Food is plentiful on Carnival Dream, though dinner venues are not. You've only got three options: the main dining rooms (there are two, but you're assigned to just one), the buffet with its limited evening selection and the for-fee steakhouse. You'll find the largest selection of food on sea days at lunch, when all of the buffet venues are open and a few sea day-only options open up, including a little-used but fantastic make-your-own-salad bar on Deck 5.
Food in the main dining rooms is good, while the buffet can be hit or miss. A few stand-alone spots in the buffet are especially tasty, particularly the Mongolian Wok, pasta and Indian counters.
The only time the lack of dining venues can be a problem is if you're looking for a late lunch, as all that's open is the pizza place, deli and grill. Lines for all three after 2:30 p.m., when most lunch venues close on a sea day (3:30 p.m. on a port day), are long.
A quick breakdown of meal spots is as follows:
Breakfast and lunch are served in the buffet every day. On sea days, a brunch is served in one of the main dining rooms (typically from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.), while on port days a breakfast is available in one of the main dining rooms but lunch is not. Lunch on sea days is also available on Deck 5 at the outdoor barbecue and indoor DIY salad bar.
Dinner is available in both main dining rooms, limited spots in the buffet and at the extra-fee steakhouse.
Room service is available 24 hours a day.
Dietary restrictions can be accommodated in the main dining rooms, and gluten-free pies are available at the pizza place. You'll find much less flexibility in the buffet where nothing (other than sugar-free desserts) is marked as gluten-free, low-cholesterol or low-sodium. (Cruise Critic tip: Unless you really need bread with your meal, skip the gluten-free bread. It's the most bitter we've ever had at sea or on land.)
Scarlett and Crimson Restaurants (Decks 3 and 4, aft and forward): The two-deck Scarlett and Crimson restaurants, named for their overly red decor, are Carnival Dream's two main restaurants. Both offer set time, assigned-table seating at 6 p.m. or 8:15 p.m., but Crimson also offers the flexible Your Time dining program (with no assigned tables or dining times) only on Deck 3. (Cruise Critic Your Time Dining tip: If you don't get to the dining room within a half-hour of opening or more than an hour after opening, expect a half-hour or longer wait.)
Dining is divided into two types of nights, American Table and American Feast. Most nights are American Table; tables have no tablecloths but feature cute bread dishes with depictions of iconic U.S. city landmarks or images -- the Abraham Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C., the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, a cowboy in Texas, etc. At least once per cruise, passengers are treated to American Feast nights (which coincide with Cruise Elegant nights), when the white tablecloths and beach-inspired silvery centerpieces come out. On these nights, waiters will pour your water for you; on other nights, you have your own carafe so you can refill your water glass as needed.
Menus on American Table nights feature several appetizers, salads, entrees, side dishes, available every day grill items and steakhouse selections (lobster, New York strip steak and grilled lamb chops), which cost extra.
Other than the everyday grill items (fish, beef, chicken and pork) and the rotating, but repeating, side dish choices, menu items change every day. Appetizer choices might include prosciutto ruffles, chilled peach soup, shrimp cocktail, seared tuna, vegetable spring rolls and fried calamari.
Main course options might include BBQ pork spareribs, braised short ribs, chicken Milanese, seared tilapia, veal parmesan and baked ziti with ham.
At least two vegetarian dishes are available most nights, one of which is always an Indian dish like lentils with basmati rice, papadum and raita. Other vegetarian dishes might include grilled tofu steak, quinoa-baked tomato, crisp portobello mushrooms and vegetable lasagna.
Also on the menu every night is a "rare find" selection that gives diners a chance to try something they might never have tasted before. On our sailing, choices included braised rabbit, escargot and ox tongue, among other exotic dishes.
