Eating well at a great restaurant is one of life's finest indulgences, whether it's leave-you-speechless haute cuisine or greasy, salty guilty pleasures. The good news for cruisers is you don't have to leave dining choices behind on dry land when you set sail. Cruise ships are continually upping the ante with specialty restaurants that feature international dishes, celebrity chefs, intimate venues, innovative menus and all-around delicious food.
Partnerships with such storied chefs as Thomas Keller, Jacques Pepin, Jamie Oliver and Nobu have certainly raised the food bar at sea, but even in-house culinary teams are turning out novel cruise ship fare. Look for onboard venues embracing the gastropub movement, advanced cooking technologies and even molecular gastronomy.
Many, but not all, of these dining venues come at a price, but the extra fees are often worth it. If you're an avid foodie, a couple looking for a romantic splurge or to celebrate a special occasion, or anyone wishing to cap a vacation day with an especially memorable dinner, you will relish this list of our favorite cruise ship restaurants (sorted alphabetically by cruise line).
Viking Ocean Cruises
1. Carnival Cruise Line
Restaurant: Guy's Burger Joint
At the Helm: Restaurateur and Food Network personality Guy Fieri
Why We Love It: Carnival proves you don't need fancy clothes or lap napkins to enjoy a high-quality meal.
The Dish: Found on nearly every Carnival ship, Guy's Burger Joint serves fresh-off-the-grill burgers and hand-cut fries in a fun, laid-back poolside setting. Diners can order prepared menu items or head to the toppings bar to customize their burgers. (Vegetarians can order a veggie burger so as not to miss out on the delectable toppings.) Guy Fieri has also brought on another free-of-charge venue on Carnival Magic, Dream, Vista and Breeze: This open-air smokehouse and barbecue concept -- dubbed Guy's Pig & Anchor Bar-B-Que Smokehouse -- dishes out smoked-onboard cuts along with classic barbecue sides like mac 'n cheese, collard greens and slaw. On Carnival Horizon, this venue was moved indoors and paired with the line's brewery to create Guy's Pig & Anchor Bar-B-Que Smokehouse | Brewhouse.
Ships: Fleetwide (minus a few ships)
Cost: It's free. To grab some grub, you'll just need to wait in line.
2. Celebrity Cruises
Restaurant: Tuscan Grille
At the Helm: Celebrity's culinary team
Why We Love It: While the Tuscan Grilles on all ships offer scrumptious fare, the Solstice-class venues additionally offer the best views of any restaurant onboard, thanks to an entire wall of glass.
The Dish: Celebrity's fleetwide Italian steakhouse serves up traditional regional fare with a contemporary flair. The menu features dry-aged steaks, butcher-cut meats, seafood and homemade pastas. Diners can start off with plates of artisanal salumi and top their meals off with authentic Italian cocktails and beers, or housemade limoncello. Lunch is served at least once per cruise.
Cost: You'll pay $45 per person for dinner ($35 for lunch). Reservations are recommended.
3. Crystal Cruises
Restaurant: Umi Uma and The Sushi Bar
At the Helm: World-renowned master chef Nobuyuki "Nobu" Matsuhisa
Why We Love It: Crystal's onboard chefs were all personally trained by the master himself -- and it shows.
The Dish: Nobu's menu is a blend of Japanese and Peruvian cuisines. Some of his popular entrees include lobster with truffle-yuzu sauce and miso-glazed black cod. Don't miss the sushi and sashimi at The Sushi Bar.
Ships: Crystal Symphony and Crystal Serenity (in late 2018)
Cost: The first reservation is complimentary and can be booked pre-cruise; additional reservations are $30 per person, based on availability, and they must be made onboard.
4. Cunard Line
Restaurant: The Verandah
At the Helm: Twin British chefs Nicholas and Mark Oldroyd
Why We Love It: Cunard's Verandah restaurant pays homage to the exclusive Verandah Grills found on the original Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary. A meal there will upgrade any cruise into a luxury one -- at least until the last crumb of dessert has been devoured.
The Dish: The dishes represent France's traditional and contemporary cuisine, with options from various regions: the Pyrenees, Alsace, Burgundy, etc. Dishes might include a sea scallop and ceviche salad, rack of lamb in pastry, duck rillettes spiced with espelette chili and hot pistachio souffle with pomegranate and rose-scented ice cream. The menus on each ship vary slightly.
