Specialty restaurants on cruise ships began as far back as the grand ocean liners, but really took off in modern-day cruising a little over two decades ago with a handful of steakhouses and themed eateries that offered cruisers an evening’s break from the main dining room -- usually for an extra charge.
But today’s array of restaurant choices onboard ships means some cruisers never see the main dining room at all. From fast-food hot spots like Guy Fieri’s Guy’s Burger Joint onboard Carnival ships to a chef inspired tapas restaurant on Windstar’s Star Class yachts, there’s a big spread awaiting today’s cruisers.
On some ships, there are so many specialty and alternative restaurant choices, you’d be hard pressed to try them all. And "specialty restaurant" on a cruise ship no longer automatically means you’ll have an extra charge on your account. Carnival is well known for its alternative options that are included in the cruise fare. Move up to the premium or luxury lines and you’ll find that few, if any, of the optional restaurants onboard cost extra.
At Cruise Critic, we’ve listened to cruisers and eaten our way through the options. Here are our picks for the best specialty restaurants on some of the best ships at sea, along with what you can expect when you dine onboard.
To account for price variables, under cost we use $$$ to show a cost between $30 and $50, while $$$$ means dining is more than $50 per person.
Restaurant: Hasuki Japanese Grille
Why we love it: NCL has managed to elevate dinner at a hibachi-style grill to a memorable evening on your cruise.
The dish: Norwegian led the way for modern cruise ships looking for ways to expand dining options for guests bored with main dining rooms and tired of being told when and where to eat. And while hibachi restaurants are found on many ships, they often feel like an afterthought.
Dining at an upscale hibachi restaurant at home is often reserved for special occasions like birthdays, anniversaries and date nights. NCL took that idea, wrapped it in luxurious Japanese culture and art, and brought it onboard their Prima-class ships as an integral part of its specialty restaurant line-up.
Cost: $$$ The price is a flat fee. Reservations are not needed, but strongly recommended.
Restaurant: Enchante (pronounced on-shon-tay)
Why we love it: The adults onboard need time away from the youngsters, and what better way to do that than in the uber romantic, Beauty and the Beast-inspired newest addition to the DCL specialty restaurant line-up.
The dish: Michelin-starred chef Arnaud Lallement, creator of the menus for Remy aboard Disney Dream and Disney Fantasy, Enchante offers a la carte choices, as well as a fixed menu, complete with wine (or champagne) pairings. The meal will make you think you’ve stepped into a Parisian foodie dream, and in true Disney style may even convert the pickiest non-foodie into a lover of French cuisine. The surroundings, which are an ode to Lumiere (the charming footman/maître ’d candelabra character), will leave you humming your favorite BATB tune and dreaming of dancing the night away in the arms of your partner. A five-course champagne brunch is also offered on sea days.
Ships: Disney Wish.
Why we love it: The food and atmosphere are authentic. Even though the menu stays the same throughout your cruise, it has enough variety to enjoy repeat dining. You could have steak one evening, seafood the next, and just some pasta on another night.
The dish: The rustic Tuscan menu offers hearty fare, traditionally prepared, in a trattoria-style setting. Highlights include octopus carpaccio, bistecca Florentine, veal scaloppini and osso Bucco. You can order pasta dishes (such as gnocchi alla Romana and mushroom risotto) as a main course or as a smaller appetizer.
In addition to the menu's regular offerings, the restaurant features entrée 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.
Restaurant: Candles Grille
Why we love it: Even on Windstar’s rather informal sailing ships, a night out with friends or cruising companions dining on superb steak, seafood, and side dishes under the stars is a treat not to be missed.
The dish: Cruisers new to Windstar may find themselves searching the ship for the restaurant simply called Candles. They won’t find it. It doesn’t appear until the magical dinner hour. On the line’s sailing ships, Candles takes place on the pool deck. On the Star Class motor yachts, the back deck of the Verandah casual eatery transforms into Candles in the evenings.
The menu includes steaks, seafood, and vegetarian options, plus luscious appetizers, salads, and desserts. The presentation is that of any upscale steakhouse, complete with your choice of steak knives, flavored salts, and sauces to top your entrée.
Ships: All Windstar ships.
Cost: No extra surcharge is levied for Candles on Windstar Cruises, though the menu includes a pair of upcharge items. Reservations are highly recommended.
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 found.
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, Nieuw Statendam and Rotterdam, Sel de Mer has its very own venue, in addition to a dedicated Pinnacle Grill.
In addition, the Pinnacle Grill on Nieuw Statendam, Koningsdam, Rotterdam, Westerdam and Nieuw Amsterdam hosts a special "De 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: $$$ - $$$$ Advance dinner reservations are highly recommended, while lunch can be reserved onboard.
Why we love it: This is Royal Caribbean’s hallmark specialty steakhouse restaurant, and while the line maintains consistent quality and service that repeat cruisers love, small tweaks to both help it keep pace with industry trends.
The dish: Prime beef is king on this menu but roasted organic chicken and four seafood choices round out the selections for those who don’t do red meat. The steaks are superbly seasoned, but guests can request their steaks be seasoned and cooked to their own specifications. Waitstaff offer up a selection of sauces to go with the steaks.
Sides (other than baked potatoes) are served in shareable portions, making it easy to try several. We highly recommend the gruyere cheese tater tots. Chops is open for lunch on sea days, with a lower price and the addition of a burger to the menu. Children’s menus are available.
Restaurant: S.A.L.T. Kitchen
Why we love it: Silversea has managed to pull together the desire cruisers have to fully experience the flavors of a destination with the line’s impeccable service and style.
The dish: S.A.L.T. stands for "sea and land taste". It’s an immersive concept that combines onshore experiences with onboard dining. Guests learn about foods and beverages of the region they are sailing through, literally from the ground up starting with shore excursions. There are three spaces onboard dedicated to the program: the S.A.L.T. Kitchen, the S.A.L.T. Bar, and the S.A.L.T. Lab where guests take a deep dive with a hands-on approach into the foods of the locale.
Even guests who opt not to join the associated S.A.L.T. tours or venture into the S.A.L.T. Lab will enjoy the Kitchen, with educational information provided on the menu and by the staff. Because the goal is to learn about regional foods, the menu changes almost daily. Guests can preview each day’s menu on the TV in their stateroom to decide when they might want to eat in S.A.L.T.
Cost: Dining in the S.A.L.T. Kitchen is included in the cruise fare, but the associated shore excursions are considered premium, for-fee tours.