Another menu section is the "Port of Call," which includes a featured cocktail (for a fee) and an appetizer and main course that represent the day's port of call. As an example, in Belize, the appetizer was a fried fish dish called fry jacks, while the entree was chili rellenos (a chicken dish). In Honduras, the appetizer was a chicken pastry called pastelitos and the entree was a fish dish covered in a housemade mixture of plantains and seasoned breadcrumbs and served with black beans and corn.
Desserts also change every night, except for Carnival's signature (and delicious) chocolate melting cake, which is available every night. Choices might include s'mores parfait, coconut lime cake and passion fruit flan.
American Feast night menus are much smaller than American Table menus, with seven appetizers, 10 entrees (including the four everyday grill items) and the three extra-fee steakhouse selections. Options might include shrimp cocktail, New England clam chowder, teriyaki salmon fillet, grilled jumbo shrimp, dual of filet mignon and short rib, and an Indian vegetarian dish.
On sea days, you'll find the sea day brunch in Scarlett, which offers both breakfast and lunch items on the menu from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. If you want breakfast, you'll find French toast, pancakes (gluten-free available), eggs Benedict, omelets, steak and eggs, huevos rancheros, bagel with cream cheese and smoked salmon, and cottage cheese with fresh fruit. If it's lunch you're hankering for, your choices include tomato soup, Caesar salad, pork chop, mac n' cheese, pasta and grilled salmon.
Another sea day-only event held in Scarlett is Tea Time. Open from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m., Carnival Dream's tea time is a throwback to the days of genteel Atlantic crossings. Waiters seat diners and offer up a selection of teas, finger sandwiches and small dessert items (think a variety of desert biscuits and tortes).
Taste Bar (Deck 5, midship): This small food counter at the back of Ocean Plaza is a great place to stop for a pre-dinner bite. Here you'll find free samples of menu items that represent alternative eateries available throughout the Carnival fleet. One night you might find short rib croquettes and pumpkin bisque from the Chef's Art Steakhouse; another night you can indulge in Nonna's meatballs and ricotta bruschetta from Cucina del Capitano. Taste Bar is open on select nights from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.
Oceanside BBQ (Deck 5, outside mid): Weather permitting, this lunchtime oceanside barbecue, open only on sea days, offers up a host of BBQ specialties, including pulled pork sandwiches, barbecued chicken, grilled sausages and grilled kielbasa. Also on the menu: cornbread muffins, creamed corn, baked beans and grilled veggies. It's located on the outer starboard side of the Lanai Deck, where you'll find outdoor seating, or you can bring the food inside and eat in Ocean Plaza.
DIY Salad Bar (Deck 5, mid): On the inner Lanai Deck (starboard side) is a sea day-only, choose-your-own salad bar with nearly 30 ingredients and seven dressings; pick your ingredients and a chef will put your salad together. Also available here are a turkey wrap and chips and salsa. You'll need to take your meal to go as there's limited seating immediately surrounding the salad bar.
The Gathering Buffet (Deck 10, midship): Carnival Dream's Lido Deck buffet is appropriately called The Gathering, as that's where everyone gathers for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Despite the large number of stations, the quality and variety of food in the main buffet section isn't always the best, and the lines at spots with the best food like the Burrito Bar, Mongolian Wok, Pizza Pirate and grill reflect that.
The Gathering is most popular for breakfast and lunch, when, on a sea day, you'll often be hard-pressed to find a seat, despite the buffet's size.
Breakfast starts early with a continental breakfast of yogurts, pastries, cereals and fruits at 6:30 a.m. Hot dishes including eggs, omelets, pancakes, sausage and bacon, are served starting an hour later, with the bulk of the breakfast service ending at 10:30 a.m. Late risers will find a smaller selection of food between 10:30 a.m. and noon.
Self-service breakfast beverage stations with orange and apple juices, as well as an orange punch, water, tea (iced and hot) and coffee are scattered throughout The Gathering.
The Gathering is at its most crowded during lunch, when the buffet is divided into several distinct sections. (Note that on port days, only half the buffet is open.)
