Company executives have been saying it all along: American Queen's food is what people will be talking about when they get off the boat. To that end, they brought in famed Southern chef Regina Charboneau to serve as the vessel's cuisine director, and her stamp is all over the place.
The sumptuous J.M. White Dining Room on Deck 1 is where all meals are served. It's essentially divided into three parts: two long, sunny atriums with tall windows, chandeliers and 8-foot palms are divided by a less impressive, darker seating area with a low ceiling. (The Twain Gallery is on the deck directly above, and it has windows that provide a glimpse of diners noshing in the two high-ceilinged spaces.) Linens are crisp and spotless, while flatware is heavy and ornate. Seating ranges from two-tops by the windows and square tables seating four to round tables that seat six and eight.
Dinner seatings are at 5:15 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.; they include a multicourse menu of Charboneau recipes, including sugar-cane glazed prime rib of pork, sauteed red snapper Creole and lamb chops with tomato-mint marmalade. Comfort food is on offer, too, including meatloaf, beef brisket and fried chicken. Dinner includes free (and free-flowing) wine and beer; soft drinks are free throughout the boat. Seating is open at breakfast and lunch.
Desserts are standout attractions and might include the Natchez beignet filled with vanilla ice cream and warm praline sauce, fig bread pudding with caramelized sugar sauce and a classic chocolate layer cake with creme anglaise.
Lunch, with a la carte and buffet options, is typically served in the dining room from 11:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. Expect a carving station, vegetables and Southern staples like etouffee on the buffet. You'll find menu items like a smoked catfish BLT, quail and mushroom salad, a salmon salad with bacon molasses vinaigrette and a fried oyster salad. The chef has created a number of dishes that reflect the boat's destinations. For instance, baked ham with Coca-Cola sauce pays homage to Vicksburg, Mississippi, where Coca-Cola was first bottled. Top it all off with a selection of cheesecake, cakes and pies.
Likewise, ask for the short-but-amazing menu at breakfast, which is served from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. While the buffet offerings (including creamy grits, steel-cut oatmeal, a fresh waffle station and myriad fruit options) are top-notch, you'll regret it if you don't try Charboneau's beignets and Andouille (sausage) hash (hash options change daily). For our money, her Bananas Foster Stuffed French Toast is one of the best desserts we've ever had for breakfast.
The sea day buffet brunch (11:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.), which is also in the dining room, has quickly become an American Queen favorite, with the ship's band playing throughout the meal. The standout fare on our sailing was a roast pig, a 75-pounder on our cruise. If that's not to your liking, check out the shrimp and grits, smoked fish or the catfish and jalapeno sauce. Tip: This is the only time you'll get to sample Charboneau's famous butter biscuits, so take advantage of it.
For a more relaxed meal, head to the cheery inside portion of Deck 3's Front Porch Cafe. There are serve-yourself eats available at breakfast (beignets, croissants and oatmeal), lunch (brisket po' boys, salads, grilled hot dogs, burgers and chicken) and dinner (smoked meat plates with side dishes, salads and bread). A bar is available for libations at an additional cost. Seating is also arranged at tables outside, under cover, with a great view of the river ahead. Between meals, you can take advantage of the Front Porch's soft ice cream, popcorn, coffee machine and soda fountain. Home-baked cookies are up for grabs, too.
Finally, a selection of snacks and cookies can be had all day long from either the Front Porch or a small stand at the back of the Mark Twain Gallery.
The all-American wait staff provide friendly, helpful service in all the dining and bar venues. They range in age from 20s to 60s, and many hail from the South.