Brittany Chrusciel
Cruise Critic Editor
5.0 / 5.0
Cruise Critic Editor Rating: Dining

The dining on Insignia isn't just good -- many times, it's impressive. The standards of quality are high, and above all, consistent; pair that with variety and invention, and it's a formula that ensures you'll always be looking forward to your next meal onboard.

Another factor of Insignia's impressive dining is its inclusion. All food onboard is included, and so there's nothing to shell out for, even if it feels as though ordering a whole lobster or prime rib for two and not paying an extra cent is getting away with a crime. Portions across the onboard dining venues are not overbearing, so it's physically possible to have more than one course and still stand at the end of the meal -- most of the time.

Alcohol is not included but a team of sommeliers are on hand in every venue to recommend a wine pairing or to bring you a Diet Coke.

The two specialty restaurants onboard are Polo Grill and Toscana, a steakhouse and an Italian venue, and they're both hits. Reservation cards line the cabin hallways each night, and even though only one specialty reservation at each restaurant is guaranteed for most passengers, we found many repeat customers were accommodated. Anyone booked in a suite has the privilege of dining anywhere on the ship at any time. If you are sensitive to ship motion, request a table toward the front of the restaurant rather than one near the scenic windows in the back.

Despite the popularity of Polo and Toscana, our personal favorite place to eat onboard was -- surprisingly -- the main dining room. The Grand Dining Room provides the same relaxed but elegant ambiance, night after night, while delighting with new gourmet menu options at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Because we grew to expect consistently stellar dishes, choosing our dinner selections each night was more an exercise of "what can we absolutely not miss" over "what might be good."

Daily menus are posted on the wall outside every dining venue. Those with dietary restrictions are encouraged to clarify them at the very start at the cruise. While some general accommodations are made -- a vegetarian option on the menu or unsalted butter on the table -- it seems as if gluten-free or low-sugar meals are customized to the passenger rather than widely available. An extensive vegan menu is available, upon request.

While we feel that Insignia's cuisine is objectively delicious, dining style is a personal preference. The Terrace Cafe, which serves as the ship's buffet, offers many of the same dishes as the main dining room, but in a more casual atmosphere. This means shorts are accepted and meals that last less than an hour are possible, but that the quality of the food is not compromised. Open-air seating is also offered at Terrace, for cruisers not ready to head in for the day.

The one place where meals didn't blow us away was the grill, but we still feel it is a solid option for poolside dining or a quick bite. Head here for embarkation day lunch -- it's not listed on your welcome papers, but by 1 p.m. on the day we boarded, the grill was fired up and we were already enjoying the sun with a fresh fish sandwich in hand.

The Grand Dining Room (Deck 5): The dining room on Insignia might appear like your average main dining room at first glance, but after closer inspection you'll begin to appreciate fine touches like the crystal stemware, silver dishes, intricately designed Versace plates and warm lighting. While the ambiance of white linens and a gorgeous chandelier will invite you in -- the meals, and attentive service, will be the reasons you return.

Breakfast is served every day in the Grand Dining Room from 7:30 to 9:30 a.m., lunch is noon to 1:30 and dinner is open seating from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. The hours never varied on our sailing, and remained the same regardless of whether it was a day in port or at sea. While you don't need reservations to dine in the Grand Dining Room, you could call or speak to the maitre d' about arranging tables for friend or family groups, or to request a specific table or server.

The first meal of the day draws from a standard menu, but also features a daily egg special and two pastry specials. A basket of croissants, Danishes and other temptations is passed around to start, and coffee is dark but never bitter. We liked the menu of smoothies in addition to juice or tea. A Canyon Ranch menu is always available at every meal to offer a healthier alternative -- for breakfast, this might mean fresh fruit and an egg white omelet. An express breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, toast, orange juice and coffee is available for cruisers on the go. It's worth mentioning that the bacon onboard is among the best we've had -- quite possibly by ship or by land. Signature omelets include a fine herb or Spanish-style; we learned Swedish pancakes are basically crepes; and you could even get a grilled lamb chop or steamed haddock first thing in the morning. A light waffle with lemon custard and a side of fruit was one of our favorite pastry specials. Even oatmeal comes with a caddy of assorted raisins, nuts and cinnamon.

Lunch in the Grand Dining Room could be a three-course meal, a sampling platter or a sandwich. Each day, a different Taste of the World sampler is offered, with a variety of dishes from countries like Lebanon, Mexico or Italy. Served lazy Susan style, this sampler makes an appetizer for two or an entire meal (we were always sure to order it). The rest of the menu also takes on the culinary theme of this country -- on Mexico day, order a quesadilla with goat cheese, red onions and mango with an avocado shrimp side salad; on Italy day, choose an entree of veal stuffed with capers and spinach served with pappardelle pasta and an olive tapenade sauce. Always available options include chicken soup or chicken breast, hamburgers, a grilled hot dog, sirloin steak or assorted crudites. A featured chef salad is listed in addition to two entree salads. You can't forget dessert, which features an ever-rotating list of ice creams and sorbets -- like cacao or rum raisin -- in addition to pistachio cake or a brownie sundae.

