With more than 20 places to eat onboard, passengers can enjoy dining in a different restaurant every night on Norwegian Encore. The good news is that the quality of the included venues is reasonably good; in recent years, the line has improved the food and decor of its main dining rooms.
The bad news? The specialty restaurants are enticing -- and expensive, with most having a la carte charges, as opposed to a set cover price. You'll want to choose the specialty dining package as part of your Free at Sea booking perks if you're a foodie or someone who loves choice; this is a ship where you could very well have FOMO if you stick to the included venues only.
You will need to make reservations -- the earlier, the better -- if you are determined to eat at specific venues at preferable times. If you want to walk in, go early or late.
Most restaurants have options marked for vegetarians and gluten-free diners. If you have food allergies, however, you will likely want to talk to the individual restaurants to see how they can accommodate your needs. (Many of the vegetarian options are pastas or fried, so not particularly healthier than the other choices.)
All extra-fee restaurants tack on a 20 percent auto-gratuity on the final bill, so factor that cost into your dining budget for the ship. (If you choose a dining package as a free booking perk, you will also be required to pay the 20 percent gratuity on the line's estimated retail value of the package. For example, a three-meal package on a seven-night cruise would require $20 in auto-gratuity.)
Taste and Savor (Deck 6) and the Manhattan Room (Deck 7)
Meals: Breakfast (B), Lunch (L), Dinner (D)
Norwegian has three main dining rooms, each of them with the same menus. Taste and Savor are small, more intimate venues across the hall from each other with a bar separating them. Because of their size, there's more of a feeling of dining in a specialty restaurant than of being in a cruise ship banquet hall. You'll get that in the Manhattan Room, with two-story-tall ceilings and a more cavernous space. It's only open for dinner.
You don't need to make reservations for these venues, unless you're in a party of six people or more.
Breakfast (in Taste and Savor only) is a nice sit-down alternative to the buffet, where you can order a wide variety of breakfast items, both hot and cold. Express egg options are also available. Lunch has several course options, ranging from soups and salads to sandwiches and more substantial fish, pasta and meat entrees.
At dinner, the lights are dimmed and the restaurants display a casually elegant (but not stuffy) feel. Service is attentive, but not obtrusive. Menus offer an extensive array of appetizers, including salad, soup and other starters. Entrees include classic choices (like rotisserie chicken and New York strip steak) that are always available, plus featured selections for that day, with meat, seafood, chicken and vegetarian options.
In addition to the main desserts, passengers can order a fruit plate, cheese tray or selection of ice cream or sherbet.
Garden Cafe (Deck 16)
Meals: B, L, D
The Garden Cafe is Encore's pool deck buffet restaurant, and it manages to look as elegant as the sit-down venues onboard. It's huge, with some repeating stations and some surprise standalones, so make a full pass of all the stations before loading up a plate. We particularly enjoyed the Indian station, which offered excellent dishes for all three meals, with many vegetarian choices. You can find it at the far forward of the buffet on the left side.
You won't find an outdoor terrace (though there is some table seating on the pool deck), but the forward-most seating area has lovely views out the Observation Lounge's two-deck-high floor-to-ceiling windows.
The Garden Cafe is open long hours for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but is not open between meals or late at night for snacks. Self-service ice cream stations blend in with the walls and are easy to miss; we're told they come online at 8 a.m.
We were pleased with the quality of the food for a buffet, and the multiple stations did a good job of spreading people throughout the venue.
You can buy Starbucks coffee in the Garden Cafe, as well, from self-serve machines. Keep in mind, the drinks cost extra even though the prices aren't shown, (a note does tell you that you'll pay a 5 percent gratuity on a cup). It's almost impossible not to indulge in Starbucks on Norwegian Encore because the free coffee that's available is almost undrinkable.
Self-serve wine kiosks are also positioned around the buffet, as well as complimentary drink stations serving juice, water, tea and coffee. For any other beverage needs, there's a staffed bar.
Breakfast has every breakfast food you could want: eggs (both premade and cooked to order), breakfast meats, hot and cold cereal, yogurt, fruit, baked goods, pancakes/waffles, cheese and cold cuts.
