As seems to be the trend on many new and upgraded ships, alternative eateries levying a surcharge outnumber the gratis venues onboard. That doesn't mean you have to shell out a ton of money, though. The main dining room menu is tasty, the pizza shop serves up some of the best slices we've ever had, and the onboard cafe offers 24-hour nibbles, coffee and tea -- all free.
Main Dining Room (Decks 3, 4, 5): The three tiers of the main dining room (Leonardo's on Deck 3, themed after Leonardo Da Vinci; Isaac's on 4, based on Isaac Newton; and Galileo's on 5, named for Galileo) offer traditional, assigned-seating dining during two sittings (5:30 p.m. and 8 p.m.) and My Time Dining, in which you pick a preferred mealtime between 5:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. and can change your reservations on a daily basis. (Reservations aren't required, but they help if you want to avoid a wait at peak times.) Regardless of the option you choose, be warned that dinner in the MDR isn't a quick affair. Budget at least two hours for your meal. (Note: Those opting for My Time Dining need to prepay gratuities. Also worth mentioning is that we opted for the 8 p.m. set seating time and found that it interfered with several of the activities we hoped to attend.)
What's interesting about the three-deck dining room setup is that, although all three decks are connected by a grand staircase (which sometimes serves as a place for a live musician to play), each level has its own entrance from its respective deck and is very much its own themed area. Decor in Leonardo's consists of dark wood with red accents, Isaac's has slightly lighter wood with blue accents, and Galileo's has a light wood motif with green accents. The dining room to which you're assigned will be noted on your SeaPass card.
Dinner menu items change daily, and there are three courses. Impressive and delicious options might include watermelon and raspberry soup, crab cakes with corn and peppers, shrimp cocktail and escargot as appetizers; horseradish-crusted Atlantic salmon, pasta with short rib ragu and parmesan cheese, and Thai chicken breast with red curry and edamame as mains; and blueberry peach crumble, low-fat strawberry trifle, and baked Alaska for dessert. A "Chefs Inspiration" section of the menu lists the chef's recommendations from that night's rotating selections.
Also included on the menu are always-available options like pasta with tomato sauce, grilled chicken breast, broiled salmon, beef sliders, Manhattan strip steak, Bailey's creme brulee, chocolate sensation cake and a cheese plate. Additionally, passengers can order steakhouse items -- a whole lobster, filet mignon or surf and turf -- from the "Premium Selections" list for an extra fee.
We found service to be friendly and efficient, and our servers remembered every name in our party of nine after the first night. The dining staff also did a fantastic job of accommodating one member of our table who couldn't eat gluten. Menu items are marked if they're gluten-free, lactose-free or vegetarian, and these options are available daily.
Breakfast and lunch are served in the dining rooms with open seating. The advantage over Windjammer: If you don't like the communal, serve-yourself nature of a buffet, you'll love this. Although you might expect a protracted eating experience, you can be in and out in 45 minutes. You'll still be able to customize, with favorites like Thai chicken lettuce wraps that come with lots of fresh toppings and two sauces; Caesar salad to which you can add chicken or salmon; and delicious and fresh-composed Nicoise salad. At breakfast, the main attraction is eggs Benedict, though we loved the huevos rancheros and customized omelets.
Windjammer Cafe (Deck 11): We liked the fare and atmosphere in the Windjammer Cafe, Freedom's lido buffet, for its flexibility (long hours, casual dress code) and endless variety. Plus, the waiters went out of their way to bring us things from the buffet so we wouldn't have to get up -- stellar service, especially considering the format.
The Windjammer is set up like a food court, with one long self-service line of hot and cold items that travels around the back of the ship in a U shape, plus stations toward the back for salads, pizza, fresh sandwiches, carved meats and petite desserts. In the mornings, an omelet station fixes made-to-order eggs, while other options include cold cuts and cheeses, bacon, hash browns, pancakes, bacon and sausage. In the afternoons, we particularly liked Jade, an area of the Windjammer that specializes in Asian dishes and goes a bit off the beaten path with ever-changing fare that includes Indonesian and Vietnamese specialties. The buffet is open five times a day: for Continental breakfast, full-buffet breakfast, lunch, tea and snacks, and dinner.
Once per sailing, as an extension of the buffet, a poolside grill is set up on Deck 11 to offer burgers, hot dogs and grilled chicken at lunchtime. All other days, grilled items are available inside the buffet.
A casual buffet dinner is served at Windjammer, as well; menu options generally mirror what's being served in the main dining room, with the exception of Jade, which is attached to Windjammer and free of charge. Sushi chefs are hard at work every night, serving vegetarian and other maki rolls.
Sorrento's (Deck 5, Royal Promenade): Located at the aft end of the Promenade is Sorrento's, an all-day pizzeria. In addition to staples like cheese and pepperoni, there's a selection that changes daily (Mexican or Hawaiian, for example), as well as a front counter where you can choose any combination of seafood salad, grilled Italian veggies, marinated mozzarella or feta cheese, hunks of bread, artichokes and olives. It's a fantastic midday snack spot. Gluten-free pizza is available, as well.
Cafe Promenade (Deck 5, Royal Promenade): This venue, midship on the Royal Promenade, is open around the clock with complimentary pastries and sandwiches, coffee and tea. The attached Starbucks coffee bar offers more fancy coffee drinks -- cappuccinos, lattes -- for a fee. Cafe Promenade is a great option if you can't be bothered to go to the buffet or dining room and just want a light bite. Sandwiches include things like prosciutto on olive bread and egg salad on croissants. Note: There are two separate lines -- one for added-fee coffee orders (at the portion of the counter facing the Royal Promenade) and one from which you can order free nibbles like cookies, Rice Krispy treats and hummus with veggies (at the portion of the counter facing the cafe's seating area). Free self-serve coffee and tea are located on the back wall of the cafe.
