What's the best [fill in: pizza, steak, dessert] you ever had at sea?
If you're like us, food is a key component of your vacation experience. You plan for it ("let's visit the steakhouse on the first sea day"), you inquire about it ("where on the buffet did you find burritos?") and -- once you're back home -- you reminisce ("do you remember that luscious creme brulee we had on our Caribbean cruise?").
The staff here at Cruise Critic is no different. We talk a lot about cruise food, arguing about which menu items are "best," based on our favorite binges. To include you in our culinary-focused conversation, we've come up with our top picks for a number of foods and dining experiences, based on our collective cruise hive mind.
To find out what won our superlatives, click through the slideshow. A word of warning: You'll be drooling by the end.
- Best Hamburger: The Ernesto Burger at Salty Dog Gastropub
- Best Sushi: The Sushi Bar (Umi Uma)
- Best Pizza: Spaccanapoli
- Best Italian Food
- Best Barbecue: Guy's Pig & Anchor Bar-B-Que
- Best Mexican Food: BlueIguana Cantina
- Best Seafood: Rudi's Sel de Mer
- Best Dessert: Coco's
- Best Afternoon Tea
- Best Steak: Prime 7
- Best Buffet
- Best Main Dining
Best Hamburger: The Ernesto Burger at Salty Dog Gastropub
The Ernesto burger, named after LA-based chef Ernesto Uchimura, is not for anyone shy on bold flavors. It's a freshly ground rib eye and short rib patty paired with grilled pork belly, making the burger itself juicy and the blend unexpected. The toppings are just as over-the-top, with cave-aged Gruyere, caramelized kimchi, beer-battered jalapeno and charred onion aioli sauce. It all rests upon a smoked salt-and-pepper brioche bun. The Ernesto is definitely a next-level hamburger experience -- We recommend pairing it with some truffle Parmesan fries.
For more: The Best Burgers at Sea
Photo: Cruise Critic
Best Sushi: The Sushi Bar (Umi Uma)
The Sushi Bar, inside of Umi Uma on Crystal Symphony and Serenity, is supervised by Nobu Matsuhisa (of Nobu fame). Matsuhisa is one of the world's most highly regarded celebrity chefs for crafting exquisite and outlandish sushi worldwide, from Dubai to Hawaii. If the words "Japanese-Peruvian fusion" don't pique the interest of your taste buds, then how about tuna tataki with ponzu sauce, yellowtail sashimi with jalapeno or sashimi-style wagyu beef? The Sushi Bar is complimentary, but seats are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Every Crystal passenger enjoys one complimentary dinner at Umi Uma, during which you can order off the sushi menu.
For more: Best Sushi Restaurants on Cruise Ships
Best Pizza: Spaccanapoli
Silversea snags the award for best slice with its venue Spaccanapoli that has our editors raving about its tasty thin crust. "It's like real Neapolitan pizza with a delicious crust and fresh mozzarella," says one Cruise Critic editor. "It's a far cry from the bland American-style, sat-out-for-too-long buffet pizza you get on some ships. It's like Italy onboard." What's more is that the restaurant is named after an actual street in Naples.
For more: Best Pizza Shops on Cruise Ships
Best Italian Food
Keeping with its undeniable Italian roots, MSC honors "the masterpiece of Italian gastronomy" with its homemade pastas, available on every ship, winning our top marks for Italian cuisine. The line uses only the highest-quality semolina from select Italian mills. Pappardelle, tagliatelle, casarecce, gnocchi and ravioli are just a few types of fresh pasta that sound almost as fun rolling off the tongue as on it. Aside from the pasta du jour in the main dining room, a chef's signature dish "inspired by our Mediterranean heritage" is available each evening. The line's partnership with Eataly has brought the chain's Italian delights, including pizza, fish, steak and more pasta to a number of ships across the fleet.
For more: Best Italian Restaurants on Cruises
Best Barbecue: Guy's Pig & Anchor Bar-B-Que
Carnival Cruise Line
If you're already a fan of Guy's Burger Joint on Carnival, the barbecue and mouthwatering sides at Guy's Pig & Anchor Bar-B-Que, created by Food Network star Guy Fieri, will not disappoint. On Carnival Horizon and Panorama, Pig & Anchor is a stand-alone smokehouse and brewhouse, serving up smoked meats (free at lunch) along with a variety of cocktails and beer -- some brewed right on location. On other ships, it's a handy, laid-back Lido Deck fixture. Specialties include pork butt, andouille sausage and side dishes like mac 'n' cheese or coleslaw, with a plethora of accompanying sauces (like brown sugar and bourbon), of course.
