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.)
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. We loved some of the innovation we saw here for breakfast, including rope sausage and avocado toast, both of which change daily, so you can try new variations ever time. In the afternoons, we particularly liked Jade Sushi, 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.
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 and one from which you can order free nibbles like cookies, Rice Krispy treats and hummus with veggies. 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.
El Loco Fresh (Deck 11): Serving up hot and fresh tacos and burritos, El Loco Fresh is a great casual option for lunch. Tortillas are made and pressed right on the spot, and you can fill your plate with custom-made Mexican treats. You also can try the premade options, like quesadillas. Grab a plate of tortilla chips and load up at the salsa bar.
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 Italian Kitchen (Deck 11); $35: Giovanni's Italian Kitchen, open for dinner nightly, is a hip space filled with long tables and floor-to ceiling windows. It also features an open-air kitchen, so passengers can watch as their food is prepared.
The menu features a mix of Italian dishes, including a fantastic meat and cheese platter, giant meatball (yes, it's giant), Stromboli, osso buco and chicken parmigiana. If you're dining with a group, order a couple of pizzas; the seven-cheese was our ooey-gooey favorite. For dessert, try the chocolate ravioli.
Izumi's (Deck 4); a la carte Izumi's Japanese restaurant is another Royal Caribbean favorite. On Freedom of the Seas, it's tucked down on Deck 4, but everyone who loves hibachi and sushi seems to find it; book early.
Tip: If your dining companions are ordering hibachi, it's OK for you to stick to sushi and sit at the table with them.
Playmakers Sports Bar & Arcade (Deck 4); a la carte: If you are craving bar food, this is your spot. Playmakers offers up wings, burgers and nachos, among other traditional fried favorites. Desserts are worth saving room for, including the seven-scoop sundae served in a football helmet.
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. Breakfast here is free.
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.
For a specialty meal, Chops delivers that special occasion feeling and the food is consistent. Among the casual restaurants, El Loco Fresh is a standout for poolside eats.