Pacific Explorer has 12 free food options. Complimentary breakfast and lunch are limited to The Pantry and Waterfront restaurant. Both of these venues are closed in between meal times, leaving a few hours of the day (10.30am-11.30am and 2.30pm-5pm) with nowhere to eat unless you pay for it. For dinner, Pacific Explorer has two additional free restaurants and several for-fee options. Most dietary needs can be catered for, except kosher and halal, by notifying P&O or your travel agent at least 60 days before departure. Vegetarian options are marked on menus.
Waterfront (Deck 5): Pacific Explorer's main dining room is bright and welcoming, tastefully furnished in neutral colours but with such luxurious decor that many passengers may not realise its included in the fare. It has a much calmer environment than The Pantry in the morning and the breakfast menu is straight out of a Sydney or Melbourne cafe; unfortunately, the execution is not quite up to scratch. Smashed avocado and feta, for example, came out as a paper-thin smear of processed guacamole (the same stuff we had on a taco the day before) and without the cheese mixed in. Corn fritters were bland and the frittata wasn't technically a frittata though it was tasty. The chefs here need a little more guidance on Australian expectations; until then, the omelette is our top pick.
Lunch and dinner were much better, and the service is friendly and efficient. For lunch, expect to see salads, pasta dishes, soups, chicken pho, sandwiches, wraps, pies, burgers, fish, cheesecake, fresh fruit and cheese plates on the menu; for dinner, choose from seared ahi tuna, lamb shanks, ocean trout, chili chicken wings, pork chops, vegetable moussaka, ravioli, curry, salads, pavlova, trifle, chocolate rolls, fruit and cheese. Tables can be reserved for dinner or just walk in at any time during service hours. Open for breakfast (7.30am to 9.30am), lunch (12 to 1pm) and dinner (5pm to 9pm).
Angelo's (Deck 6): For an evening of elegance without any bill shock, head to Angelo's. Crisp, white tablecloths and opulent furnishings belie the free food served here by attentive waiters. It's a terrific opportunity to relish multiple courses of Italian cuisine in a fine-dining setting (just pay for your drinks). Our suggestions include the fontina and pumpkin arancini balls, veal shank ragout, osso bucco, slow-cooked pork neck, seafood cacciucco, and the pan-fried gnocchi; finished with a sweet, crispy cannoli. Adding a further touch of glamour to this trattoria, Sophia Loren's face is plastered across the walls and backs of chairs. Dinner bookings can be made at the reception desk outside the restaurant.
Dragon Lady (Deck 6): This Asian restaurant is as playful as its irreverent name. From the origami-folded menus to the (non-alcoholic) welcome shooters, these little touches set the scene. Waitresses bring out dishes designed to be shared banquet-style, including Vietnamese rice paper rolls, Indian spiced duck samosas, Japanese tempura crusted sushi, honey prawns, barramundi green curry, chicken satay sticks and exquisitely presented Chinese dumplings shaped like roses. Desserts include a salted dark chocolate cake with sesame seed ice cream, mango and coconut sticky rice and a cute jar of apple caramel milkshake. Dinner bookings can be made at the reception desk outside the restaurant.
The Pantry (Deck 14): The former buffet area is now a food court with nine outlets, open for three meals a day. Rather than self-service, crew dish up the food behind glass counters, which is better for hygiene and reducing food wastage. You can go up for extra servings or eat at every outlet if you like.
The Pantry is mayhem in the mornings, with hundreds of hungry people hankering for their fix of bacon, eggs, baked beans and pancakes. Fruit, yoghurt, cereal, toast, pre-made omelettes, Spanish baked eggs and sauteed spinach are also on offer. It's a bit inconvenient moving around all the stations to line up for everything you want. In our fussy opinion, it also seems like a wasted opportunity to not have the food match each outlet's international theme, such as Mexican, Indian or Asian breakfasts.
At lunch and dinner, they do live up to their names: Mexicana (tacos and burritos), Stix (stir fry), Curry House (our favourite), Hook's (fish and chips), Fat Cow (carvery), the Nic & Toni's (Italian), Kettle & Bun (soups and sandwiches), McGregor's Garden (salads) and Sugar Bar (desserts, but never any ice-cream). Menus change daily and the food is generally hot, tasty and served with a smile.
The Pantry's biggest issue is a serious seating shortage, with people wandering around balancing their plates and cups of coffee before giving up and going outside. Eating in the fresh air is not such a bad thing as it's usually lovely and quiet on deck but sometimes it's chilly or all the outdoor tables are full, too. One day we had to sit at the bar of Luke's while they were setting up to open. Couples won't find many tables for two so be prepared to share with strangers.
In the evenings, a tenth venue, Shell & Bones, is set up behind a curtain and turned into an a la carte restaurant. Seafood is purchased from the fish markets every time the ship is in Sydney and sometimes from local fisherman at the South Pacific islands. This is a wonderful new feature for P&O but it takes passengers a few days to discover it so you may have the place to yourself on the first night or two. We loved the hot and cold platters and the lobster mornay. Save some space for the warm brownie -- not visually appealing but similar in taste to chocolate lava cake.
A Taste of Salt @ Waterfront (Deck 5); $99: Celebrity chef Luke Mangan has debuted his first degustation menu for P&O on Pacific Explorer, held at the exclusive Chef's Table in a separate room within the Waterfront restaurant. Diners are gathered for a group photo on arrival before taking their pre-assigned seats (your name will be printed on a card) in high-back chairs under a black chandelier. As each course comes out, knowledgeable waiters explain the dish and the matching wine.
