All meals, afternoon tea and snacks are included in the cruise fare. Monarch Empress has one main dining room, located forward on the middle Countess Deck and it's open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. An early-riser continental breakfast and late-night snack is served in the lounge. Aside from breakfast, meals are served at one sitting and complimentary wine, beer and soft beverages are served with dinner.
The food is good, albeit not gourmet, and attractively presented; particularly the desserts. There is not a huge choice at dinner, where the appetizer, soup and dessert are all set and the only options to pick from are three entrees or the "always available" dishes. Menus are a combination of regional specialties from the destinations visited during the cruise, familiar favorites and the two "always available" options of simpler fare at dinner. Service is very attentive, friendly and well-paced, and dinners never felt overly rushed. Vegetarian options are available and special diets can be catered for. However, it is best to request this at the time of booking and then talk to the restaurant manager once onboard.
In addition to fewer options at dinner, a choice of alternative dining venues is the other area where Monarch Empress differs from other (more expensive) cruise lines. There is no small specialty restaurant or for-fee dining. Also, there is no light lunch option served in the lounge, which is the norm on many ships; and an alternative for passengers who might want to dine on the terrace or sun deck in fine weather. Of course, there is nothing to stop Monarch Empress passengers from helping themselves to food from the buffet and taking it upstairs or outside if they wish but it just requires some effort. Similarly, many cruise lines offer complimentary wine, beer and soda with both lunch and dinner, but with Monarch Empress it is just dinner.
Restaurant (Deck 2): The one main dining room is on the middle Countess Deck and it is a particularly attractive venue that has the look of a land-based restaurant. This is because the main buffet station, which is usually situated in the center of rivership restaurants, is located at the far end of the room, hidden behind a large screen and next to the entrance to the galley. The rest of the dining room is also divided into sections with three large fan-shaped screens down the center and more rectangular screens at the sides. This gives the room much more of an intimate feel and helps cut down on noise levels, which can be an issue on ships with open-plan restaurants.
The restaurant has panoramic windows down each side, offering excellent views over the river. It has a contemporary look with dividing fans -- variously in patterns of yellow, pink and blue -- a blue carpet, cream colored chairs and modern artwork. Round and rectangular tables, seating six or eight, are always nicely laid out with white tablecloths and folded linen napkins. Monarch Empress operates an open-seating system and passengers can choose where they want to sit at each meal.
Buffet breakfast is served over a generous two-and-a-half-hour period, usually from 7 to 9:30 a.m. (sometimes earlier depending on excursions). The buffet features a good range of items including cereals, fresh fruit, assorted yogurt, croissants, pastries, different breads, bacon, sausages, hash browns, fried tomatoes, scrambled eggs, oatmeal, cold cuts, cheese, vegetables and assorted seeds. Poached and boiled eggs can be ordered from the wait staff, and each day features a special cooked-to-order item, such as American pancakes with syrup, French toast with cinnamon sugar and fruit compote, eggs benedict or pancake stuffed with cottage cheese. There is also an omelet and fried egg station.
To add a touch of luxe to the first meal of the day, the buffet also features smoked salmon, capers and other accompaniments along with sparkling wine if passengers want to make a mimosa -- or drink it as it is! For a healthy start, there are also daily smoothies, such as carrot and apple; spinach and berry or "purple monstrosity" made with blackcurrants and blackberries.
Tea and coffee is served to the table. A small grumble on our cruise was that the cups are tiny, particularly for those who like to start the day with a large mug of their chosen hot drink. It also meant the wait staff were kept busy having to constantly keep topping them up. So, it might be an idea to bring your own mug!
Lunch is generally served at noon or 12:30 p.m., again depending on the excursion schedule. Each day there is a choice of soup, such as chunky tomato with basil and croutons or carrot and orange, which is served to the table. There is also a sandwich of the day, such as a club sandwich with roasted chicken, bacon, boiled eggs, tomato and lettuce or a Monte Cristo made with ham and cheese. The sandwiches come with coleslaw, french fries or chips and are ordered from the menu and served to the table. The rest of lunch is a buffet and will typically feature appetizers such as Waldorf salad or pasta salad with ham and eggs alongside a range of salad items, including lettuce, beetroot, shredded carrot, olives, Greek-style cheese, seeds and a choice of dressings.