Sprinkles (Deck 11): This soft-serve ice cream machine on wheels is located on Deck 11 by the pool. On our sailing, it offered cones of vanilla, chocolate or twist. Near the end of the cruise, the vanilla ran out, so strawberry was available instead. Despite the name, sprinkles and other toppings are not offered.
Room Service: Room service is available 24/7. The menu consists of just a few salads and sandwiches, but the Mediterranean chicken salad with grilled marinated chicken and feta cheese, and the seeded rye baguette with oak smoked salmon and brie were both winners, and they were delivered within 30 minutes of ordering. For people who hate mornings, ordering breakfast via a doorknob card is a great option. Royal Caribbean still offers hot items -- eggs, bacon-- on its room service breakfast menu, as well as Continental fare, from cereal to fruit plates. Our hot breakfast was delivered at the early end of the time range we selected, but we were disappointed with the small portions and quality of the food, which consisted of one ice cream-sized scoop of watery powdered eggs and two pieces of undercooked bacon. Our request for tomatoes was also ignored. Caveat: Only Continental breakfast is free of charge; all other orders come with a $7.95 surcharge.
Chops Grille (Deck 11); $35: At this smart-casual steakhouse, expect tuna tartare and crab cakes among the starters, several cuts of steak, plus other grilled meats and fish like lamb loin and halibut. If you are a chocolate-lover, do not -- I repeat: Do not -- miss the Mississippi Mud Pie at Chops Grille. It's a huge slice of velvety goodness with a cluster of caramel nuts in the center. We also loved the warm, dark-wood paneling and cushy velvet seating.
Giovanni's Table (Deck 11); $25 (dinner), $15 (lunch): Giovanni's Table, open for dinner nightly and for lunch on sea days, is the new Italian restaurant that took the place of former Italian restaurant Portofino in 2015. Dark wood and gray brick add to the classy, contemporary vibe, as does an entire wall of wine at the back of the venue. Wood and black wrought iron tables look out over the ocean through floor-to-ceiling windows. On the other side of the room, passengers can also watch through a large open area as their food is prepared in the kitchen.
Passengers choose from a five-course dinner menu that includes appetizers, soups, pastas, entrees and desserts. Our favorites included prosciutto-wrapped mozzarella cheese with ciabatta, mixed greens with a Dijon mustard drizzle; vegetarian lentil and root vegetable soup; potato gnocchi with bleu cheese sauce; an eight-ounce grilled beef tenderloin that was so well prepared we could've cut it with a butter knife; and a chocolate-cream-filled cannoli. (Our waiter didn't even flinch when we asked to try a second appetizer.) Bread is placed on the tables, as well, along with oil for dipping. The lunch menu is a bit smaller, with more soup, salad and pasta options; entrees include fish, chicken and steak options. Reservations are recommended.
Sabor Modern Mexican (Deck 4); $25 (dinner), $15 (lunch): We had lunch at this lively but chic Mexican eatery. To start things off, a waitress whipped up fresh guacamole tableside, and homemade tortilla chips and salsa were replenished freely. A bowl of chicken tortilla soup, rice and beans, three barbacoa tacos and a six-item dessert medley (including churros with chocolate sauce, a banana-chocolate chimichanga, chocolate crepes and coconut flan) left us feeling stuffed. Also delicious was the reasonably priced ($18) flight of three tequila drinks. We're told the only difference between lunch and dinner is that the dinner menu includes beef burritos and ceviche, while the lunch menu does not. Reservations are recommended.
Johnny Rockets (Deck 12); $6.95: The at-sea version of this restaurant serves the same yummy burgers, hot dogs, onion rings and fries as its land-based brethren. If there's a wait, you can take a pager to the nearby arcade to pass the time until your table is ready. Food is available for dine-in or takeout. The cover charge at Johnny Rockets includes as much food as you'd like, but soda, ice cream, floats and alcoholic beverages come with an additional fee.
Ben & Jerry's (Deck 5, Royal Promenade); $4.75 or less: Ben & Jerry's ice cream bar, across from Cafe Promenade and next to Cupcake Cupboard, is available to satisfy your sweet tooth. The waffle cones are made fresh, and if you happen to walk through the promenade while they're being made, you'll catch the sweet cinnamon scent wafting through the air. Get one with a scoop (or two) of your choosing. The selection rotates and tops a dozen flavors. They also make floats and shakes and let you sample flavors before committing.
The Cupcake Cupboard (Deck 5, Royal Promenade); $2.50 or less: During a previous revitalization, The Cupcake Cupboard, a vintage-style cupcake shop with a rotating selection of more than 30 cupcakes, replaced the original barbershop. (Fun note: The barber pole and chair were given to members of the crew to use for running their own haircutting business in the crew quarters during their free time.) The elaborate little cakes come in standard flavors like vanilla-vanilla, chocolate-vanilla and chocolate-chocolate, as well as more exciting (and head-scratching) varieties like key lime, orange creamsicle and banana. Cupcake-decorating classes (for $22 per person) pack in the little ones and make for a great photo op. Just make sure to reserve your space well in advance. We booked on the second day of our cruise and clinched the last spot on the last day of decorating.