For more: Best Places to Get BBQ on Cruise Ships
Best Mexican Food: BlueIguana Cantina
Carnival Cruise Line
BlueIguana is scrumptious, made-to-order Mexican that's available across the entire Carnival fleet -- and what's more, it's entirely free. Choose from burritos, tacos or arepas and then head to the comprehensive salsa and sides bar to complete your dish; black bean-corn salsa is a favorite, as well the authentic hot sauces. Refreshing watermelon slices are also on offer. Perhaps our favorite part of this included Lido Deck cantina is that it's open in the morning. Breakfast burritos complete with hash browns inside the wrap and a strong cup of coffee are one of our top noshes after a late night.
Best Seafood: Rudi's Sel de Mer
Holland America Line
Copious amounts of seafood are bolstered by a fine French ambiance and the name of Holland America's culinary director, chef Rudi Sodamin. Appetizer choices here include a literal seafood tower (with lump crab, North Sea shrimp and octopus), escargot bourguignonne, foie gras torchon and Marseille bouillabaisse. Entree options included broiled Maine lobster, whole Dover sole meuniere or salt-crusted branzino. The restaurant is a fine-dining venue and comes with that kind of price tag, but for an additional charge, you can order an elaborate fruits de mer platter for two with lobster claws, langoustine, crab claws, jumbo shrimp, mussels, clams and oysters.
For more: Best Seafood Cruise Restaurants
Best Dessert: Coco's
Norwegian Cruise Line
Norwegian's latest spot to satisfy your sweet tooth has every base covered: a dozen types of bonbons, tarts, cakes, gelato, fresh crepes, loaded ice cream sundaes, mini-chocolate fountains, celebration platters and Coco's signature massive milkshakes. Served in a beer stein and loaded with toppings, picture a cookies 'n' cream shake with dark chocolate gelato, Oreo cookies, crushed M&M's, caramel butterscotch, whipped cream and jelly gummy bears -- We're breathing heavy just thinking about it. You can find Coco's onboard Norwegian Bliss and Norwegian Encore.
For more: Best Cruise Ship Desserts
Best Afternoon Tea
Viking Ocean Cruises
Each afternoon on all of its oceangoing ships, Viking offers complimentary tea in the bright, airy Wintergarden solarium. Passengers can grab a seat at small tables and enjoy a variety of cookies, pastries, finger sandwiches and macarons, accompanied by a selection of teas and even live music. Examples include staples like English breakfast, peppermint and chamomile, as well as more interesting options like gunpowder, lemon black and mango white. Service is superb, but do be aware that drinks besides tea -- soft drinks and alcohol -- cost extra.
For more: Best Afternoon Tea on Cruises
Best Steak: Prime 7
Regent Seven Seas Cruises
If a fine cut of meat tickles your fancy, the steaks at Prime 7, onboard Regent's ships fleetwide, get our stamp of approval. They're USDA Prime and dry-aged for a minimum of 28 days. Choose from 12-ounce New York Strip, 18-ounce bone-in rib steak, the classic filet mignon, prime rib, American wagyu chopped steak and a whopping 36-ounce porterhouse, carved tableside. Explore other meats with New Zealand double-cut lamb chops, center-cut milk-fed veal rib chop, double-cut Kurobuta Berkshire pork chop or an oven-roasted half chicken. Seafood is also present on the menu, with plenty of options for surf and turf. Even the appetizers excel, offering delicacies like foie gras sliders with rhubarb chutney. Prime 7 is part of Regent's all-inclusive dining, so there's no additional charge.
For more: Best Cruise Ship Steakhouses
Viking Ocean Cruises
The new buffet champion is a place that feels more like an upscale food hall than a crowded cluster of mediocre choices. The World Cafe is what Viking calls its buffet venue, and it's open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, offering fresh eggs Benedict, salads, local cheese and gelato. But, it shines at dinnertime, when items like top-notch sushi and sashimi, cracked crab legs and hot dishes like marinated pork loin make a nightly appearance. An Asian noodle bar serves up favorites like pad Thai. Once you've piled your plate with gourmet options, head to the Aquavit Terrace, an extension of the World Cafe that offers scenic outdoor seating.
For more: Best Cruise Ship Buffets
Best Main Dining
You know the included dining is good if you find yourself forgoing the specialty restaurants to see what the chef has cooked up each evening in the main restaurant. This is the case onboard Oceania Cruises, where the quality of the included cuisine is so good that each meal feels like a special occasion. The menu variety is surprising and dishes, like an appetizer of roasted butternut squash with arugula, mangoes, black radishes, hearts of palm and a pumpkin seed vinaigrette, consistently exceed expectations. Not entirely hard to believe when the line's culinary director is famed chef Jacques Pepin. Enjoying your surf and turf off Versace plates with crystal stemware atop white linens doesn't hurt either.
For more: Best Cruise Ship Main Dining Rooms