Dining onboard Explorer Dream is a mixed bag. The Lido buffet can be disappointing (especially at breakfast). Most of the specialty restaurants are good but may seem expensive when compared to other ships based in Australia. Other outlets charge extra for small items, such as cakes, cookies and ice-cream, while desserts are free in the Lido.
Breakfast is available in the Lido, the main dining room and Pavilion, the Chinese restaurant; the latter two provide the best free meals (a la carte plus a small buffet). Lunch and dinner are available in the same venues (but not every day in the Pavilion) as well as in six specialty extra-charge restaurants. These specialty restaurants offer better food, although some dishes are quite pricey and attract an 18 percent gratuity. GST of 10 per cent is also added to prices when food or beverages are purchased while the ship is in an Australian port or cruising near the coast; New Zealand's tax of 15 percent is added when the ship cruises there.
Overall the food is average to good, with a couple of stand-out dishes. Our favourite dining experience was in a small room within Umi Umi with an entertaining teppanyaki chef. Vegetarian options are available at the free and for-fee restaurants (the best is Hot Pot). The cruise line says the ship "caters for special meal requests and chefs are always there to help".
Dream Dining Room (Deck 6): This large main dining room is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, however, on some port days it was not open for lunch. Hours vary slightly (breakfast can start at 6.30 am or 7.30 am, depending on whether it's a port day or a sea day and what time the ship is expected in port, but 2.5 to three hours is the usual time allotted for each of the three meal services. There are no early and late-seating dinners; the restaurant is generally open for three hours from 6.30pm each day for dinner. Breakfast is a combination of buffet (for continental items) and table service for cooked items; the food is Western and the quality is good. There are very few choices for cereal, fruit and milk. Assistants sometimes toast the bread for you; other times you do it yourself. Lunch and dinner times also vary. At dinner we found the soups, salads and main courses to be tasty. There are four courses with a choice of two appetisers, two soups, three mains, two desserts and a cheese plate. Vegetarian choices were limited.
Pavilion (Deck 6): Pavilion, serving Chinese food, is opened daily for breakfast and usually for lunch and dinner. However, on some days during our seven-night sailing, it was not open for lunch and on another day, dinner was not offered, so it's wise to check the daily program. Breakfast consists of a buffet of Chinese items as well as fruit and pastries, while all diners receive a "meal set" delivered to the table; this is likely to include pork buns, dumplings and another snack-size item, similar to yum cha. Lunch and dinner includes authentic Chinese dishes -- such as soup, pickled vegetables, stir-fries, rice and basic desserts -- freshly prepared and delivered to the table. Vegetarians are well catered for, so this is one of the best places to dine for fresh, hot vegetable-based dishes.
The Palace Restaurant (Deck 8): Exclusive to guests staying in The Palace suites, this dining venue is a cross between a lounge with buffet food and a restaurant with waiter service. The main meal and drinks are ordered with the waiters and then brought out to the table, but the entree and dessert are self-service from a table at one end of the room. Entree options are limited to sushi, sashimi and other cold items; desserts may include opera cake and blueberry creme brulee (with no crunchy top layer). The food was good, but not exceptional. Our abalone on tofu was a small portion but perfectly cooked, while the Indonesian beef rendang was overcooked and too spicy for some of the people at our table. The staff were polite and tried hard, but drinks service was very slow. A TV screen on one wall seems an unnecessary distraction that cheapens the ambience. Overall, we don't think the restaurant is a drawcard for booking The Palace, but it's a nice, uncrowded space with a view of the pool and cabanas.
Lido Buffet (Deck 12): This large and pleasantly decorated space has inside and outside deck areas, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner on most days. On at least one port day, the Lido did not operate or closed as early as 7.30 am. Operational times vary depending on whether the ship is in port or not; however, breakfast and dinner usually run for three hours, while lunch is two hours. Breakfast includes fruit, yogurt, croissants and pastries, hot dishes to appeal to Western and Chinese tastes, tea and coffee. While some of the food on offer had aesthetic appeal, much of it was bland, lukewarm or overcooked. The free fruit juices are cordial; fresh juice costs $5 per glass. Coffee is ordinary and sometimes the milk was powdered.
Lunch and dinner see a greater variety of choices. The best section is the Indian food. European and Asian dishes, vegetables, soups, salads, cakes and fruit are also offered. The inside buffet closes between meals.
Our recommended area of the Lido is the outdoor deck where a chef prepares fried eggs, small omelettes and French toast at breakfast and other snacks at other times, although the quality is not always great. Morning and afternoon tea are served here, too. The view of the ship's wake and The Palace pool deck is lovely, and there is some bench seating for a little after-meal relaxation with a book.