The current menu has three seafood dishes (prawn toast; kingfish sashimi; sea scallops with blue cheese polenta and truffle oil) and two meat dishes (roasted lamb cutlets and a grilled beef sirloin with truffle mash and beans), followed by Luke's famous liquorice parfait with lime syrup, and then a cheese plate with a glass of Chateau Tanunda botrytis semillon. (Vegetarians cannot be catered for at A Taste of Salt.)
The cost includes the seven courses with seven matching wines, plus a souvenir group photo -- outstanding value for a special occasion. The long table seats 14 people so you could book out the whole room with a big group, come as a couple or go solo. Reservations are essential; book in the Waterfront Restaurant after boarding.
Love Riot pre-show dinner @ Waterfront (Deck 5); $19: When you purchase a $10 ticket to the Love Riot burlesque circus, there is an option to pay an extra $19 for a five-course dinner before the show. As the Black Circus venue is not adequately furnished for dining, the meal is served in a curtained-off section of the Waterfront restaurant. The set menu includes scallop tataki, veal pate, crab bisque, beef short rib and a chocolate sphere that is melted open by a pouring on warm caramel sauce. (As with A Taste of Salt, vegetarians cannot be catered for here.) At the end, waiters dance and perform magic tricks before the Love Riot cast make a grand, loud entrance to take you to the theatre.
Charlie's Bar (Deck 5); a la carte: This is a cafe running along one side of the atrium, selling freshly made tea for $3.30, specialty coffees from $3.30 to $4.50 and liqueur coffees for $8.95 with complimentary cakes and pastries. It's a handy spot to meet for a chat or get a decent brew if you don't like the free coffee onboard. Service is a little slow but it's nice to have hot drinks brought to your table with an ocean view.
400 Gradi (Deck 8); a la carte: With no free pizza on Pacific Explorer, P&O makes you pay for your cravings, charging $10 to $16 each. Luckily these gourmet pizzas, oozing with cheese on a thin, crispy base, are delectable. The chefs were meticulously trained by Melbourne's Johnny Di Francesco, whose margarita was once awarded world's best pizza. We also recommend the capricciosa, suprema, the lasagne ($13) and all of the desserts (from $6). Good for groups, this large pizzeria overlooks the atrium. Many passengers order takeaway pizzas to eat elsewhere or get them delivered to their cabin via room service.
Luke's (Deck 14); a la carte: Celebrity chef Luke Mangan opted to create a casual, outdoor eatery instead of bringing Salt Grill, found on the rest of the P&O fleet, to Pacific Explorer. Ironically, Luke's is more of a grill than Salt Grill as it's all about the burgers. It also serves very good chicken wings, hot dogs and prawns. The bad news is the food isn't free, which is disappointing for a cruise ship's poolside snack bar. The good news is the prices have dramatically dropped -- twice. Seriously good burgers are now a reasonable $5 or $6, the hot dog with kimchi and wasabi mustard and cheese costs $4, a generous plate of BBQ soy-glazed chicken wings with pickles and fries is a bargain $4, while a large plate of fries is only $3. If you sleep in past 11am and everything else is closed, grab the sensational Salt Grill breakfast burger with Cajun-spiced pork pattie, bacon, egg, cheese, pickle, lettuce and kimchi aioli. For lunch, you can't go wrong with any of the burgers but the Korean chicken seems to be most popular. Vegetarians can order a buffalo mozzarella and mushroom burger with onion jam, tomato, lettuce and raita.
The atmosphere and location are also worth the surcharge. Luke's has an elevated view of the ocean and pool deck, which is great for watching movies and music videos playing on the big screen. Be sure to check the program before you book a romantic dinner during an NRL match (unless you both love footy, of course). Wine and beer are also sold here. Open 11am to 11pm.
Room Service; a la carte: There is no delivery fee but each item is priced individually. Food and non-alcoholic drinks can be delivered to your cabin around the clock, except for pizza, which is available from 2pm on port days and from 11am on sea days.
Breakfast must be ordered the night before, with a specified time for delivery. While breakfast is free everywhere else on the ship, you have to pay for it if you use room service. Prices range from $3 each for toast, croissants, pastries, tea, coffee, hot chocolate and juice; $5 each for cereal, yoghurt and platters of cheese, fruit or meat; and $10 for a hot cooked breakfast. A $10 breakfast set includes one drink, bakery item, cereal, yoghurt and platter; a $15 set includes a drink, bakery item and hot breakfast item.
A $9 lunch and dinner menu includes sandwiches (roast beef, tuna or chicken), toasted three-cheese panini, an Aussie burger, lasagne, and a steak and mushroom pie. Wedges, nachos, soups, cheese plate and other desserts such as cheesecake, chocolate fudge slice and fruit cost $6; salads are $8. Freshly baked pizzas from 400 Gradi can be room-delivered for $13 to $15. Cheaper snacks include packets of potato chips, peanuts and cashews for $2.90 to $4.50. We loved the nachos and wonton soup (with literally one wonton).
Alcohol is also sold through room service from 10am to 11pm for passengers aged 18 and over. Beer is priced from $5.75 for XXXX Gold to $8.50 for Peroni; Bulmer's cider is $8; bottles of wine start at $30; Moet & Chandon Champagne is $89. Cans of soft drink (375ml) cost $2.75.