The choice of hot dishes will always include one or two based on the region being visited, such as Austrian beef goulash with gherkins and fried eggs or Hungarian toltott kaposzta, which is white cabbage stuffed with minced meat and served with a caraway sauce. Other hot buffet items might include river perch with onions, tomatoes and peppers in a white wine sauce; roasted root vegetables; or noodles with tomatoes. There is also a live pasta station, featuring a different dish each day.
In addition to fresh fruit from the buffet there is a daily ice cream dessert, which is served to the table. Water is served with lunch, but any additional drinks are charged to the onboard account. The menu will feature a daily recommendation, such as draft beer for 3.50 euros or soda for 3.90 euros, and passengers can, of course, order drinks of their choice from the bar or wine list.
There are also themed lunches, usually one per weeklong cruise, such as a Bavarian buffet, where the staff dress up and passengers are welcomed to the restaurant by the chef and maitre d' and given a home-baked pretzel. The centerpiece of the buffet is a whole roast suckling pig, carved by the chef, and buffet items include sausages with sauerkraut, Austrian potato salad, grilled cod fillet in wine sauce and potato and bread dumplings. Soup, such as German potato soup with fresh marjoram, is served to the table along with a Bavarian cream dessert. On our sailing, there was also 50 percent off beers ordered with lunch on this day.
Dinner is served at a set time each night, generally 7 p.m. The four-course menu (five if you include cheese) comprises of a set appetizer, soup and dessert with a choice of three entrees. Menus feature local specialties from the cruise area and international dishes, and the choice of three entrees -- meat, fish or vegetarian -- along with the "always available" options. Starters might include a cocktail of sea scallops with roasted pineapple, mango and ginger in coconut or a goat cheese terrine with bell pepper vinaigrette, followed by cream of leek soup with sunflower seeds or pot au feu, a beef stew.
There are days when these won't be suitable for vegetarians who will either have to skip them altogether or settle for a green salad, the suggested alternative when we asked. (It seems a shame that Caesar salad is offered as an "always available" dish but only comes in an entree-sized portion, as this would be a slightly more interesting substitute for a veggie starter).
Typical mains are truffle-fed chicken breast supreme with sherry glaze and creamy mascarpone polenta; grilled Mediterranean sea bass on Pernod cream sauce served with white cabbage and vegetable rice; Viennese veal escalope with potato salad and green peas; poached salmon with basil sun-dried tomato butter, broccoli and buttered tagliatelle; gratinated cauliflower in carrot sauce; or eggplant Parmesan. To follow, desserts include apple strudel with vanilla sauce, chocolate cake or profiteroles. A self-serve selection of cheese, crackers and bread is available from the buffet. Dinner also includes the always available dishes of chicken breast with steamed vegetables and a baked potato or Caesar salad.
The final evening included an additional set appetizer of duck foie gras and was rounded off in cruise tradition with baked Alaska that was paraded around the room before being served.
Complimentary international wines, beer and soft beverages are served with dinner. The wines are of good quality and varied, and the watchful wait staff keep everyone topped up. There is a different red and white wine with each meal, along with a suggested pairing with the choice of main dishes. Typical wines might include a French sauvignon blanc, Spanish Tempranillo, German Spatburgunder or Italian chardonnay. Alternatively, passengers can order and pay for bottles of wine from comprehensive list that includes wines from Germany, Austria, France, Slovakia and Italy ranging from 25 euros for a Rhineland Palatinate Portugieser rose to 71 euros for J.M. Gobillard & Fils Champagne.
Lounge (Deck 3): An early breakfast is served in the lounge on the Empress Deck, usually from 6 to 7 a.m., and closing when the main dining room opens for breakfast. If there is an early excursion it will open even earlier, sometimes around 5:15 a.m. to accommodate this. The continental-style breakfast offers croissants, pastries and fruit. Each day there is afternoon tea, which is generally from 4 to 4:30 p.m. and features the choice of a couple of cakes against the backdrop of a musical accompaniment from the onboard pianist. There is a 24/7 tea and coffee station in the lounge, along with plates of cookies during the day. From to 11 p.m., a substantial late-night snack is served in the lounge. This features hot dishes such as meatballs in sauce or Hungarian goulash.
Club Lounge (Deck 3): Complimentary tea, coffee and hot chocolate is available 24/7 from the self-serve machine in the ship's aft lounge.
Sun Deck (Deck 4): On sunny days, a portion of the ship's sun deck can be turned into an alfresco dining area, with food served from a barbecue station situated forward on the ship. This might happen once a week during a summer cruise.
The ship does not have any for-fee dining venues and there is no room service.