There are two major differences in dining between Ocean Princess and the newer, larger ships in the fleet. The first is that there's no Anytime Dining option for supper. There's only one main dining room -- the Club -- and this operates on a set-seating basis; there are early and late shifts at 6:15 and 8:15 p.m. The second major difference is that even though there are two specialty restaurants -- Sabatini's (Italian) and Sterling (steakhouse), both Princess trademarks -- they do not operate simultaneously due to the small size of ship and staff. Each evening, just one is open for alternative dining based on a rotating schedule throughout the cruise.
The Club Restaurant serves open seating breakfast and lunch. Breakfast menus changed daily and throughout the week offered items like eggs Benedict and pancakes. It is possible eat just as much at lunch as at dinner if you get appetizers and sweets; order anything prepared with Princess' hearty tomato sauce.
Dinner is served here on the aforementioned fixed schedule. Our service was attentive, maybe too much so; our server always seemed to hovering behind me to refill my water glass! If you've dined with Princess before, you know exactly what to expect -- the usual suspects are back (lobster night, beef Wellington) along with some more adventurous fare like rabbit and frog's legs. Steaks were brought out at the requested temperature, and most dishes were good to very good -- but my favorite course here was always dessert.
The rich, dark Club Bar at the entrance is the place to be for a before-dinner martini (try the trendy, tasty pomegranate variety); it's lively and there is plenty of cozy seating. Afternoon tea is also served in the Club Restaurant, and includes scones, small sandwiches, cookies and, of course, tea.
Sabatini's is a multi-course love affair with Italian food (per-person charge, $20). Olive oil and balsamic vinegar are poured at the table for dipping bread, and a variety of hot and cold antipasti are served tableside, including Mediterranean olives, cannelloni and fried cheese. All you have to decide on is your soup and your main entree; options include butter-brushed lobster and a veal chop that was nearly the size of my head (I still managed to eat almost the whole thing). Desserts are decidedly Italian; we love the tiramisu.
At the other alternative eatery, Sterling Steakhouse (per-person charge, $15), servers bring around a tray of tempting cuts of beef to help you make your choice. Menu items include New York strip, rib eye and filet mignon, to which you can add several sides, from creamed spinach to baked potato. There's also a fish entree offered -- on our cruise, tuna -- and BBQ-style chicken for folks who don't eat steak. Caesar salad is prepared tableside (but didn't taste much different than what's served in the main dining room, to be honest); other appetizers include brie and papaya quesadillas, which were delicious, and shrimp cocktail. If you have a sweet tooth, try the chocolate pecan pie or the peach turnover, which tasted like state fair funnel cake stuffed with warm fruit (yum).
Ocean's lido dining option is the Panorama Buffet, which is open for self-service during breakfast and lunch. A Continental breakfast begins at the very early hour of 4 a.m.; a full breakfast buffet opens at 6:30 a.m. and is available until 11 a.m., where you'll find oatmeal, cream of wheat, various pastries and breads, cold cuts, and hot items like pancakes and sausages.
For made-to-order eggs and omelets from 6:30 until 11 a.m., visit the grill on the pool deck, just outside the starboard entrance to the buffet. Ham, vegetables and cheese can be added to eggs, Egg Beaters or egg whites; surprisingly, we never saw it very busy, and if there were a few people ahead of us, it was fine to sit first and enjoy the fresh air. The grill switches to burgers, plump hot dogs, grilled chicken, knockwurst and bratwurst between 11:30 a.m. and 6 p.m.; French fries come standard.
A buffet lunch is served from 11:30 a.m. until 3:30 p.m.; cold cuts and salad fixings are always available, as well as hot items and a carving station. A sushi bar was set up once during our cruise. If you are late coming back from port or just want a pre-dinner snack, visit between 3:30 and 6 for the "create your own sandwich" station, complete with panini press. Fruits and desserts are available throughout the day. There's an outdoor dining section all the way aft; you can also help yourself to coffee here 24 hours a day. There's no self-serve ice cream or frozen yogurt station.
The Pizzeria is open from 11:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. for lunch by the slice, and then reopens at 6 p.m. for sit-down service until 11 p.m. -- Ocean's only casual dinner alternative (the rest of the buffet is closed aside from a soup, salad, bread and dessert bar). At dinner, a section of buffet tables are set with wine glasses, printed menus and cloth napkins; you can order pizza by the pie -- and wine, beer, soda and bar drinks -- via waiter service.
This was a nice break from the formal dining room and specialty restaurants; I enjoyed my meal with a glass of Chianti in Capri pants, a polo shirt and sandals followed by a walk on the lido deck. Selections range from cheese and standard pepperoni to a Hawaiian-style pie with ham and pineapple, which was surprisingly tasty even to a discerning Italian palette; a calzone is also on offer. Each day there is a specialty pie utilizing ingredients like artichokes, olives and anchovies.
Ocean's specialty coffee bar is located on the port side of the Panorama Buffet; hot and cold coffees are available, from cappuccinos (from $1.50) to iced mochas and lattes (from $2.95). You can purchase a King of Cups coffee card for $24.50 good for 15 hot beverages. Your barista or server simply punches out a crown each time you order a coffee concoction.
A late-night bistro of sandwiches and light fare is available at the Panorama Buffet from 11 p.m. until 4 a.m. Don't expect drinks service, though; when we passed through at 1 a.m. there wasn't a soul to be seen, crew or passenger. Room service is available around the clock, though the options are limited to just a few cold sandwiches, including tuna and roast beef, and salads (Continental breakfast items are available via a door-hang card). Select wines and champagnes are available for purchase via room service, as well as several liquor-and-mixer specials for $15, and 6-for-5 beer and/or wine packages; canapes and snacks are available for purchase. We would have liked to see more, better late-night options -- like pizza past 11 or something a little bit more exciting on the room service menu.
Guests with balconied cabins have one additional dining option -- private balcony meals. The Ultimate Balcony Breakfast is $25 per couple and includes pastries and muffins; a half bottle of Champagne; juice and coffee; crab quiche; smoked salmon with cream cheese, capers and buttered bagels; and fruit salad. It's quite a feast and a very special way to start your day.
At $100 per couple is the Ultimate Balcony Dinner, which is alternative restaurant quality cuisine served course by course in your stateroom (the breakfast is a little less labor-intensive -- everything's dropped off at once, and we found ourselves running back and forth from balcony to cabin with plates). A staffer will contact you the day before your dinner is scheduled to go over the menu; the meal includes crab cakes, a spinach salad with goat cheese and walnuts, and your choice of lobster, filet mignon, or lobster and filet mignon. Of course there's dessert: a collection of mousses in chocolate, vanilla and pistachio.
An hour or so before your dinner, a team will come to set up your balcony table with linens, plates and flatware, glassware, bread and butter, and a flower arrangement that you can keep in your cabin for the duration of your cruise. A photographer will also come by to take photos and one 8x10 is complimentary (check at the Photo Gallery the next day). The meal is served with a half bottle of Champagne, one cocktail or glass of wine each of your choice and water (still and/or sparkling). It's very romantic, but leisurely with much time between courses -- so don't expect to do much else that night but fall into bed stuffed.