By Chris Gray Faust
Cruise Critic Senior Editor
4.0 / 5.0
Cruise Critic Editor Rating: Dining

Carnival is known for a "good grub" approach to dining, and Magic lives up to the reputation. Food is tasty, not fancy -- and there's plenty of free choices, particularly at lunch; you won't have to shell out extra money to appease picky eaters. Burgers, burritos and barbecue all take center stage with their own named restaurants -- and that's not even including the expansive buffet with its Indian and Mongolian offshoots (we'd like to see more of these options open for dinner, however -- the buffet options diminish dramatically in the evening).

If you are more of a foodie, don't fret. Carnival's steakhouse is one of the better values at sea; go on the first night and you'll nab bargain bottles of wine that can sustain an oenophile through an entire cruise. Carnival Magic also has a chef's table, usually offered once or twice per cruise, where you eat in the kitchen galley.

We were a little surprised that in this era of food allergies, the menu in the main dining room didn't note options that were gluten-free or vegan. But the company's website encourages anyone with dietary needs, be they vegetarian, low-cholesterol, low-fat, low-carbohydrates, low-sugar and gluten-free, to let the ship know their needs. Speak to the headwaiter or dining room host so they can help you plan your meals. The ship carries gluten-free pizza dough, pasta, bread for deli sandwiches and hamburgers buns, as well as cake, available upon request. A gluten-free beer, Estrella Daura Damm, is available. Prepackaged kosher meals are available but you must let the cruise line know two weeks in advance.

Free Dining

Northern Lights and Southern Lights (Decks 3, 4 and 5): The main restaurants on Carnival Magic are the primary spots for most dinners, and you can grab some other meals there too. Expect a crush at both, with people lined up for their dining times. Southern Lights has 1,248 seats and is located aft, while Northern Lights has 948 seats and is located midship off the atrium forward. Dinner is served at 6 and 8:15 p.m. at both, with the flexible Your Time Dining program available in Northern Lights from 5:45 to 9:30 p.m. (if you come at prime dining hours, expect a 20- to 30-minute wait). Both rooms are lovely enough (kudos to those humongous chandeliers), but we'd give Southern Lights the edge due to its walls of windows; it's particularly fetching during the daily tea time (held around 3 p.m.). The second floor of Northern Lights, in fact, is adjacent to a busy walkway, so you're going to be sharing your meal with plenty of gawkers if you draw the short straw and have to sit near the glass.

Meals were about average, with no real standouts or misses. The American Table menu gives a modern twist to classics -- the Caesar salad has a kale version, for example -- and on port days, you'll find a locally inspired drink, app and entree choice. A typical menu might include starters like prosciutto ruffles, shrimp cocktail, beet carpaccio, cannelloni, cream of broccoli soup and minestrone. Entree choices might be salmon cake; Southern fried chicken; linguini with Italian sausage, bell peppers and mushrooms; barbecue pork spareribs, grilled tofu steak and a featured vegetarian dish like lentils with basmati rice and papadum. A more adventurous food item, like braised ox tail or escargot, is also offered. Side dishes on order include mac and cheese, creamed spinach, baked potato, ratatouille, broccoli with carrots and onions or french fries.

Always available grill options include swordfish steak; grilled beef tenderloin, roast chicken breast and pork chop with caramelized onions and potato mash.

On elegant nights (when the menu switches to American Feast and white cloths are put on the tables for a more upscale touch) Maine broiled lobster makes an appearance, although you can always pay a $20 surcharge on other nights for steakhouse items (other extra fee options include filet mignon and New York strip loin). Dessert options include Carnival favorites like chocolate melting cake and bitter and blanc bread pudding, as well as a cheese plate and ice creams.

In addition to dinner, breakfast and lunch are also served in Southern Lights, and seating is open. Early eaters have a wide range of options, from cereals and baked goods to such hot entrees as omelets and pancakes. Choose from breakfast sides like sausage, bacon and hash browns as well.

For lunch, the sunny dining room dishes out favorites like club sandwiches, Caesar salads, pasta dishes and burgers. The popular Sea Day brunch takes place on -- you guessed it -- sea days. Expect breakfast favorites like huevos rancheros and eggs Benedict, alongside pasta, salmon and a Bloody Mary bar.

Lido Marketplace (Deck 10): With its slippery floors and ever-present lines, Carnival Magic's sprawling buffet is a challenge for the crowd-averse. Still, it's the place to go if you're looking for choice. From 5:30 a.m.to noon, you can grab breakfast in the space (eggs, bacon, yogurt, waffles -- all the usual suspects). It turns over to lunch from noon to 2:30 p.m., with a variety of hot and cold options such as sandwiches, carving stations, salad bars and desserts, most of which change daily. The fare is similar during dinner, although you'll find more hot entrees and options such as burgers, between 6 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Finally, late-night snacks begin at 11:30 p.m. and run until 1 a.m.