Cost: Fees are $25 at lunch and $35 at dinner on Queen Elizabeth; and $20 at lunch and $49.95 at dinner on both Queen Mary 2 and Queen Victoria.
5. Disney Cruise Line
At the Helm: Chef Arnaud Lallement from L'Assiette Champenoise -- a Michelin three-star restaurant in France -- and chef Scott Hunnel from the award-winning Victoria & Albert's at Walt Disney World Resort
Why We Love It: Exquisite service, rich French fare and luxury touches will wow even the toughest food critics cruising Disney.
The Dish: Remy takes its name from the lovable rat who stars as a chef in the hit Disney Pixar film "Ratatouille." Start out with a Taittinger Champagne cocktail made tableside. Then choose from dishes that include smoked bison with melted fennel and leeks, Alaskan king crab cannelloni and Tanzanian chocolate timbale.
Ships: Disney Dream and Disney Fantasy
Cost: At $95 per person, it's among the most expensive restaurants at sea. Even more of a splurge, diners may choose the Wine Experience for an additional $105 ($200 total), during which the sommelier selects wines to pair with the tasting menus. Reservations can be made online in advance or onboard. Certain sailings offer a Champagne Brunch at Remy for $60 per person, where diners may also opt for the Champagne pairing (an additional $30 per person). Other events are the Dessert Experience for $55 (adding $25 for a wine pairing) and Petites Assiettes de Remy (small plates) for $50, including wine.
6. Holland America Line
Restaurant: Pinnacle Grill
At the Helm: Rudi Sodamin, master chef and culinary consultant for Holland America Line, and member of the Academie Culinaire de France, Master Chef Society and Club des Chefs des Chefs
Why We Love It: Combine a gorgeous setting and fantastic food, and you've got a go-to destination for romantic dates and special-occasion dinners.
The Dish: The Pacific Northwest-inspired Pinnacle Grill boasts creative menus prepared with regional ingredients and hand-selected aged Double R Ranch beef and fresh seafood. Try the cedar-planked halibut with shrimp scampi, roasted Jidori chicken with porcini mushrooms or filet mignon or rib eye steaks. It also has an extensive wine list, featuring varietals from the Pacific Northwest, where the line's headquarters are located.
Once per cruise (or once per week on longer sailings), the Pinnacle Grill transforms into pop-up French seafood brasserie Sel de Mer on six Holland America ships (Nieuw Amsterdam, Noordam, Oosterdam, Eurodam, Westerdam and Zuiderdam), featuring seafood-centric dishes like seafood chowder, fresh-caught fish and bouillabaisse. Note on Koningsdam and Nieuw Statendam (when it launches in late 2018), Sel de Mer has its very own venue, in addition to a dedicated Pinnacle Grill.
On sailings of 14 days or more aboard seven HAL ships (Amsterdam, Maasdam, Veendam, Rotterdam, Volendam, Zaandam and Prinsendam), the Pinnacle also turns into "An Evening at Le Cirque" pop-up, featuring dishes and wine selections from Sirio Maccioni's famous New York restaurant of the same name. Finally, the Pinnacle Grill on Koningsdam, Rotterdam, Westerdam and Eurodam hosts a special "Taste of Librije" five-course menu one night per seven-night sailing (twice on 10-day or longer sailings, if there's interest), featuring dishes designed by Dutch Michelin-starred chef Jonnie Boer.
Cost: There's a $10 per person cover charge for lunch; it's $35 for dinner. The surcharge for Sel de Mer is $49 per person, though it's priced on an a la carte basis at its fixed dining venue on the Koningsdam. The Le Cirque surcharge is $49 per person, while the Taste of Librije surcharge is $69, including wine. Advance dinner reservations are highly recommended, while lunch can be reserved onboard.
7. Norwegian Cruise Line
Restaurant: Los Lobos
At the Helm: Norwegian's culinary team
Why We Love It: If Norwegian's longstanding restaurants seem tired, this fresh new Mexican spot is ideal for a casual meal where food is fresh and delicious.
The Dish: Kick things off with guacamole prepared tableside to your liking or a flavorful beet-and-watercress salad. You can keep it simple with mahi mahi tacos or chicken enchiladas with mole salad, or go for a house specialty, such as carne asada, a burrito rojo or Veracruz-style red snapper. Don't miss the crispy and sweet beignets for dessert, or a margarita made with the private-label Patron Barrel Select, Norwegian's own tequila blend.
