The food on American Empress is simple but tasty, with lots of choice for all kinds of palates; we often had a hard time deciding what to order because everything sounded good. The focus is primarily on American food, specifically from the Pacific Northwest, but if seafood and salmon aren't your thing, there are plenty of other options. All restaurants onboard are complimentary, but the ship does limit diners to two meals in the River Grill on a weeklong cruise so everyone has a chance to try it.
Astoria Dining Room (Deck 1): The Astoria Dining Room serves as the main dining room on American Empress, and all meals are of the sit-down variety. The room features numerous crystal chandeliers and a pale blue and ivory color scheme. The ceiling also boasts a blue LED light that feels a bit out of place, considering the ship's more traditional decor. The dining room is open for breakfast (7 to 8:30 a.m.), lunch (11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.) and dinner (two seatings at 5:45 and 7:45 p.m.), but mealtimes can vary slightly depending on tours in port. Breakfast and lunch are open seating, meaning passengers can choose to eat whenever is convenient and with whomever they wish; dinner has set times, with the early seating being the most popular.
Breakfast offers typical American standards, such as bacon and eggs, but it also incorporates a few twists, including a brilliantly simple yet delicious salmon and egg hash or avocado toast. Fresh fruit and lighter fare like oatmeal are always available. Lunch comprises a soup or salad option and entree. Most of the soups are cream-based; we especially enjoyed the cream of mushroom soup. Somewhat lighter options include a Caesar salad and crab cakes, which are also excellent, and the portions are perfect: not large but certainly hearty enough to satisfy. (You can also order half portions if you'd like.)
At dinner, the menu offers a starter, soup or salad, and an entree. Diners can choose their main courses each night from a selection that always includes seafood, red meat, white meat and vegetarian dishes. Of note are the boiler shrimp, the craft beer fried chicken and the salmon. Dessert generally highlights food from Washington and Oregon, so berries and apples are common. Our favorite dessert option is the apple pie, served hot with a flaky crust and perfectly spiced apples. A reflection of the local berry industry, the dark cherry ice cream was exceptional: fruity, fresh, tangy and delicious.
Vegetarians onboard were happy to have options beyond the standard pasta. While other dietary restrictions can be accommodated, it's important to make note of those restrictions when booking and to discuss them with the maitre d' once you're onboard.
Cappuccino, espresso, bottled water and soft drinks are included all day, every day, and complimentary beer and wine are included with dinner. The regional craft beer selection is more thought out than the wines -- surprising since the cruise sails through Washington and Oregon wine regions. The wines were regional, but they didn't represent the best of the area. Passengers can also purchase a wine package or bring their own wines onboard to drink in their cabins.
River Grill (Deck 4): In addition to the main dining room, passengers can swing by the River Grill any time for breakfast and lunch. Located on Deck 4 aft, the space is clean and a little more modern in design than the rest of the boat. It features a large white marble bar, dark walnut columns and seating for 55 people. It's surrounded on three sides by floor-to-ceiling glass windows and doors, which can be opened when weather is nice to create an alfresco dining experience. (Don't worry: Heat lamps keep passengers plenty warm, even when the weather is brisk.) The area is also home to a self-serve soda machine and an espresso/cappuccino bar, as well as soft serve ice cream.
Breakfast there includes an omelet station, where a chef prepares made-to-order eggs. It also has a small buffet that features a full range of breakfast items, such as bacon, toast, oatmeal and scrambled eggs. Lunch buffet options include some type of seafood, chicken, brisket and salad. A chef will create made-to-order sandwiches, as well. Between meals, passengers can stop by to grab popcorn, cookies and other snacks.
At night, reservations are required to dine in the River Grill & Bar, which serves as a more informal dinner option than the Astoria Dining Room, and passengers generally are limited to two dinner visits per seven-night cruise. The menu always includes starters, a salad option and entrees. Each night, entrees include lobster tail, filet mignon, lamb chops, a vegetarian selection and a local fresh catch selection. Everything we tried at the River Grill was superb; in particular, we enjoyed salmon with crawfish sauce and a lobster surf and turf. (For the former, passengers could choose between grilled and steamed, and for the latter, they could opt for filet mignon or lamb chops.) It's such a popular venue that we highly recommend you make your reservations on the first or second day of your cruise.
Service at both restaurants onboard American Empress was friendly and knowledgeable. Servers know the local ties when it comes to food and beverages, and they're eager to make honest suggestions. Meals tend to meander, though; plan to spend at least two hours at dinner in the Astoria Dining Room.
Room Service: Room service is available at any hour, and the menu is substantial. It includes the standard breakfast fare, as well as sandwiches and burgers, fresh salmon, macaroni and cheese, and desserts to satisfy at other times of the day. Room service is complimentary.