The great thing about cruising with Carnival is that you won't find a ton of extra-fee restaurants. Every main dining venue is free on Carnival Inspiration, and the food is generally good. Foodies aren't going to be wowed, but no one is going to leave hungry. The two main dining rooms are the only sit-down venues onboard; all other dining options are either buffets or food counters.
Mardi Gras and Carnivale (Deck 8): Carnival Inspiration has two main dining rooms: Mardi Gras (midship) and Carnivale (aft). Both offer a choice of fixed-time, assigned-table seating at 6 p.m. or 8:15 p.m., or flexible dining between 5:45 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. (You must select your preferred arrangement when you book; on our cruise, the assigned dining times booked up in advance, but there was some leeway to switch once onboard.) The venues are a mix of two-tops, four-tops and larger tables, and they can get loud, making conversations across tables difficult. On certain nights, the wait staff will parade around the dining room and perform dance numbers at the end of the meal. Wave your napkin in the air, or join the dancing if you dare.
On most nights, Carnival Inspiration features the line's American Table dinners. Tables are bare -- no tablecloths -- and set with carafes of water, wine for purchase and plastic plates featuring U.S. cities. The menu features a selection of starters (soups, salads, appetizers), mains and desserts, as well as a Rare Finds choice for more daring dishes (like alligator fritters), always-available grilled items (fish, pork chop, chicken breast or flat-iron steak) and a few options tied to the port of call (for example, duck potstickers and miso-marinated salmon to represent Los Angeles' strong Asian presence). There are typically two vegetarian entrees: an Indian platter and an option that changes daily. No other dietary restrictions are marked, so you'll need to speak with the dining staff about any special needs. Carnival's signature chocolate melting cake is available every night, as are ice cream, fruit and a cheese plate. Selections from Carnival's steakhouse menu -- lobster tail, filet mignon, New York strip steak and Surf n Turf -- are also available every night at $20 per entree.
On formal nights, Carnival switches to its fancier American Feast menu. On these nights, white tablecloths and silver shells adorn the tables, and the menu focuses on traditional fancy-occasion dishes like roast duck and prime rib. (The always-available grill selections and steakhouse entrees are also on the menu on Feast nights.)
The main dining room does breakfast on port days and disembarkation day, offering the usual omelets, pancakes, cereals, fruit and pastries -- no surprises. On sea days, a brunch is held from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., with both breakfast (cereal-crusted French Toast, steak and eggs) and lunch (mac 'n' cheese, grilled salmon) dishes. An afternoon tea with a host of dessert items is also held on sea days if you need more sweets.
For the first time on a Carnival cruise we've taken, our dining room waiter made a point to ask the names of everyone at our table on the first night, and he knew them all by the second night. We were pleased with our service, especially since we were at a large table, surrounded by large tables he was also serving. At one point, someone asked for separate spoons for coffee and tea; none of us remembered them appearing but suddenly they were there. The waiters do the infamous-on-Carnival dining room parades and dances, even though the low ceilings don't permit waiters to climb on top of serving counters and boogie like they do on larger ships.
Brasserie Bar and Grill (Deck 10, aft): Carnival's pool deck buffet has a bar, but it doesn't really have a grill. That said, the Brasserie is open for breakfast, lunch, dinner and late-night snacks. Though popular, the venue certainly has weird decor, with purple tentacles wrapped around the entire restaurant. Really, we have no idea.
The buffet is more or less symmetrical with a hot food line, drinks stations, bakery bar and salad bar on both sides. Two self-serve machines (one with frozen yogurt, one with soft-serve ice cream) are smack in the middle of the venue, with the deli counter behind. The far corners house the bar and the 24/7 pizza counter.
At breakfast, the hot line dishes out breakfast meats, pancakes and scrambled eggs; there are also bagels and bread for toasting, plus oatmeal, milk and yogurt. The bakery bar offers croissants and muffins, while the salad bar is taken over with deli meat, cheese, fruit, more bread and cottage cheese. The deli counter serves up made-to-order omelets.