Lunch has the most variety with stations for hot entrees, burgers and grilled items, pizza, Indian food, carving and wok stations, salad, soup, pasta, bread and cheese, and desserts including ice cream.
Encore doesn't have another no-charge casual venue for burgers or pizza by the pool, so the Garden Cafe is the spot for apres-swim noshing.
At dinner, the most forward buffet stations close, likely because a large percentage of Encore passengers choose to sample the specialty restaurants or sit-down venues for dinner. The open stations mimic lunch with hot entrees, burgers and pizza, pasta, salad, Indian and dessert.
The Local (Deck 7)
Meals: B, L, D
The Local has a pub name but the space is much more light and airy than you'd find in most bars. The venue wraps around the atrium, and has several components: the bar seats around the atrium where you can watch people below; the actual bar, where you can watch TV; restaurant seating off to the side; and a games area where you can play pool or arcade games.
Because it's open 24 hours, the space is almost always hopping. The breakfast menu is limited, and has a buzzier ambiance than the quieter main dining rooms, but you can still order eggs, omelets and waffles. For lunch and dinner, the menu offers more standard bar food, with sandwiches and fish and chips. The Local gets another run of people late at night, coming in to fortify after an evening of bar-hopping or dancing.
Observation Lounge (Deck 15)
Meals: B, L
The Observation Lounge is meant as a place to come and relax, so why leave to get food? Light bites -- such as yogurt parfaits, fruit and finger sandwiches -- are available here at breakfast and lunch time, as well as pastries and snacks in the afternoon.
The Haven Restaurant (Deck 18)
Meals: B, L, D
As befits its status as a private enclave within the ship, The Haven restaurant allows suite guests to dine within their own restaurant for all meals. The menus are more sophisticated than what you will find in the main dining rooms, as is the execution. The chef in The Haven is also adept at special menu requests, with advance notice.
Teppanyaki (Deck 6); $39 per person
Particularly popular with kids and families, Teppanyaki is a fun, hibachi-style Japanese restaurant where the chef's knife skills are a part of the meal. Shrimp will flip, egg snakes will move, chefs (and diners) will shout for more. This is the only specialty restaurant onboard Norwegian Encore that is a fixed price, which means it can be a good value.
Q Texas Smokehouse (Deck 6); a la carte
Carnivores, rejoice! Tucked away on the other side of the atrium, far from the rest of the restaurants, the Q Smokehouse is spacious, with a roadhouse feel (at night, live country music plays). On the menu, you'll find comfort food like Lone Star chili, potatoes in various forms (sweet, baked, salad, fried) and crispy okra. But meat is the star, with brisket, short ribs, pulled pork, spare ribs, chicken, turkey and sausages available (as well as broiled salmon and Cajun shrimp skewers). The Pitmaster Platter ($25) has food for a crowd.
Ocean Blue (Deck 8); a la carte
One of Norwegian Encore's date-night restaurants, Ocean Blue offers upscale seafood, in a venue that is located on The Waterfront (for great sunset views). Appetizers and light bites include shrimp, scallops and calamari while entrees can be surf and turf, fresh fish, seafood linguini and fresh grilled fish.
Onda by Scarpetta (Deck 8); a la carte pricing, $10 to $35 per dish
Onda by Scarpetta is new to Norwegian Encore, but the partnership with the upscale Italian restaurant (known for its city hotel-based restaurants) has proved so popular that it will be added to some of the line's other ships. The space is small and books quickly so if you want to get a seat, make reservations in advance.
We found that Onda lived up to the hype on our sailing, with appetizers that were perfectly seasoned (and in portion sizes that won't make you sick). The pastas are standouts; we loved the short rib ravioli and the mezzelune so much, we didn't make it to the regular entrees. Save room for desserts; the towering tiramisu was to die for.
Onda is not a cheap date, and once you figure in dessert and wine you're looking at meal for two that easily rivals a relatively fancy night out on land. We're not saying that it's not worth it -- the food definitely ranks as some of the best we've had at sea -- but budget accordingly.