Ships: Norwegian Dawn and Norwegian Bliss
Cost: The restaurant is open for dinner only, and prices are a la carte. Reservations are not required but are recommended.
8. Oceania Cruises
Restaurant: Red Ginger
At the Helm: Master Chef Jacques Pepin, former personal chef to three French heads of state, including Charles de Gaulle
Why We Love It: The feng shui-inspired decor, which includes a soothing waterfall and modern Asian artwork, sets the stage for a memorable Asian-fusion meal.
The Dish: Oceania's Red Ginger offers contemporary interpretations of Asian classics, such as tom kha gai soup, lobster pad Thai and miso-glazed seabass. Start with sushi, summer rolls or crispy calamari, and finish with green tea ice cream or caramel tapioca. Extensive tea, wine and sake menus add to the experience.
Ships: Marina, Sirena and Riviera
Cost: It's complimentary, but reservations are required.
9. P&O Cruises
Restaurant: The Epicurean
At the Helm: There's no celebrity chef associated with this; just P&O Cruises' in-house team of executive chefs. However, master patissier Eric Lanlard designed the Afternoon Tea, which he personally hosts when onboard.
Why We Love It: Britannia's fine dining restaurant offers classic British dishes with a modern twist, using the principles of molecular gastronomy and techniques such as precision temperature cooking, freeze-drying and liquid nitrogen. Cynics might dismiss this as style over substance, but the dishes justify the theatrics.
The Dish: Appetizers might include chicken liver parfait, brought to your table with wood smoke pouring out; or Spanish cured ham (jamon pata negra), sliced from the leg with Manchego cheese and olives or a duo of cured smoked salmons. The mains are equally interesting: loin of wild boar, butter-poached lobster tail and salt marsh rack of lamb.
Eric Lanlard's Afternoon Tea is equally fun: expect such delights as cheese eclairs with Brie, smoked duck breast in a dark chocolate macaroon and dark chocolate cannoli with caramelized apple.
Ships: Britannia, Ventura and Azura
Cost: Dinner costs £28. Reservations are essential. The fee for Eric Lanlard's Afternoon Tea (sea days only) varies from £15 to £20 per person.
10. Princess Cruises
Restaurant: Crown Grill
At the Helm: Princess' culinary team
Why We Love It: Crown Grill is the perfect date night or celebration venue, with cozy booths for lovers and tables for families celebrating a milestone. The steak and seafood menu is extensive, the cover charge reasonable, and sides and desserts mouthwatering.
The Dish: Crown Grill is Princess' steak and seafood restaurant with an open theater-style kitchen. Choose from starters, such as Mediterranean spiny lobster cake, beef tartare and black-and-blue onion soup. Second courses are split into seafood (Maine lobster tail, Chilean sea bass and brioche-breaded king prawns), chops (beef, veal and lamb) and steaks (from an 8-ounce filet to a 16-ounce Kansas City strip). Desserts include chocolatier Norman Love's milk chocolate peanut butter bar, plus other tempting splurges such as a seven-layer s'mores stack, molten chocolate cake and lemon meringue tart. There's even a salt menu (choose Hawaiian black, smoked Applewood or Himalayan mountain pink) and a tiramisu martini that must not be missed.
Ships: The venue is found on all Princess ships, except for Emerald Princess, Ruby Princess, Sun Princess, Sea Princess and Dawn Princess.
Cost: The fee is $29 per person. The venue books up quickly, so reservations are encouraged.
11. Regent Seven Seas Cruises
Restaurant: Prime 7
At the Helm: Regent's culinary team
Why We Love It: Prime 7 epitomizes a classic steakhouse, and its USDA prime beef has all been dry-aged at least 28 days. While meat-lovers will pay hefty surcharges for this kind of fare on other lines, Regent's best beef is complimentary.
The Dish: Like any steakhouse, the menu features steaks and seafood. We recommend the foie gras slider, ahi tuna and avocado tower and steak tartare starters. Huge entrees like prime porterhouse (carved tableside), whole Maine lobster or surf and turf (6 oz. filet mignon with your choice of lobster tail or Alaskan king crab legs) will leave you stuffed. For dessert, treat yourself to Regent Seven Seas' decadent molten Callebaut chocolate cake or a caramel popcorn sundae. It's also open for lunch on select days.
