Dining on a river cruise is decidedly different from what you find on an ocean ship. Since the ship is smaller, there's usually only one or two dining venues, rather than the 8 to 25 you might find on an ocean ship. In the majority of river cruise ship dining rooms, buffets at breakfast and lunch -- with an option to order a few made-to-order items -- are the norm; that's so passengers can eat quickly if they want before the included morning and afternoon excursions.
When evaluating dining on a river cruise, it's important to focus on choice, as well as local flavors. Does the line have regional dishes at every meal? Are there "always available" or vegetarian options in case people want a break? Does the wine -- which is usually included -- focus on local varietals and change during the cruise? Culinary-focused shore excursions or local wine, beer or spirit tastings can also enhance the offerings.
Here are our picks for best river cruise dining.
American Queen Steamboat Company has been sailing its revamped paddlewheelers -- its flagship, 436-passenger American Queen, is the largest steamboat in the world -- on U.S. rivers since 2012; the line is adding a third ship, American Duchess, to its fleet in 2017. Itineraries sail the Mississippi River, the Ohio River and the Columbia and Snake rivers in the Pacific Northwest.
No matter which itinerary you sail, the line makes every effort to bring regional cuisine and wines to the forefront. In the South, this means dishes like sugar cane-glazed prime rib of pork, sauteed red snapper Creole and lamb chops with tomato-mint marmalade. On sea days, there's a buffet that features a 75-pound roast pig, as well as shrimp and grits, smoked fish or catfish and jalapeno sauce. In the Pacific Northwest, expect the focus to be on the area's lauded wines; every cruise features a wine-paired dinner with a local vintner, and regional wines are served at dinner. Desserts are heavy on berries and apples, all locally grown.
The luxury cruise line Crystal expanded into river sailings with the launch of Crystal Mozart in 2016. The line will expand with two new ships in 2017, with another two launching in 2018.
Crystal Mozart is larger than others that ply the Danube, which gives it more room for restaurants. Besides the main dining room, Mozart offers two casual options for meals, an intimate extra-fee wine dinner room, a snack bar and room service. The menus focus on farm-to-table cuisine and dishes are cooked a la minute, as opposed to mass produced. Wine selections are local and extensive; included selections feature three sparkling wines, 11 whites, one rose and 10 reds. In addition, each Crystal river cruise includes dinner at a local Michelin-starred restaurant as an excursion -- a fabulous way to experience local flavors.
The river cruising arm of the upscale tour operator Tauck sails most of Europe's waterways. The line is truly all-inclusive; passengers even receive local currency during shore excursions to visit a local cafe for lunch.
Tauck earns high dining marks because of its extreme convenience. The vessels have an open seating plan, as well as casual grill style restaurant where passengers can eat anytime during the day. Couple that with a room service snack menu and you really feel that you can eat when you wish, with the type of meal that you prefer. (Sometimes we like a small bite after an excursion rather than a four-course meal.) We also like that the line encourages passengers to try local restaurants ashore -- and gives them the money to do it.
Owned by the same parent company that runs the boutique Red Carnation hotels, Uniworld strives to bring the same luxe factor to its onboard dining. On its "Super Ships" in particular, the line offers more choices in dining than the average river ship and then strives to execute with supreme service as well as cuisine.
Each Uniworld ship is slightly different, and that extends to the menus onboard. All focus heavily on regional cuisine and wines, although picky eaters can still get favorites, as well as options for different diets. Alternative dining areas are available on every ship, with most reflecting the country where the vessel sails. The service on Uniworld is also a notch above most river cruise lines, making the onboard meals feel memorable.