At lunch, the main hot food area is themed to an ethnicity, such as American, Italian or Caribbean. There's usually a healthy selection and a vegetarian one, as well as a meat carving station. The salad bar offers a good selection of salad toppings, as well as premade salads. The deli serves both hot and cold sandwiches. Though fancier desserts might look tempting, don't miss the chocolate-chip cookies; they're the perfect combination of warm and not too hard or soft.
In the evening, the Brasserie serves a similar (though not identical) menu to the dining room, just buffet style. Many people choose this option because they don't want to dress up or don't want a lengthy sit-down meal. Late-night options are comfort foods. The deli is open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., and pizza and ice cream are available 24 hours a day.
Guy's Burger Joint (Deck 10): This poolside burger counter is the go-to destination for unhealthy but delicious dining onboard. In partnership with Food Network celebrity chef Guy Fieri, Carnival offers a menu of specialty burgers such as the Chilius Maximus (topped with an onion ring) and Pig Patty (a burger topped with another patty made out of bacon). In reality, everyone orders a cheeseburger and then heads to the toppings bar to outfit their sandwich with grilled onions, grilled mushrooms, lettuce, tomato, pickle, condiments, etc. Veggie burgers are available (and are yummy), but only on request and you'll have to wait for some to be cooked special. Guy's Burger Joint is open noon to 6 p.m.
BlueIguana Cantina (Deck 10): Across the grill from Guy's Burger Joint is BlueIguana Cantina, a Mexican counter open for breakfast and lunch. The taco side features huevos rancheros (fried eggs on tortillas with beans and meat) and arepas (corn pancakes filled with cheese) at breakfast, and your choice of chicken, pork or fried fish tacos at lunch. The burrito side serves breakfast burritos with spicy or plain scrambled eggs in the morning, and chicken, beef, shrimp or bean burritos at lunch. Insider's tip: The BlueIguana chefs fry your eggs to order for huevos rancheros, but the line isn't nearly as long as the omelet line inside. Come here if you want eggs with no wait.
Room Service: In-cabin dining is available 24/7. Most items are free but you can order off an extra-fee menu for a wider selection. Continental breakfast is ordered via a card you hang on your door. Choices include fruit, cereal, breakfast pastries, bagels, yogurt, juice, milk and coffee or tea. All-day dining is limited to sandwiches (BLT, tuna, grilled cheese, etc.), garden or Caesar salad, crudité and dessert (cookies, cheesecake). The extra-fee menu lists hot items, such as wings, chicken tenders, fried shrimp, chicken quesadillas, Philly cheesesteak, pizza, fries and a banana split; cost ranges from $2 to $6. Beer, soda and wine can be ordered at regular bar prices.
Chef's Table; $75: In the combination entertainment-and-dining department, the Chef's Table is an exclusive dining event for 12 passengers, offered once per cruise. For $75, diners can attend a multicourse dinner, hosted by one of Carnival's chefs. The evening begins with a private cocktail reception and a chef-led tour of the galley, and concludes with a multicourse dinner in a nontraditional dining venue, usually Inspiration's Shakespeare Library. Book the Chef's Table at the guest services desk.
Cafe des Artistes (Deck 9): If you can't live without your lattes, cappuccinos and flavored vitamin water, you need to become a regular at Inspiration's for-fee coffee shop. Also on the menu are milkshakes, chai lattes and brand-name tea, hot chocolate, bottled water and sports drinks, along with fancy cakes, giant cookies and other desserts. Most items fall in the $2 to $5 range. While the cafe is generally open morning until night, it might close from late morning to mid-afternoon on port days.
Green Eggs and Ham Breakfast (Deck 8); $6: Held once per cruise on a sea day, this breakfast event for kids and adults adds a bit of Seuss-style whimsy to your morning meal. Order crazy, colorful dishes such as the classic Green Eggs and Ham, multicolored waffles and pancakes, Seuss-striped parfaits and Moose Juice or Goose Juice. Breakfast takes place in one of the main dining rooms, which is decorated with bright Seuss colors and plenty of pompoms. Favorite characters from Seuss' classic books show up to meet and greet.