Palm Court (Deck 12): Late night snacks are sometimes offered in this bar/nightclub when it hosts theme parties. On Halloween, for example, gruesome "blood-splattered" savoury and sweet snacks, chicken wings and cakes were available for no extra charge.
Lobby Cafe (Deck 7); a la carte pricing: Open around the clock from 7.30 am until 1 am, this long counter is in thick of the action. This is the best place to buy a coffee as the range and taste are good. Tea, cakes and biscuits are also for sale.
Little Cake Cafe (Deck 7); a la carte pricing: A food court area has several outlets open from 11 am until 11 pm. This one sells whole cakes or cake slices. Elaborate offerings include three-layered pistachio cake. Slices from $3.
The Bread Box (Deck 7); a la carte pricing: Near the Little Cafe, the bakery sells specialty breads along with croissants and Chinese treats such as pork floss buns for about $3. Prices are slashed as low as $1 after 9 pm. Open from 11 am until 11 pm.
Mozzarella Ristorante & Pizzeria (Deck 7); a la carte pricing: Also open from 11 am until 11 pm, this new venue has a few tables for enjoying Italian dishes with a Japanese twist. Pizza slices cost from $2 and there is a limited range of desserts at reasonable prices.
Matcha Ice (Deck 7), a la carte pricing: This kiosk sells matcha (green tea) ice cream and other desserts, priced from $3. Free tastings are offered. Open from 11 am until 11 pm.
Blue Lagoon (Deck 7); a la carte pricing: Billed as hawker-style, this 24-hour cafe has Asian specialties such as noodle soups, rice dishes and dumplings as well as coffee, dessert and alcoholic drinks. Chefs prepare meals in an open kitchen. Prices drop to $2 from 9 pm.
Silk Road Chinese Restaurant (Deck 7); $30 for set meal or a la carte pricing: This elegant, fine dining restaurant is open for lunch and dinner. A two-course meal featuring roast duck costs $30 or you can order other items from the menu.
Hot Pot (Deck 8): $32 set meal; extra cost for other added ingredients. Also known as a 'steamboat', this is a cook-it-yourself Chinese feast that involves a bubbling pot of stock in which diners place a variety of proteins and vegetables. Diners choose a meal 'set' such as beef and chicken or seafood or vegetarian. All sets come with vegetables that diners select from a buffet, along with dipping sauces. The stockpot is divided into two halves: one containing a mild stock; the other spicy. It's a fun couple of hours for those who want something different and don't mind cooking dinner. Ingredients are fresh and plentiful. The beef striploin meal is priced at $32; extra items such as pork belly can be added for $16, while sliced lamb is $7 extra. Open every night for dinner and on some days for lunch; check the program as timings change.
Umi Umi Japanese Cuisine & Teppanyaki (Deck 8); from $62 for a set teppanyaki meal; al a carte pricing for other items.
This Japanese lunch and dinner restaurant is divided into two eateries: one offering sushi, sashimi, noodles and tempura dishes; the other has two separate dining nooks with flat grills (or teppans) for teppanyaki meals cooked by the chef in front of you. Sashimi and sushi dishes have five to six pieces in each serve and are priced according to the ingredients. Bento boxes, such as Tori Teriyaki Bento or Wagyu Steak Bento range from $26 per box, with the most expensive Wagyu beef box costing $58. Teppanyaki dinners include miso soup, salad and generous portions of meat, vegetables and rice. This is a fun way to spend a few hours as the chef entertains up to 10 diners with his food-flipping expertise and jovial patter. He may balance eggs on spatulas, catch them in his hat or sing along to the beat of drumming salt and pepper shakers. As there are only two of these teppanyaki nooks, it's necessary to book.
Gelateria (Deck 12); a la carte pricing: Open from 10 am until 10 pm, this ice-cream kiosk near the Parthenon swimming pool sells home-made ice-cream in five flavours and huge ice-cream sundaes. Unsurprisingly, it's popular with kids.
Seafood Grill by Mark Best (Deck 13); a la carte pricing: Mark Best, who until recently ran Sydney's multi-awarded restaurant, Marque, is Dream Cruises' celebrity chef. The Australian chef has lent his name and dishes to restaurants on each of the line's three ships. Explorer Dream's version is a large, al fresco space, above the pool area. It's a great place for lunch or dinner, especially when there is live music. The menu includes snacks that can be shared, salads and main courses of seafood, grilled meats, burgers and desserts. Dishes are tasty and will appeal to Australians who like Mod-Oz food (Asian-Mediterranean fusion). A Champagne brunch served buffet-style, where the highlight is a juicy omelette, is also available for $45 included a glass of bubbles, which is refilled if you ask nicely.
Room Service; a la carte pricing: A small menu of Western and Asian breakfasts, snacks, fruit, water, soft drinks and beer can be delivered to your cabin. The 18 percent gratuity and GST (if applicable) is added.