Dining options on Empress are limited to three main choices -- one of which (Chops Grille) is a specialty restaurant with an added charge. Food quality was average to slightly above. During our cruise, there was never an item that truly stood out as "Wow! You have to try this" but overall it was satisfying. If Empress of the Seas plans on sailing longer itineraries, another dining venue would be a welcome option to allow more variety, but for short sailings the choices are sufficient. There is an ample amount of vegetarian options at the Starlight Dining Room and Windjammer Cafe. The crew is trained to accommodate special needs, but it is advised that passengers provide dietary information before they sail.
Starlight Dining Room (decks 4 and 5): The two-deck venue matches the "look" of the Royal Theatre with marble stairwells and a grand, regal atmosphere. A piano player provides live entertainment at the base of the stairwell during dinner, and service is prompt and efficient. We actually preferred this venue to Chops Grille, the specialty restaurant. The Starlight serves a changing dinner menu of American fare; expect appetizers like corn chowder, Maryland crab cakes and Cobb salads, with mains such as grilled salmon, buttermilk fried chicken and braised short ribs. Vegetarian choices are always available on the menu. Desserts were a cut above those in the Windjammer, with options like tarts, pies, mouse and a rich chocolate cake.
Breakfast in the Starlight lasts from 7:30 to 9:30 a.m., with menu items like steak and eggs, French toast, malt pancakes, eggs Benedict, pastries and fresh fruit.
Dinner operates on the flexible "My Time Dining," schedule so guests can call ahead and reserve a dining time of their choice. (Dinner starts at 5:30 p.m. with the last seating at 9 p.m.) Cruisers can also just show up and wait for a table or ask to be seated with others if they'd like to mingle. For those who prefer a more traditional cruise ship dining experience, passengers can also request an early or late set seating.
Although Empress does not offer a daily breakfast in the Starlight dining room (leaving the Windjammer as the only option for that), on sea days, Starlight is the location for a brunch buffet, a new addition on Empress of the Seas that features bottomless mimosas and Bloody Marys at no extra cost. There's also a fresh-squeezed orange juice machine (at an additional charge), potatoes, rice and vegetables, chicken, a waffle station, scrambled eggs and a salad bar. We very much enjoyed this dining option, and, in true brunch fashion, lingered for a while chatting away with other guests. Brunch runs from 9:45 a.m. until 1:15 p.m.
Windjammer (Deck 10): The Windjammer is Royal Caribbean's signature buffet, a sprawling space that includes both indoor and outdoor window-lined dining adjacent to the pool area. There is also a small counter bar station where guests can order sodas or alcoholic beverages. If you arrive at the start of lunch or dinner you might find a line, but otherwise we had no problem going right to the buffet or getting a seat.
Continental breakfast starts at 6 a.m., followed by a robust breakfast assortment, including fresh cut fruit, French toast, oatmeal, grits, sausages, cereal and omelets made to order.
Lunch includes burgers, fries, salad bar, pizza, fried fish and other typical American fare -- much of which was similar each day. Vegetarian items are labeled as such. Afternoon snacks, consisting of cold cuts, breads and cheese (for make-your-own-sandwiches), chicken salads and other deli salads, only runs until 5 p.m. But dinner doesn't start until 6:30 p.m., so there is a gap between meals when the only food available is room service. Unfortunately, this falls during the period when cruisers are returning from shore, so expect a queue when dinner begins.
During dinner, in addition to an impressive assortment of artfully displayed cheeses and breads, typical options are similar to those at lunch including pastas, carving stations, chicken and barbecue ribs. Each night features a different international cuisine at dinner to add some variety (Asian-inspired dishes, and Cuban classics such as ropa vieja). Overall the quality of food at Windjammer was above average for a buffet, and food trays were rotated frequently to keep food fresh. Desserts were fairly good, with a warm fruit crumble option each day, chocolate mousses and other cakes. The coffee station is open 24 hours, and during mealtimes a crew member serves soft ice cream from a machine (although passengers can also help themselves when its not attended; open hours are 11 a.m. to midnight).
The Windjammer also serves hot late-night snacks from 10:30 p.m. to midnight with options like hamburgers, hot dogs and chicken breasts, with cold sandwiches on offer from midnight to 2 a.m. However, dinner ends at 9:00 p.m. so there is another gap in mealtimes between 9 and 10:30 p.m.
Free brunch mimosas and Bloody Marys are available at the Windjammer on port days, although this was not clear in the daily Cruise Compass schedule, so some passengers were not aware of this.
Room Service: A limited but adequate room service menu is available around the clock; a $7.95 per order surcharge applies. Cheese plates, Cuban sandwiches, wraps, burgers, chicken wings and pizza, are a few of the items available as well as breakfast items (beginning at 6 a.m.). Vegetarian and gluten-, sugar- or lactose-free items are noted on the menu.
Chops Grille (Deck 5); $35: One of the most popular specialty restaurants on any Royal Caribbean ship is Chops Grille, a steakhouse open daily for dinner (vegetarian options are limited here). The sleek, elegant space is known for its well-prepared New York strips, filet mignon, grilled chicken and seafood entrees, as well as family-style side dishes like asparagus, mushrooms and potatoes. Service here takes longer than in the Starlight Dining Room, so allow ample time to dine. A smart casual dress code is recommended, and reservations are required.
Cafe Royal (Deck 6); a la carte: This specialty coffee shop located in the Boleros lounge serves Cafe Bustelo-brand Cuban coffee for when you need something a little stronger than the typical American filter coffee. Prices range from $2.00 for a small espresso to $5.25 for an iced mocha. Each coffee purchase includes a complimentary sweet or savory Cuban pastry (pastelitos and empanadas) from a heated self-serve countertop display case.