Can you still have an outstanding experience in a cruise ship's main dining room? That's the question on many cruisers' lips as cruise lines focus their attention on myriad extra-fee, upscale specialty restaurants. These venues promise gourmet dining with menus crafted by celebrity chefs, exotic cuisine or novel eating experiences, and the exclusive feeling that comes with intimate, exclusive venues. With all the hype, some cruisers might feel they're missing out if they don't try all the alternative restaurants -- associating the once-beloved main dining room (or MDR, as it's affectionately known) with lower-quality or mass-market meals.
However, the MDR is far from a cafeteria with chandeliers; it's a chance to take advantage of a slightly formal (and free!) meal. You don't need an iPad menu or world-class chefs to dress up a little, try new and different foods, and have a fun and fancy three- or four-course dinner. And while we've all had a dish or two that fell flat or tablemates who we didn't love, we've also had yummy food and made new friends over many an evening meal. Besides, where else can you order three entrees or desserts and no one bats an eye?
If you've been overly dazzled by specialty dining or suffer from MDR ennui, try some of the following tips to help you customize your own dining room experience and solve problems before they escalate. From befriending your waiters to experimenting with new foods, you might find a few changes give you a new perspective on tried-and-true cruise-ship dining.
- Mention dietary needs before you embark (and after). More than ever, people are altering their diets due to food allergies and intolerances, as well as personal preferences and healthy lifestyle choices. Alert dining staff to any dietary restrictions and food needs well before your ship sails, as this will enable them to best accommodate you at each meal. Once onboard, keep gluten or peanuts off your plate with a friendly reminder to the maitre d' and dining room waitstaff. Your requests might have been processed, but attaching a face to a food allergy will help prevent disappointing or hive-inducing dinners.
- Request changes early. Don't like your seating time? Want flexible dining but got set-seating? Your dining preferences can usually be accommodated once onboard, but the earlier you inquire, the better the outcome. Embarkation day is the time to request a dining time change or a romantic two-top instead of an uber-social table for 10. (Be sure to mention if you're celebrating a special occasion, such as an anniversary or honeymoon, or have particularly compelling reasons why you need a change.) If you discover the first night that you'll be dining with the Addams Family, you still can contact your maitre d' and propose a different seating arrangement. If you're not the type to make a fuss, just think to yourself: "Speak now, or forever eat too early with that couple who think cats are their children."
- Tip before the meal. That's right -- before. Tip your waiter on the first night in the main dining room for the service you would like to be given, and chances are he'll respond to that courtesy by living up to your service expectations. You might feel a bit awkward slipping bills into the palm of a relative stranger, but considering this waiter is assigned to you for the length of your cruise (unless you choose the flexible dining option), establishing a quick connection is encouraged. It doesn't take a cruising kingpin to understand the concept of "money talks."
- Get to know your waiter (and trust his or her judgment). Whether you gift the green at the beginning or end of the cruise, don't miss a chance to become acquainted with your waiters. If they're doing their job well, they will become acquainted with you, your likes and dislikes, and translate all of that into a pleasurable dining experience. The waitstaff is familiar with the menu, the strike-outs and the crowd-pleasers, so don't hesitate to ask for recommendations before deciding between the fish or the steak, selecting the clam chowder or the bisque, and, perhaps most importantly, choosing a dessert.
- Be adventurous. At a certain age, we might feel that we like what we like, and we aren't compelled to try new foods. However, a vacation atmosphere -- one where you're out of your everyday element -- might serve as the perfect backdrop for some new culinary excursions. Not only can you order multiple starters and entrees in a cruise ship dining room, but there's no fee for dishes -- even extra ones. So try the escargot, the caviar, the sushi, the tofu ... or all of them. If you don't like what you've chosen, just order something else. You can't go hungry on a cruise. And who knows? You might discover a new favorite food.
- Embrace the quirks. Nightly dress codes, forced socialization and semi-obligatory clap-along numbers might have turned you against MDR dining before the food ever hits the table. However, the advice for anyone not entirely thrilled about the prospect of gowns, gossiping and group numbers is: let loose. Quiet your inner skeptic, and get into the cruise spirit -- take your Sunday best out for a spin, use your new tablemates to unload your old stories and jokes on an unsuspecting public, and wave your napkin in the air as the Baked Alaska comes parading by. You might find dinner is more fun than you expected.
- Don't be afraid to make special requests. It's your birthday, and your favorite thing is mac 'n' cheese (with peas). That might not be on tonight's menu, but that doesn't mean it's dinner impossible. Cruise-ship kitchens are working with plenty of ingredients, and they're suited to most requests. You'll find that if the maitre d' can accommodate you in any way possible, he will. So while a nightly menu customization might be a tad much, don't be afraid to make tweaks or ask for a special dish if it will add to your eating enjoyment. Just understand that your wait team is quite busy, and make any requests as far in advance as you can.
- Use your concierge. If you don't want to take time out of your cruise vacation to go over meal plans with the maitre d' or wait in line to change your dinner seating, get your concierge or butler -- if you have one -- to do it for you. These staff members are employed for whim-catering, so don't be shy; relay the special requests and food fancies that will make your cruise more special. Then go off and have fun while they take care of the details.