By far the most exciting meal in the Grand Dining Room is dinner -- with a bustling staff refilling water, offering a variety of breads or freshly ground pepper, and serving and taking away dishes. The thing about a meal here was that not only could you find classics like beef Wellington prepared spectacularly well, but you could also find dishes you've never encountered even if you are a self-proclaimed foodie. Our very first night, an appetizer was roasted butternut squash with arugula, mangoes, black radishes, hearts of palm and a pumpkin seed vinaigrette -- it was not only tasty but unexpected, and it's the element of surprise that we love most about Insignia's main dining menus.

Every night, two soups, three salads and a host of appetizers and main courses are listed; or, you can order the entire Canyon Ranch menu, or conversely, an entire degustation menu with four courses hand-picked by the chef. Wine pairings for each course are recommended on the menu, and these were always offered by the glass for a reasonable $10 or $11. Jacques Pepin is the executive chef for Oceania Cruises and a list of signature items like steak frites or herb-roasted chicken are always available, in addition to a taste from Jacques (French) and from Red Ginger (pan-Asian), restaurants on Oceania's other class of ships.

Baristas (Deck 5): Formerly the Grand Bar (just outside the Grand Dining Room), you can still order a hard drink at Baristas, but it's also a hard-working espresso bar. The illy coffee onboard is smooth, and a complimentary menu of cappuccinos and lattes means caffeination won't be hard to come by. Eight espresso drinks are offered at Baristas, but if you're looking for a creamy way to cool off, try the Cafe Melange. Many passengers seemed to overlook this drink, which is a sweet, frozen coffee. Because it's already pre-mixed, we felt it was a little too sweet, but if you're looking for something closer to coffee ice cream, this has you covered. For a fee, you could swing by here after dinner for a liquor-infused coffee like an Aspen with Baileys, Kahlua, Frangelico and fresh cream for $9.

The bar and lounge here serve as an impromptu waiting area for anyone holding out for a table for two at peak hours in the dining room. However, it's comfortable enough to spend time in, looking out the two large windows, people watching or reading over a finger sandwich or madeleine. Assorted pastries are set out here in the morning (along with a container of fresh OJ), with sandwiches also making an appearance in the afternoon. Gluten-free items are by request, since the items are in a public area, and cross-contamination cannot be monitored.

Terrace Cafe (Deck 9): For casual dining, head upstairs to the Terrace Cafe, the buffet onboard. This is not a self-serve buffet, as each station is manned with someone who will serve you -- even if it's a single piece of watermelon. If you're perceptive, you might see signage around the ship that says "Tapas at Terrace," but this is an old name and no longer applies. Breakfast here is served 7 to 10 a.m., lunch from noon to 2 and dinner from 6:30 to 9 p.m.

Breakfast is a bevy of pastries, fresh fruit, granola and yogurt parfaits, meats and cheeses, omelets made to order and dishes like eggs Benedict also made to order. The buffet area is small, so it does get crowded and it helps to notice that some stations repeat -- perhaps most importantly the omelet station -- so check both sides before waiting. There is a place to pour your own water, juice or coffee, but if you sit it can also be brought to you.

Themed lunches like Italian or Asian mirror those of the main dining room -- sometimes with the same dishes. Other times, you might find an entire roasted pig being carved, with delicate noodle and cucumber salads

A one-off themed night with all Indian dishes was held during our cruise, and was not offered in other dining venues. Terrace was a rainbow of curries and dips, and desserts like rolled dough soaked in coconut milk. Another night, grilled lobster tail was offered only at the Terrace Cafe. Otherwise, you will usually find salads, hot and cold starters, a place for steaks, chops and seafood, a wok and a pasta station, and sides like the surprising mascarpone polenta. A sushi/sashimi station is usually offered at lunch and dinner. Desserts come individually and fruit and ice cream are always available.

The Terrace Cafe is closed between meals and there are no late-night snacks on offer.

Waves Grill (Deck 9): In a shaded area of the pool deck, you'll find wooden tables and chairs arranged along a window and near the grill. The tiles along the entire space are arranged to look like waves -- an appealing design touch.

A continental breakfast is available at Waves from 6:30 to 10:30 a.m. You can find boxes of cereal, a variety of yogurts and fruit, rolls, sliced meat and cheese and muesli. Additionally, you can order fresh smoothies from the ice cream counter adjacent to the grill.

Lunch runs from 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. and a salad bar with mixed greens and toppings is available as well as prepped cold salads like diced red beets with caraway and horseradish or fusilli pasta salad with roasted peppers and pesto cream. Order sandwiches at the grill (they will be served to your table) like a Reuben or a Cuban; a variety of seven hamburgers including salmon, tuna or wagyu beef; a hot dog served three ways; or dishes like curried and grilled gravlax, Cajun chicken paillard and herb-marinated mahi mahi. A surf & turf sandwich features grilled lobster medallions and sliced filet mignon on a toasted ciabatta roll with jus and remoulade dipping sauce for Parmesan-dusted truffle fries. The options are definitely a step up from a standard hamburger or hot dog joint, but our fish was a bit dry.