At the start of most stations, you'll find an array of salad fixings, as well as cheese and cold cuts. (There's no stand-alone salad bar here.) The Taste of the Nations, which takes up three stations (two in the front of the buffet and one at the back, all the same), offers ethnic cuisines on a rotating basis. The daily menu will be one of the following: Italian, French, American and Caribbean, all with a variety of meat, fish and pasta choices. Dishes tend to be heavy, and there isn't much choice for anyone with food restrictions.
The carving station is also located in the back of the buffet; one meat choice is offered per day and might include veal, roast turkey, ham and other meat cuts. The dessert station, also located at the back of the buffet, is full of yummy sweet treats (though we found the choice of chocolate offerings to be somewhat lacking). One or two sugar-free choices are available. Additionally, soft-serve ice-cream (vanilla, chocolate and strawberry) is available 24/7 at the front of the buffet.
Dinner in the buffet, referred to as Good Eats, is much less crowded and the limited food offerings reflect this. Only two stations are open, and both serve the same dishes. Sample items include New England clam chowder, stuffed mushrooms, pasta, barbecue chicken, roast vegetables and a carvery option.
Free drinks from the self-service beverage stations during lunch and dinner include lemonade, iced tea, water and coffee.
Additionally, you'll find several other themed spots that Carnival treats as both part of and separate from the buffet. They are:
Pizza Pirate (Deck 10 midship): Carnival Dream's 24-hour pizza spot is located right next to the main pool. You can find already-made slices of cheese, mushroom, pepperoni, four cheese and prosciutto pizza. You can also order a Caesar salad and request a gluten-free pie. The lunchtime line at Pizza Pirate is usually a five- to 10-minute wait.
Grill (Deck 10 mid): Across from Pizza Pirate, you'll find the grill where you can grab a hamburger, cheeseburger or hot dog, or upon special order, grilled chicken or a garden burger. A fixings bar includes french fries, sauerkraut, potato salad, relishes, coleslaw, sauteed onions, chili and cheese sauce. Waits at the grill can be up to 10 minutes. While the grill has extended lunch hours (noon to 6 p.m.), it does close just as dinner gets started.
Burrito Station (Deck 10 aft): Located at the back of the buffet, directly across from the Dessert Station, the lunch-only Burrito bar is always busy. Two lines speed the process up a little, but you can still expect a five- to 10-minute wait. Fillers for your burrito include shrimp, chicken, beef, roasted corn, cilantro-lime rice, black beans, green peppers, iceberg lettuce, Monterey Jack cheese, guacamole, pico de gallo and sour cream. Sauces (in order of mildest to hottest) are fresh tomato salsa, green tomatillo and tomatillo red chili.
Pasta Bella (Deck 11 aft): Located one deck up from the main level of The Gathering buffet, Pasta Bella is open for lunch only with a pasta bar. On a piece of paper, you'll mark down the type of pasta you want (five choices, including gluten-free), as well as what sauce and what toppings (meats and veggies). Side orders include a Caesar salad and bread. You can either eat upstairs or ask for your pasta in a to-go plastic bowl to take downstairs.
Mongolian Wok (Deck 10 mid): Probably the most popular element of The Gathering buffet, lines are always long at the indoor Mongolian Wok, which is only open for lunch. (Cruise Critic tip: You'll find much shorter lines on a port day.) Choose from two types of noodles, a salad bar's worth of fixings (bamboo, bok choy, spinach, onions, sprouts, broccoli, cabbage, plus more), three sauces (black bean, Thai barbecue and Szechuan) and one of three proteins (chicken, shrimp or beef). Can you say yum?
Indian Tandoor (Deck 10, aft): Dream is one of only four ships in the Carnival fleet to have this Indian-inspired dining spot located at the back of the ship near the Sunset Pool. It's rarely busy, but you'll find several authentic dishes, including beef bihari tikka, tandoori fish, paneer makhani, shami kebabs, kadai chicken, dal and naan. (Not only are the chefs Indian, but there's an actual tandoor oven onboard.) Open for lunch only.
