The buffet and sit-down dining venues walk the line between keeping regular American Princess customers happy and providing some familiar dishes for Japanese customers. The hotel manager also told us that portion sizes are kept smaller, to fit Japanese tastes, so hearty eaters may want to order extra -- look at it as a chance to sample more items.
Diamond Princess carries three extra-fee venues: Sterling Steakhouse, Kai Sushi and Sabatini's Italian restaurant. We enjoyed all of them, but found some dishes to be real hits and others to be misses.
In general we found the food to be good, but not great. As is often the case on a ship, meat tended to be a better choice than fish, which was often overcooked for our taste. We did appreciate the integration of Asian vegetables (bok choy, daikon) and some creative fruit salsas, which brightened up the plates at the sit-down venues.
Due to long lines on sea days for sit-down breakfast and lunch, we tended to hit the buffet, where the ramen bar was a favorite. Diamond Princess' pizzeria is also dangerously good, as are the double-chocolate cookies you'll find at the buffet. (Now you know exactly how we gained those extra 5 pounds.)
A general complaint, among passengers of all nationalities, was the quality of the regular coffee. Thankfully, it's possible to order a (paid) espresso drink from a waiter at any dining venue.
Diamond Princess caters to special diets, with meals for lactose-intolerant, kosher, gluten-free, vegetarian, low-sodium and diabetic diners. It's important to let the cruise line know ahead of time if you have special dietary needs, and there's an opportunity to do it in your online account.
International Dining Room (Deck 6): This is the largest of Diamond Princess' main dining rooms and the only one to offer breakfast and lunch to regular (non-Club Class) passengers. The decor is in shades of grays and light gold, while wall art depicts international landmarks, such as Parliament.
Open-seating breakfast includes American options, like fresh and stewed fruit, cold or hot cereals, yogurt, eggs and omelets, bacon, ham, sausage, hash browns, and toast or pastries. If you don't see something you want, request it. We were tipped off by a fellow passenger who had eggs Benedict, even though it wasn't on the menu. For the more adventurous, there's also a Japanese breakfast, with miso soup, grilled fish, vegetables, pickles, fresh fruit, and rice or congee. Our breakfast was OK, but it was obvious the kitchen was slammed on a sea day; some diners' plates at our table were garnished, while others weren't, and everyone's poached egg yolks were solid, instead of runny.
The lunch menu typically includes two appetizers, two soups and a salad; beef burgers with bacon or cheese and fries; a veggie burger; two pasta choices; five main dishes (including one vegetarian and one hearty salad); and three desserts (we particularly enjoyed the warm cherry strudel), plus assorted ice creams, fruit or cheese plates. You might find steak and kidney, Indonesian nasi goreng (fried rice dish), Indian dum aloo (potato stew), Italian cacciucco alla Livornese (fish stew) or a Hawaiian sandwich. We liked the variety but we didn't like that there always seemed to be a long line on sea days.
Check your daily bulletin to find out whether this dining room will be operating in two seatings (usually 5:30 and 7:45 p.m.) or an open seating (5:30 to 8:30 p.m.) format for dinner.
The dinner menu lists six "Princess Favorites" -- which all have a Japanese influence, such as miso soup, mirin-marinated octopus, and grilled salmon with miso sauce -- as well as "Audrey Hepburn's Favorite Pasta Dishes," spaghetti al Pomodoro and farfalle al pesto (the joke at our table being that svelte Audrey only ever ate one bite). Daily choices include three appetizers, two soups and a salad, plus four mains, a pasta and a vegetarian dish. On some evenings, one of the daily specials is a recipe from star chef Curtis Stone. Soups tended to be good, but we noticed some timing issues, such as soggy fried spring rolls. Mains, such as barramundi and Asian-spiced duck breast were tasty and creatively presented. All the pastas we sampled were delicious -- perhaps thanks to the Italian executive chef.
Desserts bring six always-available "Princess Favorites," including fruit and cheese plates, cheesecake, creme brulee, an ice cream sundae and a brownie topped with chocolate mousse. Daily choices often feature a selection from Princess' "Chocolate Journeys," which were usually lovely, but not intensely chocolaty enough for this chocoholic. There are also three daily ice creams, a sugar-free dessert and a desert special -- for example, bananas Foster flambee.
Daily afternoon tea is served here from 3 to 4 p.m. It's not as fancy as on some ships; the one choice of tea is poured from pots carried by roving waiters, who also dispense scones (with raisins, not currants), cookies and several types of pastries.
Savoy Dining Room (Deck 5): Serving the same dinner menu as the International Dining Room, the Savoy is paneled in dark mahogany tones, with gold-upholstered banquettes and chairs in mauve and blue tones. Mirrors, modern art and flowers on the table complete the look, which might make you feel like you're in a chic New York or London restaurant.
