Most cruise ships have one or more main dining rooms. These are typically large, sit-down restaurants with waiter service, where multicourse meals are included in your cruise fare. (You will see them referred to as MDRs by past cruisers on Cruise Critic's foodie message boards.)
Some ships -- including all ships in the Norwegian Cruise Line fleet and Royal Caribbean's Quantum Class ships -- divide the main dining rooms into smaller restaurants, each with a different name, but typically serving the same menu. You will notice even on mid-sized ships where the MDR encompasses multiple floors, that each floor of the dining room often has a distinct name.
For convenience of service, one section of the dining room may be designated for flexible time diners or walk-ups, while another may be reserved for those with reservations for specific times. Only one dining room/floor may be open for breakfast or lunch. Check your daily cruise planner for specifics.
On some smaller ships, like Windstar's sailing vessels, there may be a main dining room where everyone is served dinner and a separate venue for breakfast and lunch. River ships generally serve all three meals in one main dining room, with perhaps a bar and grill or even a verandah where lighter fare is served at breakfast and lunch, possibly converting to a specialty dining area in the evening.
Main dining rooms on large ships will serve breakfast, lunch (possibly only on sea days) and dinner. Occasionally, a buffet might be set up within the restaurant to complement the menu choices, which is common on river cruise ships.
Main dining room cuisine tends to be international with a focus on American and Continental fare when sailing in North America and Europe. A typical dinner menu might feature appetizers/salads/soups, entrees and desserts. Most menus will change daily, but certain basic items -- grilled chicken or salmon, as well as Caesar salad -- will be available every night on most ships.
Menus are generally displayed outside the main dining room door well in advance of the dinner hour. On ships with in-cabin cruise information systems on the TV, you may also find the dining menu included there.
Unless specified, you can order as many dishes as you want in any menu category. You can also request a large portion of an appetizer as your main dish or an appetizer portion of an entree as a starter.
Dinners are often leisurely affairs, lasting a couple of hours. Your order will generally be taken by a waiter, while an assistant fills water glasses, serves bread, and brings coffee or tea with dessert. You can usually expect at least one visit during the cruise by the head waiter of the dining room.
Many lines now mark vegetarian, healthy and chef's special dishes on the menu. If you have food allergies or difficult dietary restrictions, it's best to alert your cruise line's Special Needs department in advance of your sailing and meet with the maitre d' onboard to discuss your needs. Most cruise lines can accommodate any special diet, even if it means pre-ordering certain foods or having you make your menu selections in advance.
Certain basic drinks -- such as water, iced tea, regular coffee, a selection of juices at breakfast -- are complimentary in the main dining room, but most drinks, including soda, alcohol and specialty coffee, cost extra on mainstream cruise lines. These are often ordered from (and delivered by) bar waiters who circulate through the dining room in addition to your waiter and assistant waiter.
You can also order wine at your table by the bottle or by the glass and a sommelier is available to assist you. If you don't finish a bottle of wine at one meal, it will be corked and marked with your cabin number so that it will be available to you on subsequent nights, even if you dine in a specialty restaurant.
You will be asked your stateroom number anytime you order drinks that are not included with the meal. The waiter will then check for a drink package on your account or charge the drinks ordered.
You are also allowed to take beverages with you into the dining room from other venues. So, if you are enjoying a pre-dinner cocktail in a nearby bar, feel free to finish it in the dining room. The reverse is also true; it's acceptable to leave dinner with your unfinished wine or even your coffee.
Breakfast and lunch are usually open seating where a waiter shows you to a table, often seating you at tables with other diners, but you can make requests. For dinner, many regular cruise lines require passengers to choose in advance if they'd like Traditional Dining -- meaning you are given an assigned dining room, time and table, and you eat with the same people for every dinner -- or Flexible Dining, the arrive-when-you-want, sit-at-different-tables plan.
If you choose a flexible plan, know that if you show up at peak dining times, you might have to wait, as you would in a land-based restaurant. Many ships let you make reservations at the main dining room to avoid the wait.
If you've chosen Traditional Dining, you can put in a request at the time of booking for a small or large table or a seat near the window, but there's no guarantee it will be honored. On river ships and smaller ocean-going ships, including luxury lines, the main dining room will be open at specified hours for dinner, and you can arrive at any time without a reservation. You can request to be seated with just your party, or you will be seated at a large table with other cruisers.
The main dining room will have set hours that can change daily based on arrival into port and the ship's departure time. Breakfast is served roughly between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m., and lunch between noon and 2 p.m.; you can arrive anytime within that window.
Passengers who choose a Traditional Dining plan will be assigned a dinner time, either Early (sometime between 5:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.) or Late (an 8 p.m. or 8:30 p.m. start time). You will be expected to arrive promptly at this time and not wander in 45 minutes into the dinner service. Passengers who choose Flexible Dining plans can arrive when they wish during the dining room's open hours, typically 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.
If your cruise line has a dress code, it will be enforced in the MDR. Typically, swimwear (even with coverups) and bare feet are banned at all times. During breakfast and lunch hours, casual clothing suitable for the destination (including shorts for both men and women) are acceptable.
On most nights, "dressy casual" is the norm (also called "resort casual" or "country club casual" -- think date night or nice restaurant attire); women wear skirts, sundresses or nice slacks, while men wear slacks and collared shirts. Many lines now allow jeans. Often, there's a formal night or two when cocktail dresses or ball gowns, suits and tuxedoes are encouraged.
The more upscale lines will turn you away from dinner for not wearing the correct attire. Regular lines might request a change or simply turn a blind eye to dress code infractions.
Eating in the main dining room is a cross between dining at a nice restaurant and eating in a banquet hall at a wedding or conference. Depending on the room and where you're sitting, it can be quite loud at dinner.
Some cruise lines -- Carnival, for one -- like to up the entertainment factor at main dining room meals with restaurant staff parades and song-and-dance numbers. Don't be surprised if your waiter jumps on a counter and starts gyrating or if passengers start waving their napkins as Baked Alaskas get carried through the room.
The What to Expect on a Cruise series, written by Cruise Critic's editorial staff, is a resource guide, where we answer the most common questions about cruise ship life -- including cruise food, cabins, drinks and onboard fun -- as well as money matters before and during your cruise and visiting ports of call on your cruise.
Updated February 27, 2020