New York-Style Deli (Deck 10, aft): An outdoor venue located at the back of Carnival Dream, right next to the Sunset Pool, the Deli is the place to go for deli-inspired sandwiches and wraps. Cold selections include turkey wrap, tuna, smoked salmon on a bagel and arugula, pepper and mozzarella on ciabatta bread. The six hot choices are pastrami or corned beef on rye, grilled Reuben, roast turkey breast on a country roll, grilled ham and cheese sandwich (you can order it without ham if you want) and corned beef and pastrami. You can order any of these sandwiches with gluten-free bread, but they won't be able to toast it. Open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Room Service: Available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the room service menu on Carnival Dream is divided into free options and for-an-extra-fee choices. For free, you can order sandwiches such as tuna, roast turkey, ham and cheese, BLT, grilled cheese and grilled Reuben; light dishes like garden salad, Caesar salad and a vegetable platter with dip; and desserts. For an extra fee of $2 to $6, you can also order hot dishes, including buffalo wings (with five choices of sauces), spicy fried firecracker shrimp, chicken quesadillas, Philly cheesesteaks, pan pizzas and fries (regular or sweet potato). For dessert, a banana split will set you back $4 through room service.
Chef's Table (Crimson Annex, Deck 3, forward); $75: For gourmands, the Chef's Table, offered two to three times per weeklong sailing (usually on port evenings, varies by demand), is a must-try. Limited to a dozen passengers at each dinner, participants are first invited to tour the ship's galley with the head chef while sipping wine (included in the cost of the dinner). After the tour, a multicourse meal is unveiled one dish at a time.
Plaza Cafe (Deck 5, mid); a la carte: If you've got a hankering for a specialty coffee or an ice-cream shake, then Plaza Cafe is the spot for you. Here you'll find an array of coffees (including iced and spiked varieties), teas and chai lattes, plus milkshakes, cookies and slices of delicious-looking cakes. Plaza Cafe is located in one corner of the Ocean Plaza, so you can run over in between trivia sessions to grab a hit of caffeine. Prices range from $1.95 to $5.95.
Chef's Art Steakhouse (Deck 12 aft); $35: Carnival's Dream's date night and celebrations restaurant, the Chef's Art Steakhouse is an intimate spot tucked away at the top of the ship -- blink and you'll miss the entrance. Service is superb, and the food is excellent. Menu items include eight appetizers and four salad choices (choose as many as you like), 10 entrees and five side dishes (order as many as you like). Appetizer choices include escargot, beef carpaccio, ahi tuna tartare, jumbo shrimp cocktail and lobster bisque. Entrees include New York strip, cowboy and ribeye steaks, filet mignon, surf and turf, lamb chops, lobster ravioli and broiled rosemary-infused chicken. Vegetarian choices include the baked onion soup (appetizer) and all four salads. For pescatarians, there's a fish of the day special -- we had a Chilean sea bass that was to die for. Sides include baked or mashed potatoes, sauteed mushrooms, creamed spinach and steamed broccoli. Chocoholics should try the chocolate sampler for dessert, which comes with four mini desserts. When making a reservation, ask about the promotion that includes a free bottle of house wine with your dinner.
Green Eggs and Ham Breakfast (a main dining room); $5: Offered on one sea day per cruise, this somewhat silly, family-centric breakfast is for lovers of everything Dr. Seuss, with Cat in the Hat-inspired decorations including red and white tablecloths and napkins. The menu is the best part of the entire experience with items like green eggs and ham (they really are green!), waffles filled in with red and blue squares and topped with Fruit Loops, striped yogurt parfaits and red pancakes stacked high. Kids can pose for photos with the Cat in the Hat, as well as Things 1 and 2.