We've always described Carnival's food as "tasty." It may not be the fanciest or the most healthy at sea, but it almost always tastes good. And what's great about Mardi Gras is the sheer abundance of free choices onboard, particularly for breakfast and lunch -- in fact there were so many interesting restaurants to choose from we didn't eat in the buffet at all.
When there is a charge for a meal, it's far lower than what you find on other mainstream cruise ships, and generally worth the extra money. Almost all restaurants have shifted to QR codes for menus, so you'll need to bring your phone to meals.
As we were the ship's first sailing ever, we are not going to rate the service. Suffice it to say that the ship was in "shakedown mode" in many of its busiest dining venues; long lines and waits were common, even though the ship was only at 70 percent capacity. These issues should improve as the crew becomes more experienced.
There are two styles of dining on Mardi Gras -- traditional, with set times at the spacious two-story Palm restaurant, and Your Time Dining in the much smaller Flamingo dining room.
And here's where Mardi Gras might end up getting into trouble. The ship's architects noted Mardi Gras requires a different dining flow as the ship does not work if all guests eat their meals in the main dining room and Lido.
On our sailing, and for what the line is calling "a limited time," several specialty restaurants -- Chibang, Cucina del Capitano and Guy's Pig & Anchor Smokehouse & Brewhouse -- were made complimentary. It's unclear how long this will last; the line noted that any overflow from Flamingo on Elegant Night (when many guests crowd the main dining rooms for free lobster) could be steered to the second floor of Palm.
Dinners in the main dining rooms tend to be more traditional than what you find elsewhere on the ship, but Carnival makes sure that the atmosphere isn't stuffy (and if you were too worried about that, the dancing and singing waiters will assuage your fears pretty quickly). The dining room generally tries to get people in and out within 90 minutes or so, but this can depend drastically on the night.
No matter what main dining room you choose, you'll find a rotating list of appetizers, soups and salads, entrees and desserts (the same menu is in both dining rooms). A few that make the Carnival Hall of Fame include prime rib, an Indian rotating vegetarian option and, of course, the warm chocolate melting cake.
*Note: If you crave lobster every night, you can have it. You will just pay an extra fee for it to be served from the steakhouse. Top grade steak cuts are also available and note to bargain hunters -- if you price it out, the surcharge is still less than you'd pay if you had a full meal in the specialty steakhouse.*
Beyond dinner, the SeaDay Brunch in the main Palm dining room carries on the concept of a leisurely sit down option on the more relaxing days of the cruise. We found this a nice option from the colorful chaos of the rest of the ship.
*Tip: On Mardi Gras, if you have Your Time Dining and want to order anything from the main dining room in an alternative venue, you can do so. We had warm chocolate melting cake in Chibang and it tasted just as good there as it would have in Flamingo.*
With so many free complimentary options elsewhere on the ship, the Lido Marketplace buffet on Mardi Gras is almost an afterthought.
But rest assured, whatever you want, you'll be able to find it here. The Marketplace has remained self-serve, and has stations for all tastes. In the morning, you can get omelets and all kinds of breakfast choices. Lunch is when the buffet is at its busiest, with carving stations, hot dog and hamburgers, salad bars and a full array of dessert choices including gelato.
Lido Marketplace is also open for dinner, where you can get slightly simpler fare than you'd find in the main dining room. It's a popular spot for families, especially on the early side. One complaint that we heard is that Marketplace was not open for late night eats; if you have 2 a.m. cravings, you'll have to get pizza from Pizzeria del Capitano on Deck 8.
Other Lido Deck and Free Casual Dining
Carnival has always given cruisers a variety of Lido deck venues, but Mardi Gras spoils you for choice -- and most are not only complimentary, they are open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Keep in mind that not all venues are right around the pool; look for Guy's Burgers up on Deck 17 and Big Chicken is at the back of the ship through the buffet.
Big Chicken. The much-anticipated chicken shack from Carnival Brand Ambassador Shaq O'Neal lives up to the hype. The sandwiches are as good as you'd find at a chicken fast food restaurant on land -- and the fries are incredible. Somehow the ship has managed to make a steak fry genuinely crispy. There's also chicken tenders here and in the morning, you can get chicken and biscuits, as well as other breakfast sandwiches.
Street Food. This collection of three stands is meant to mimic food truck cuisine, and it generally works. Steam Dream offers Asian-inspired buns and dumplings; Mad Sizzle has kebabs, satays and pad Thai, and Time Fries has French fries loaded with toppings. All are tasty and just the right size for a poolside lunch.
BlueIguana. The popular taco and burrito stand is back on the Lido. We've always found this particularly delicious for breakfast, when it serves up breakfast burritos.
Guy's Burgers. The new location is much more spacious, and does draw crowds away from the main pool area. It's also closer to the teen area and sports complex. It also has the first Guy's breakfast menu, where you can get burgers topped with fried eggs, or a turkey sausage patty with bacon and hash browns (bring your own antacid if you start your day this way).