Maybe the best part of the Waves Grill is its ice cream counter, open until 4. Order a variety of scoops, milkshakes, malts or smoothies, frozen to perfection. Flavors rotate daily, and there are 10 different containers of ice cream/sorbet here (although some popular flavors repeat).

Toscana (Deck 10): Staff favorite Toscana (though the Italian captain and general manager might be biased) draws on the flavors of Tuscany to impress palates. We dined here twice and had a mixed experience -- once it was quite excellent, and the other time we used words like over-salted, chewy and bony. Still, food here is undeniably thoughtful, as is the service. Flourishes like an olive oil and balsamic cart (there are differences in each!) make the meal feel special, and the ambiance is intimate with warm orange walls and oil paintings of the Italian countryside.

Standout dishes are the octopus carpaccio (we learned you have to freeze it in order to slice it so thin), an appetizer portion of gnocchi with five fluffy morsels (we ordered it in tomato sauce, not the pesto) and lobster fra diavolo. But if you can dream up any Tuscan favorite, it's likely here: various risottos and pastas, as well as osso bucco and Dover sole. Popular desserts include the tiramisu, but the Toscana Quintet, a sampler of five of the menus desserts, solves the sweet problem of indecision. The dessert menu is served with a sampling of biscotti. For an added treat, dip it in some sweet Italian wine like moscato.

Toscana is open for dinner from 6:30 to 9 p.m. by reservation only. Tables might be shared; specify seating preference when making your reservation.

Polo Grill (Deck 10): The steakhouse on Insignia is a clubby restaurant with dark wood and black-and-white photos of Old Hollywood stars like Sinatra or Ava Gardner. A bar runs along the side of the primary room. Our one complaint is that the overhead lighting seemed a little harsh for the New York-style steakhouse ambiance of the venue. Table lamps, similar to those in the main dining room, would contribute better to the atmosphere. That said, if you're looking for surf and/or turf, this is undoubtedly the right place.

Some of the food feels Old Hollywood -- in the indulgent sense -- with apps like oysters Rockefeller, lump crab cakes, pork belly and escargot. Soups, salads and sides could fill you up (lobster mac 'n' cheese or a Caesar made tableside), but the main event is the meat -- choose from a 7-oz. filet mignon, all the way up to a 32-oz. king's cut prime rib (meant for two) -- with all the sauces and seasonings. Seafood shouldn't be disregarded here, with jumbo shrimp and an entire lobster available. Like Toscana, Polo Grill offers a dessert quintet so you don't have to decide between the apple crumb pie, New York cheesecake, creme brulee, fudge brownie a la mode or Key lime pie.

Polo is open for dinner from 6:30 to 9 p.m. by reservation only. As with Toscana, you might be asked to share a table.

Afternoon Tea in Horizons (Deck 10): Tea is a full affair, served each day from 4 to 5 p.m., in Horizons. Tables are set with white linens and tea cups, a trolley filled with that day's delectable treats is carted around the massive lounge and, all the while, a string quartet serenades in the background. It's a welcome way to mark the end of the day and the beginning of the evening. Anyone with an early dinner reservation beware: Trays of sweet and savory snacks circle around the room endlessly, so ruining your appetite is a strong possibility if you're not careful.

However, for all the buildup for Oceania's signature tea time, it did not prove to be our favorite at sea. The tea served is a respectable, British brand -- Twinings -- and the bags are presented in wooden boxes, but they are still tea bags that we would use at home. (In our opinion, loose leaf adds a more exotic dynamic to the equation.) During our first visit to have tea, the bags were packed so tightly together we couldn't see the varieties, and the server offered a blank stare when we were asked to pick. This could be solved by a simple menu on the table. Sure, you could be told the list upon request, but we feel it would be a nice touch to have the full list available to browse, along with each day's pastries and sandwiches.

Room Service: There is a full, 24-hour room service menu, plus breakfast. Although it's kept on the sly, cooked breakfast (mainly omelets and eggs) is only available to passengers booked in upper-level Concierge cabins and suites. Continental breakfast cards are in the rest of the cabins, and need to be put out by 11 p.m. for prompt service the following morning. Otherwise, we found room service to be relatively quick, and items that are supposed to be served hot were hot -- what more could you ask for?

We thought options on the room service menu were a step above average, including sushi, French onion soup, a variety of salads featuring one with poached pears and candied walnuts, a salmon club sandwich, margherita pizza, a beef filet, fettucine Alfredo, a cheese plate, ice cream or sorbet, and a variety of other desserts. Burgers could be beef, turkey or vegetarian, and served with greens instead of fries upon request.

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