Vivaldi Dining Room (Deck 5): This restaurant also serves the same menu as the International Dining Room -- but as you might expect, the decor is highlighted by a romantic mural of women playing instruments. The room is lined in medium-toned wood paneling, with mauve banquettes and blue chairs -- all set on three slightly different levels. Little lights twinkle in the ceiling.
Pacific Moon Dining Room (Deck 6): Pacific Moon serves the same menu as the International Dining Room. Its decor has a hint of Asia, particularly in the art and the carpet featuring Chinese-influenced designs.
Santa Fe Dining Room (Deck 6): This dining room, featuring Southwestern decor, has deep yellow, orange and purple walls, with flagstone and iron accents. Walls are decorated with sculptures of Southwest imagery as well, and on one wall, candelabras between the windows look like rustic trees. Part of this dining room serves the same menu as the other main restaurants. The other half, with blue banquettes and fancier place settings, is exclusively for Club Class passengers -- those in premium mini-suites and suites. These diners get no-wait seating, some extra menu items and tableside preparations.
Horizon Court (Deck 14): The ship's bustling buffet has two separate lines; as it transitions from lunch to dinner or from dinner to lunch, one line is shut down at a time to make the shift -- so if you're an early or late diner, only one line may be available. The seating area has two sections. One has light-wood furniture, with a mid-century feel; granite-topped tables, light-wood trim, with white tile accents and gray-and-tan carpeting. The other section, further from the buffet lines, has gold banquettes, bentwood chairs with green upholstery and murals of Italian villages.
The buffet is open nearly all day, starting with early continental breakfast from 5 to 6 a.m., then segueing to full breakfast from 6 to 11:30 a.m., lunch at 11:30 a.m. until 3:30 p.m., light snacks and tea from 3:30 to 5 p.m., and dinner from 5:30 to 11 p.m.
At breakfast, you'll find hot and cold cereals, an assortment of fresh and stewed fruit, yogurt with toppings, pancakes, French toast, bread pudding, eggs (fried, boiled and scrambled), quiche, cold cuts, cheeses, grilled fish, corned beef hash, sausage, bacon, ham and a small salad bar. Many passengers don't notice it, but there's also a sign on the hot line saying you can put in an order for omelets, with a choice of 14 different fillings. On a separate line, you'll find toast, breads, Danish pastries, croissants and pain au chocolat. For Japanese passengers -- and other curious eaters -- there is congee (rice gruel), a large rice-cooker full of steamed rice, miso soup, chawan mushi (savory custard), pickled vegetables, nori seaweed and items like natto (fermented soy beans).
Lunch brings a variety of mixed salads, a make-your-own-sushi-roll bar, a ramen bar with changing daily protein and vegetable ingredients, two pastas, a carved meat of the day, several other main protein choices, potatoes, rice and vegetable options, and a salad bar featuring about a dozen ingredients. There's also usually a stir-fried wok option and a cold Japanese noodle station. Desserts (there's always a sugar-free option) tend to the mousse-y or custardy; we found they often seemed to taste alike. Best to stick to the plentiful fresh fruit or cookies.
At dinner, ramen is also an option, and there are plenty of hearty sauce-based mains, such as beef stew, mapo tofu with pork, chicken in cashew sauce, pork in barbecue sauce, and fish with teriyaki sauce. Veggies, some version of potatoes, rice and a salad bar are always available, as is fresh fruit. Desserts are similar to those at lunch.
Trident Grill (Deck 14): Located near the main outdoor pool and movie screen, this grill serves up cooked-to-order burgers, cheeseburgers and veggie burgers -- plus teriyaki chicken and sea bass burgers. It also offers beef knockwurst with sauerkraut and bratwurst, as well as French fries and a selection of condiments and fixings to go with them. We enjoyed the burgers, as did the Japanese passengers, who made this a popular lunchtime spot. The grill is open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Prego Pizzeria (Deck 14): You'll find some of the best pizza afloat at this pizza spot located near the main outdoor pool. There are usually three different thin-crust pies on offer, typically margherita, pepperoni and a special. We particularly enjoyed the specials, which ranged from "four seasons" to a surprisingly good chicken teriyaki pizza. The pizzeria is open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Swirls Ice Cream Bar (Deck 14): This soft serve ice cream spot offers chocolate, vanilla or mixed-flavor cups and cones from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. During the daytime, they also have green-tea soft serve on tap. And, for a fee, you can get also chocolate, vanilla or strawberry shakes.
