Main dining rooms are a cruising staple. You'll find one on just about every ship -- a large, opulent space with a wedding reception feel that serves as the "default" dinner venue for most passengers. The meals are included in your cruise fare, and there's typically no limit to how much you can order.
Foodies, however, tend to be underwhelmed. Main dining rooms aren't known to offer the best quality, which is why a number of passengers opt to splurge on specialty restaurants. On the flip side, there are a handful of main dining rooms that whip up some pretty drool-worthy dishes, making it hard to ever skip a night.
If you have a picky palate and a sweet tooth for tradition, these six best cruise ship main dining rooms are sure to whet your appetite.
The Grand Dining Room on Oceania's R-class ships (Regatta, Insignia, Nautica and Sirena) takes the cake when it comes to cruise ship main dining rooms, with unparalleled quality (a nod to the line's partnership with celebrity chef Jacques Pepin) and a more intimate vibe than the line's O-class (thanks to a smaller passenger capacity). Diners can indulge in dishes such as sturgeon caviar and duck a l'orange with braised red cabbage and almond potato croquettes, as well as an array of healthy, Canyon Ranch fare and, depending on the ship, hand-picked items from the line's specialty restaurants, Jacques and Red Ginger -- all served on china with crystal glassware.
You don't have to wish upon a star to experience a little magic in Animator's Palate. One of Disney's main dining rooms -- each ship has three -- brings characters to life while serving up tasty, innovative dishes. (Shrimp and caramelized onion cheesecake, anyone?) The space pays tribute to the art of animation through its decor, special effects and shows -- whether the room transforms from black and white into color, or diners' very own character drawings become animated and interact with Disney characters. (Note: Shows vary by night and ship.) If you're lucky, you'll even get a visit from a "real life" character.
Simply named The Restaurant, Viking's main dining room is far from modest with its offerings. The cozy venue, which features floor-to-ceiling windows that can open to create an alfresco space, serves inventive cuisine while bringing onboard flavors from each destination. Its regional tasting menu features local staples (such as tapas and paella when the ship is docked in Barcelona) as well as daily specials and everyday options -- including readily available vegetarian, heart-healthy and sugar-free dishes. Craving the regional entree but want to start off with a Caesar salad? You're free to pick and choose what you please from all three menus.
Celebrity is mainstream cruising's dedicated line for foodies. It offers top-notch free and for-fee dining options, and even has a partnership with Fine Cooking magazine and its Emmy Award-winning PBS show, "Moveable Feast," through which it offers annual themed cruises. The main dining rooms on its Solstice-class ships (Celebrity Eclipse, Equinox, Reflection, Silhouette and Solstice), however, are in a league of their own. They flaunt a fresh, "sophisticated chic" design, with a white color scheme, sparkling chandelier and large, exposed wine rack. As for the menu, options include Buffalo-style frog legs, cedar plank-grilled black salmon and vegetables.
Step inside Cunard's Britannia Restaurant, and you'll immediately be transported back to the golden years of cruising. The Art-Deco-style space is one of the most beautiful main dining rooms at sea, enticing passengers to don suits and gowns, even on non-formal nights. All eyes are drawn to a sweeping double staircase and intricate, floor-to-ceiling art piece that varies by ship, while tuxedo-clad waiters serve quality dishes with poise. The menu is heavy on French fare, but for a true taste of the line's roots, go for British dishes such as chicken curry and roast turkey with all the trimmings.
It's not surprising that The Restaurant is one of the best main dining rooms at sea, given that Seabourn is a member of the prestigious gastronomic society Chaine des Rotisseurs. Add to that Seabourn's partnership with three-star Michelin chef Thomas Keller, whose dishes (appetizer, entree, vegetarian entree and dessert in the French-American style) appear in The Restaurant on select nights of every cruise, and you can be sure the quality of your meals will be superb. Dinner menus include a classics section (available every night) as well as a changing menu of "inspired" dishes that might include black truffle risotto, char-broiled Iberico pork chops or flash-cooked fresh salmon with white and green asparagus.