The Lido has some small standalone kiosks that deserve mention in their own right. Fans of Asian cuisine keep the Mongolian Wok busy during lunch; expect to wait 45 minutes or more (we really wish Carnival Magic would keep this open through dinner). Fans of spicy Indian food will want to make a stop at Tandoor, outside the door near the aft Tides Pool; we particularly enjoyed the clay-pot chicken and pea masala. Tandoor has outdoor seating, as well as its own coffee/water station; it's also open for dinner. And finally, cool down with a stop at the Swirls station for frozen yogurt and soft serve, available 24/7.

Ocean Plaza/Taste Bar (Deck 5): Set up conveniently near the site of morning and afternoon trivia games, this counter performs a variety of functions. In the morning, it's the place for a light breakfast, with eggs, grits, cereal and oatmeal available, as well as juice and coffee. At lunch, premade salads and other light bites are available. And in the evening, at the Taste Bar, small items from Carnival's specialty restaurants, like Cucina del Capitano or the Red Frog Pub, are available as tapas.

Salad Bar (Deck 5): A made-to-order salad bar is set up every sea day in the space between the Ocean Cafe and the patio seating for the Red Frog Pub. Perhaps the best option for those who crave greens during the sailing. Wraps are also available.

Guy's Pig & Anchor Smokehouse (Deck 5): Guy Fieri's second onboard outpost, the Pig & Anchor Bar-B-Que Smokehouse, is located outside on the Promenade Deck; if you don't already know where it is, you might have some trouble finding it. It's worth seeking out, not only for the pork butt and andouille sausage, but yummy sides like coleslaw, potato salad, baked beans and Mac Daddy Mac and Cheese.

BlueIguana Cantina (Deck 10): The lunchtime tacos, taco salads and burritos might be the main draw, but we love this kiosk outside the main buffet for morning huevos rancheros, breakfast burritos and arepas. Don't forget to load up on toppings at BlueIguana Cantina's salsa bar (alas, guacamole free).

Guy's Burger Joint (Deck 10): The lines for this shipboard essential begin at 11:40 for a noon opening and if you get there even 10 minutes later, you'll be standing on the other side of the Lido Deck (we found the best time to avoid the crush here is embarkation day or port days, or postponing until mid-afternoon). Still, it's worth braving the crowd at least once -- the burgers and fries at Guy's Burger Joint are truly delicious.

Pizzeria del Capitano (Deck 10): Located in the aft near the Tides Bar, this pizzeria serves up hearty, if somewhat uninspiring, slices at all hours. Open 24/7.

Pasta Bar (Deck 11): One of the secrets of Carnival Magic is this free pasta bar, held during lunch in the Cucina del Capitano space.

SeaDogs Hot Dog Cart (Deck 12): No need to interrupt your mini-golf game to eat. This small cart has free hot dogs, with or without relish, right in the middle of SportSquare.

Room Service: Carnival Magic offers complimentary continental breakfast delivered to the room in the morning, including pastries, bagels and cream cheese, yogurt, cereal and fruit juices.

Fee Dining

Prime Steakhouse (Deck 5, aft); $35: Carnival's steakhouse is a relative bargain and offers a nice atmosphere besides. The steaks, served with a choice of sauces, are the main attraction, although you can get broiled Maine lobster, lobster ravioli, pork chops and more. Pro tip: Go on the first night, when you either receive a complimentary bottle of house wine or any wine on the surprisingly varied list for half price. (You can buy as many bottles as you want at this discount on the first night, which is a nice alternative to Carnival's more lackluster Cruise the Vineyards wine package.)

RedFrog Pub (Deck 5, midship); a la carte: Small bar bites -- think Jamaican jerk wings, grouper fingers, conch fritters -- are available for noshing at the popular tropical RedFrog Pub at reasonable prices ($3.33 per serving).

Cucina del Capitano (Deck 11, aft); $15: Tucked away on Deck 11 and accessible by stairs from the Lido buffet, Carnival's Italian specialty restaurant is hard to find. But you should! We found our dinner here to be one of the ship's great values. The $15 cover charge at Cucina del Capitano includes as many appetizers as you want -- we loved the fennel in the meatballs, as well as the eggplant Parmesan -- a choice of entrees and dessert. Pasta lovers will die for the spaghetti carbonara. Come hungry.

Chef's Table (Southern Lights galley), $95. Held several times per sailing and open by reservation only, this experience is a combo seven-course tasting menu/tour of the galley/cooking class. The presentation is really the star here; salmon crackers appear on mini-trees, soups and garnishes are poured from glass teapots, veal is smoked in front of you and elderflower caviar garnishes white chocolate desserts (taste-wise, we felt some of the dishes could use some seasoning). While red and white wine is included in your meal, don't expect it to be high-end or plentiful; unlike other tasting menus, the pours aren't different for each course. We did enjoy the behind-the-scenes look at the galley, as well as insider info about the famous chocolate melting cake. Note: While the chef can customize the meal for allergies or aversions, the menu is designed for adventurous eaters; if lamb or quail or pork belly make you squirm, this probably isn't the experience for you.

Find a Carnival Magic Cruise