the middle and you'll get your fill. It's right off the Tides Pool at the ship's aft.
If you're hankering for something different for lunch on sea days, don't miss the Oceanside Barbecue set up on Deck 5 near the RedFrog. We felt bad for the occupants of the smoke-enveloped Deck 6 cabins just above the grills that were churning out sliders, hot dogs and chicken, but once we dug in to the feast we stopped caring. Diners can also enjoy homemade chips and salsa and a selection of salads.
Decent Standbys: As could be expected, the two main dining rooms are the mealtime hot spots on Carnival Magic, and in our experience the chow ranged from excellent to just so-so. Expect a crush at both Southern Lights (1,248 seats and located aft) and Northern Lights (948 seats and located forward). Dinner is served at 6 and 8:15 p.m. at both, with Your Time Dining available in Northern Lights from 5:45 to 9:30 p.m. Both rooms are lovely enough (kudos to those humongous chandeliers), but we'd give Southern Lights the edge due to its walls of windows. The second floor of Northern Lights, in fact, is adjacent to a busy walkway, so you're going to be sharing your meal with plenty of gawkers if you draw the short straw and have to sit near the glass. Misses included one of the sorriest pork chops we've ever come across and mushy vegetables, and most desserts were fine if unmemorable (except for, of course, Carnival's classic warm chocolate melting cake). Then again, the fried chicken that came highly recommended was one of the best meals we had onboard, and appetizers like shrimp risotto were superb.
In addition to dinner, breakfast and lunch are also served in Southern Lights, and seating is open. Early eaters have a wide range of options, from cereals and baked goods to such hot entrees as omelets and pancakes. Choose from breakfast sides like sausage, bacon and hash browns as well. For lunch, the sunny dining room dishes out favorites like club sandwiches, Caesar salads, pasta dishes and burgers, all served with aplomb for those who want to eschew the grill or buffet at midday.
Aside from the tandoori bar, the other components of the Lido Marketplace are fine, particularly the burrito bar, deli (featuring made-to-order sandwiches) and Mongolian wok, though the congestion overall can really mar the experience. This is also the only spot on the ship where service was questionable -- and almost snippy at times. From 5:30 a.m.to noon, you can grab breakfast in the space (eggs, bacon, yogurt, waffles -- all the usual suspects), but here's a tip: Stroll out to the deli and tandoori sections near the Tides Pool for much of the same fare, and the outdoor seating is a beaut. It's quieter as well, and you'll have a coffee/water station to yourself.
Likewise, Off the Grill near the main Beach Pool provides agreeable munchies until 6 p.m. each day -- a less-congested breakfast in the morning, artery-clogging fare like burgers and fries all afternoon.
If you're dying to spend some money, the Plaza Cafe midship on Deck 5 offers a nice selection of for-fee pastries, ice cream concoctions and specialty coffees.
Needs Work: Our candidates include Sushi & More, an easy-to-miss misstep on Deck 5 proffering complimentary if taste-free sushi from 5 to 8:15 each evening. If you must, look for the countertop near the Vibe dance club. Pizza Pirate offers unexceptional but far-from-disagreeable grub; it's a great spot to carb-up after a late night in Vibe disco. But here's the problem: The wait for pies to surface was excruciating at times, and even though it's billed as a 24/7 dining spot, we found it closed several times in the wee, wee hours. (Sometimes you just need a slice of pepperoni at 4 a.m.)
While the chow arrives relatively quickly and is attractively presented, the room service menu is fairly mundane (think continental breakfast, sandwiches, salads, etc.), and on several occasions what was delivered to the room wasn't what was ordered. Yes, we ate it anyway. Options include cold sandwiches like PB&J, ham and cheese, and shrimp salad; hot (or lukewarm) noshes such as grilled cheese and a grilled Reuben; mixed green and Caesar salads; and a selection of desserts. While there's no fee, we suggest tipping the delivery person -- these folks work hard.
In a Category All Its Own: Foodies with cash to spend will want to check out the Chef's Table. For $75 a person, you meet the head chef, tour the galley and dine on a multi-course meal with wine at a private table where you can watch the chefs at work. We missed out on our voyage, but by all accounts it's an ideal way to celebrate a special occasion at sea.