Pizzeria del Capitano and Piazza Panini. This duo anchors the La Piazza neighborhood, and it's almost always buzzing, partly because there's a new bar, Bar Della Rosa in the area and partly because the outdoor smoking section is just outside. The pizza is open 24 hours and is pretty tasty. The paninis are a new addition. You can get a classic ham or turkey sandwich, or even a hot dog. Or go with the theme and get a pressed caprese or salumeria sandwich filled with Italian meats and cheeses. After 8 p.m., you can get dessert. A nice casual option.
*Tip: For a fee, you can order pizza delivered to your cabin or anywhere on the ship through the Carnival HUB app.*
JavaBlue. The specialty coffees here will cost money, as will some fancier pastries (we spent $3 for a delicious bacon-topped cream donut), but this coffee counter in the Grand Central neighborhood has a nice array of complimentary sandwiches available through breakfast and lunch.
Fresh Creations. If you start freaking out about eating so much fast food and donuts during your cruise, check out this salad bar within the Serenity pool area.
A trio of specialty restaurants onboard Mardi Gras are being made complimentary for a "limited time," with no word from the line as to when that ends. Reservations are key, particularly at peak dinner hours.
The same attention that has been given to cocktails at the bars across the ship holds true at these restaurants too -- even if you usually have wine at dinner, you might want to peruse the mixed drinks here. Both Chibang and Guy's have excellent options (we're still thinking about the smoked watermelon cocktail we had at the latter).
Cucina del Capitano. The casual Italian venues that appears on other Carnival ships is slightly larger here -- and it serves breakfast (don't worry, the morning menu is not pasta, instead it's more like you'd find in the main dining room, as it's all part of the ship's mission to spread people out in different restaurants during peak times). We came here for a dinner where the service was clearly overwhelmed and ended up waiting hours for food that arrived cold. We heard that both food and service were better on other evenings.
Chibang. The concept of this replacement for Jiji Asian Kitchen is a bit odd -- you can order Mexican dishes or Chinese dishes, or mix and match. We gave it a try, mixing it up with a little of both during our meal -- but it turns out there's a good reason you don't usually eat that way -- the flavors just don't always work together. Plus we found the Mexican food wasn't nearly as tasty as what you'd find at the Lido in the stellar BlueIguana Cantina. And as for it comparing to Jiji…we'll just shed a tear, and wait until we're on a different ship to order Chinese.
Guy Fieri's Pig & Anchor Smokehouse & Brewhouse. It's nice to have a complimentary version of this BBQ joint, even though it has a slightly smaller menu than you find on the other ships. Go for the meat platters, which give you a choice of three BBQ options like pulled pork, brisket or ribs, as well as sides like Mac Daddy Mac and Cheese. There is also a daily special that's worth planning your meals around.
Seafood Shack ($) Fancy a lobster roll? The ones here are mayo-heavy but still tasty. It's located near the complimentary Street Eats stations which could lead to confusion; make sure you look at the prices before you order.
Bonsai Sushi and Bonsai Teppanyaki ($) This duo of Japanese offerings may have an extra fee but it's definitely cheaper than what you'd find in a similar restaurant on land. The sushi restaurant has noodles and cooked items for people in your party who might be raw fish squeamish. And Teppanyaki, with its interactive hibachi cooking and chef banter, is fun for all ages.
Emeril's ($) Emeril Lagasse's first restaurant at sea is the culinary anchor of the French Quarter neighborhood and the a la carte bistro channels New Orleans oyster house vibes. You can order oysters, fresh, as well as other seafood. The rest of the menu has New Orleans classics such as jambalaya, duck and andouille gumbo, and red beans and rice, as well as po'boy and muffuletta sandwiches. Wash it all down with an Abita menu. Emeril's also has a breakfast menu; the bananas foster crepes are decadent and will keep you on a sugar high for hours.
Fahrenheit 555 ($$) Carnival's signature steakhouse has an upscale menu that is worthy for a date night. Indulge in Australian Wagyu beef, USDA Cowboy Steak and Maine lobster. The desserts are Instagram worthy, especially if you get the Art at your Table for your party -- trust us, you won't need anything else.
Rudi's Seagrill ($$) New for Carnival Mardi Gras, this restaurant from Holland America Line Master Chef Rudi Sodamin brings his whimsical "food faces" plates and clever presentations to a new audience. The food is delicious and down to earth, and well worth the $38 price tag -- you'd pay much more at a similar restaurant on land.
Carnival Kitchen ($$ to $$$) Want to be a chef yourself? At Carnival Kitchen, you can take a wide range of interactive culinary classes. The classes are themed -- you can learn to make pasta, pizza, sushi, cupcakes, even breakfast foods that make a fun group event, particularly on a sea day. On some evenings, special two-hour classes end in a full meal that turns into dinner with drinks.
Chef's Table ($$$) If you're looking for more of a gourmet experience, try the Chef's Table -- an extra fee, reservation-only meal intended to be a "foodie" experience. It's eight courses, plus some amuse-bouches served with Champagne and house wine, so settle in for the evening. Don't go if you're a picky eater, or have extensive food allergies.
Among the casual options, we couldn't get enough of Big Chicken. It took all of our willpower not to eat every lunch here.
Emeril's is a nice addition, and the prices are reasonable for what you get.
If you're looking for a date night, Rudi's is your choice. The food is genuinely high quality, at a reasonable price point, especially compared to other megaships. Make your reservations early, as the seats here sell out fast.