Cagneys (Deck 8); a la carte pricing
Norwegian's signature steakhouse appears on Encore in an elegant, dark and moody enclave near the A-List Bar. Another restaurant that's tops for date night, Cagney's has steakhouse staples, including a selection of beef, chops, seafood and classic sides such as creamed spinach and mushrooms.
Prices at Cagney's are comparable to what you'd find in a small city, with steaks ranging from $26 to $37, depending on the cut. The quality is high -- our steak was perfectly cooked and the rest of the meal is what you'd expect from a decent steakhouse. Cagney's does have an outstanding wine list, for those who want to splash out. With so many other specialty restaurants to try onboard, a steakhouse can seem rather prosaic, but for those who need meat on their date night, it's the best choice.
Food Republic (Deck 8); a la carte
Meals: L, D
Fans of global international cuisine will be drawn to Food Republic, which has yummy "handhelds" like Thai chicken lettuce wraps, sticky pork belly buns, Peruvian beef skewers, shrimp pad Thai, hamachi taquitos, shitake and water chestnut dumplings, and Tijuana street fries. While some combos seem a bit puzzling -- tuna poke nachos? -- it's a fun spot, with a sushi counter and its own specialty cocktail menu. Food Republic is primarily a dinner venue but will open for lunch on sea days if the demand is high enough.
Los Lobos (Deck 8); a la carte
Upscale Mexican is the star at this restaurant, across from Cagney's near the A-List Bar. It's a great place to come with a group, as the plates are designed to share. You'll find fresh guacamole prepared tableside, shrimp ceviche, carne asada, and delicious burritos, tacos and enchiladas. Don't miss the margarita menu and -- on a nice night -- an outdoor table on The Waterfront.
American Diner (Deck 17); a la carte
Meals: L, D
Conveniently located not far from the Galaxy Pavilion and outdoor recreation areas, the open-air (but covered) American Diner serves up a classic diner menu of apps, burgers, sandwiches and fried food. Expect to have some selfie-takers near you, as some of the booths are cleverly carved in the shape of classic American cars. Sadly, it's not a great spot for dining on days when the weather is windy and rainy.
Le Bistro (Deck 17); a la carte
You have to work hard to find Le Bistro, which is tucked away on Deck 17. It's a romantic spot, and Gallic favorites like escargot, onion soup, coq au vin and duck a la orange make it a line favorite. This is also considered one of the ship's more upscale options, and you'll want to dress appropriately.
Coco's (Deck 6); a la carte
Cruisers with a sweet tooth gravitate to Coco's for its array of delicious indulgences, from several different gelato flavors -- which you can have by the scoop or in large, colorful sundaes -- to sweet crepes, small chocolate bites and a variety of cakes.
Starbucks (Deck 6); a la carte
A full-service Starbucks at sea, this venue is exactly the same as you'd find in a city or town near you with pastries and seasonal coffee specials. For those with drink packages, note, Starbucks beverages are not included in the package.
Dolce Gelato (Deck 8); a la carte
Tucked away on The Waterfront, Dolce Gelato makes is presence known to you when you see other people walking by eating from small cups. Service is via a small window and there's a rotating list of flavors. Grab a cup and stroll or sink down into the cushy outdoor sofas nearby.
The Bake Shop (Deck 8); a la carte
The indoor portion of Dolce Gelato, this sweets shop is where to go to sate your sugar fix along The Waterfront (as opposed to going all the way down to Coco's). Truffles, macarons and cupcakes are the stars here.
The breakfast menu includes complimentary Continental selections of yogurt, fruit, cold cereal, breakfast pastries and juices. For an upcharge, you can order hot selections like French toast or omelets.
The all-day menu offers a selection of soups, salads, sandwiches, pizza, hot entrees and desserts. A kids' room service menu has all the favorites: chicken fingers, mac 'n' cheese and PB&J sandwiches.
Every room service order incurs a $9.95 charge, plus a 20 percent service fee. The only exception is Continental breakfast before 10 a.m., which is complimentary.