Cost: It's gratis, but reservations might be limited to once per cruise so every passenger gets to try the venue.
12. Royal Caribbean International
Restaurant: Jamie's Italian
At the Helm: Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, one of Britain's most acclaimed chefs
Why We Love It: Unique twists or traditional fare, indoor or alfresco seating -- you decide how you want to dine at Jamie's Italian. Either way, you can't go wrong with high-quality ingredients and delicious dishes.
The Dish: Jamie's Italian serves up dishes like Oliver's famous wood plank with cured meats, pickles and cheese; truffle tagliatelle; and zingy prawn linguine, as well as a variety of small plates.
Ships: Royal Caribbean's Quantum of the Seas, Anthem of the Seas, Harmony of the Seas, Symphony of the Seas and Ovation of the Seas
Cost: Pricing varies slightly across ships, ranging from $25 to $35 for lunch and $35 to $39 for dinner, when making reservations pre-cruise. (You might find different prices if you book onboard.) Reservations are not required, although we recommend them, especially if you plan to dine during peak hours.
13. Seabourn Cruise Line
Restaurant: The Grill by Thomas Keller
At the Helm: Lauded American chef Thomas Keller, behind Michelin-starred restaurants Per Se, Bouchon and The French Laundry
Why We Love It: A classic American chophouse-inspired venue, The Grill by Thomas Keller, the interior of which was designed by Adam D. Tihany, affords a sophisticated sensory dining experience, from the warm, elegant atmosphere to palate-pleasing plates.
The Dish: Try surf-and-turf classics like lobster Thermidor with creamed spinach or the roasted free-range chicken with thyme jus (for two). The Grill's wine list was curated by chef Keller himself to complement each dish.
Ships: Fleetwide on Seabourn
Cost: The Grill by Thomas Keller is complimentary and open for dinner daily; advance reservations are recommended.
14. Silversea Cruises
Restaurant: La Dame
At the Helm: Silversea's culinary team and top Relais & Chateaux chefs
Why We Love It: Formerly Le Champagne, La Dame is the only restaurant at sea belonging to Relais & Chateaux (a network of more than 500 luxury hotels and restaurants around the world).
The Dish: La Dame is upscale, even by Silversea's luxury standards. The small French-inspired restaurant, which can host only a limited number of diners per night, features the finest ingredients and precise preparations. Start with caviar or foie gras, followed by lobster or mushroom soup. After cleansing your palate with sorbet, move on to a filet of grass-fed beef, rack of lamb or lobster tail. The Grand Marnier souffle is the signature dessert.
Ships: Silver Cloud Expedition, Silver Wind, Silver Spirit, Silver Shadow, Silver Whisper and Silver Muse
Cost: Dinner will set you back $60 per person. Reservations are required; seats are so limited that it's best to pre-book online as soon as reservations open for your sailing.
15. Viking Ocean Cruises
At the Helm: Executive chef Anthony Mauboussin, with some help from Manfredi Lefebvre -- Silversea Cruises' head honcho, Italy native and pal of Viking's CEO Torstein Hagen -- who helped develop the menu from his favorite childhood dishes.
Why We Love It: Even with just one menu at Manfredi's, it's rich enough with options that you could visit numerous times and never run out of new dishes to try.
The Dish: The rustic Tuscan menu offers hearty fare, traditionally prepared, in a trattoria-style setting. Highlights of the starters include octopus carpaccio, pasta e fagioli soup and a surprisingly light fried calamari. An entirely separate section of the menu details the pasta offerings like gnocchi alla romana, fettuccine carbonara and mushroom risotto; you can order these (and others) as a main course or as a smaller appetizer. For mains -- a melange of fish and meat options -- the bistecca Florentine, veal scaloppini and osso bucco are standouts. For dessert, the tiramisu is, as expected, a cornerstone offering, but the Nutella panna cotta is also a standout.
In addition to the menu's regular offerings, the restaurant features entree and pasta specials each night. And don't miss the cured meats and cheeses station at the entrance to Manfredi's -- the chefs there whip up a marvelous antipasti.
Cost: No extra surcharge is levied for Viking Ocean Cruises' Manfredi's. Reservations are highly recommended.