Room Service: Room service is free throughout the day. Breakfast is available by advance order (with a door hanger or through the free Princess app) with half-hour delivery timeframes; our breakfast was always delivered promptly at the beginning of our selected time. Available items include continental breakfast, cold cereals, toast and pastries, fresh fruit and a hot egg, bacon and cheese breakfast muffin. All-day dining includes miso soup and soup of the day, a chicken Caesar salad, chef's salad or mixed greens. Sandwich offerings are club, turkey, tuna, veggie, and peanut butter and jelly. For more serious hunger pangs, there's beef chili, lasagna, a hot dog, burger and a vegetarian Moroccan dish in a slow cooker. There's also a tasty but strange croque monsieur, which is like a ham-and-cheese sandwich on French toast -- unlike anything we've ever had in France. Dessert brings a luscious fudge cake, caramel flan or a chocolate chip cookie. You can also have a pizza delivered between 11 a.m. and 10 p.m. for a $3 charge.
Sterling Steakhouse (Deck 14); $29: At dinnertime, a rear section of Horizon Court is cordoned off to serve as a steakhouse, with the added touch of white tablecloths and subdued lighting. The menu offers three appetizers (one, a tasty carpaccio of Kobe beef with yummy dipping sauce carries a $10 surcharge), two soups and a salad. You can choose from six different cuts of Sterling Silver corn-fed beef, or opt for a surf-and-turf with lobster tail ($10 surcharge). Seafood fans can order Chilean sea bass or a lobster tail prepared with soy sauce and rice wine ($10 surcharge). We enjoyed both cuts of steak we tried; they were meaty, juicy and cooked exactly as ordered. The assortment of side potatoes and vegetables was tasty, too. For dessert, the lemon meringue pudding tart was indeed tart and satisfying, but the two chocolate offerings (seven-layer s'mores and a milk chocolate and peanut butter bar) looked better than they tasted.
Sabatini's (Deck 7); $29: Diamond Princess still carries the line's older Italian restaurant concept, with columns, murals of quaint Italy and lattice dividers between table sections and banquettes. The next time the ship is in dry dock, both the menu and decor will be updated. For now, the chef sends out a plate of focaccia bread, prosciutto and olives to set the mood. You can choose from six starters, including one of the best fried calamari dishes we've ever had -- on land or sea. A ball of creamy burrata cheese with tomato slices was served very cold, a disappointment, because the cheese is at its best at room temperature. Our meal was definitely a roller-coaster. We chose braised short-rib penne from the list of three pastas; it was short on meat and lacking in the flavor you'd expect from rich, slow-cooked short ribs. From the six mains, we tried the lobster three ways (tail, lobster orzotto and lobster bisque sauce -- two ways, plus sauce, really), which also lacked flavor. A tablemate's bistecca Toscana, a strip steak with rosemary and garlic, was a much better choice. The lemon pie at dessert provided the satisfying citrus snap of a sip of limoncello.
Kai Sushi (Deck 7); a la carte pricing: This chic, modern sushi bar and restaurant sets the tone by greeting you with columns covered in a black-and-white depiction of stylized waves, as they might be shown in a Japanese painting. Inside, the theme continues, with white reliefs of waves above the beige banquettes. A pathway of black and white marble leads you to the sushi bar, where one or two chefs preside. You can choose from three set menus, ranging from $15 to $19, which include miso soup, salad, udon noodle soup and either sushi, sashimi or kaisendon (sashimi atop a bowl of rice). Sashimi orders (five pieces each) range from $12 to $13.75, and sushi orders (two pieces each) are $3 to $5.50. Our sushi was tasty and well-prepared, and we enjoyed talking with the two chefs, who both spoke some English. When we visited, some items on the menu weren't available, but there were also items not listed on the menu -- just ask. On a second visit, we were with a group of eight who made a spur-of-the-moment decision to dine at Kai, and only one chef happened to be on duty. The poor guy was slammed with our huge order and it took a long time for everyone to be served. Kai Sushi is open for dinner daily and for lunch on sea days, and also serves ahi tuna poke (our tablemate raved about it) and "chili and lime jumbo lump crab margarita," as well as a large seafood udon noodle dish.
Crab Shack (Inside Sabatini's, Deck 7); $29: Usually once per cruise, on a sea day, the pop-up Crab Shack appears at lunchtime in Sabatini's. You can don a giant bib and dine on Manhattan clam chowder, hushpuppies and popcorn shrimp, and a choice of four mains: crawfish with andouille sausage; king crab legs with peel-and-eat shrimp; a mixed steamer of snow crab, king crab, shrimp, clams, mussels and reindeer sausage; and a clam, mussel and shrimp pot. All but the last dish come with corn on the cob and potatoes. The meal is good fun, and a nice break from regular lunches -- just prepare to get a bit messy.
Pizza (Delivery); $3 per pie: You can have a 12-inch pizza delivered between 11 a.m. and 10 p.m., for a $3 charge. Choices are cheese, pepperoni and pizza-of-the-day.
Ultimate Balcony Dining; $45 or $100 per couple: For an extra fee, you can have a special balcony breakfast ($45 per couple) or dinner ($100 per couple), both of which come with a split of Champagne.