The freedom of dining onboard is that no imagination is required; it's straightforward, delicious and -- with few exceptions -- free. There are about six free dining venue options, and only two or three extra-fee experiences. Despite the lack of alternative dining options aboard Imagination, menu offerings in the buffet and main dining room rotate daily meaning you won't get tired of the same roast chicken and onion soup. Plus, sailing short cruises, you don't have time to get bored of the food. With the addition of the cantina and burger bar on the Lido Deck, there's more than plenty to keep taste buds and tummies (including those of any picky eaters) satisfied. During the "in-between" hours -- 3 to 6 p.m. or late at night -- there's a deli open about 12 hours a day (typically until 11 p.m.) and a pizza station that never closes.
Spirit & Pride Main Dining Rooms (Deck 8): Passengers will find the same meals served in both dining rooms, but Pride is reserved for the flex-schedule Your Time Dining from 5:45 to 9:30, while Spirit hosts two set seatings -- one at 6 and one at 8:15. Pride is forward, and Spirit is aft.
Decor in the dining rooms is pretty simple, dark pink carpeting with a leaf motif; colored lighting on the ceiling that shifts from night to night (red, blue, gold); and gold metallic pillars. The atmosphere is upscale but not stuffy, with jazz and big band standards piped in quietly in the background. Seating is situated mostly around large, round wooden tables accommodating 10 to 12 people. Two-tops and four-tops can be requested, but can be hard to nail down.
American Table is the main dining program onboard Carnival ships, and we feel the quality, service and hallmark Carnival entertainment (dancing, singing and napkin-waving) is up to par with other mainstream cruise lines. The left side of the American Table menu rotates daily with featured soups (including a cold soup), salads and appetizers. Examples include shrimp cocktail, mango soup, kale or romaine Caesar or broiled sea scallops. A "rare finds" item gives diners the chance to try escargot, frog legs, alligator fritters and other plates not usually found at your dinner table. A featured wine list is also recommended. Six main dishes change nightly and include entrees like root vegetables in a pie crust, roasted duck, jerk pork loin, blue crab ravioli and Japanese sea bass. A vegetarian dish is always available, typically Indian dishes with sauces and spreads to feed an army.
A "from the grill" section remains the same all nights, offering salmon in a citrus-pepper rub with vegetables, chicken breast with garlic and herbs, a pork chop with onions and apples, and a grilled beef tenderloin with polenta and broccoli in a red wine sauce. Choose from six sauces to accompany any dish: chimichurri, barbecue, bearnaise, peppercorn, roasted garlic and tomato tapenade.
On the right side of the menu, the chef selects a cocktail, appetizer and entree to highlight the cuisine of the ports you're sailing. In Ensenada, ceviche, chili rellenos and por supuesto, a margarita, were on offer. Alcohol and drinks aside from ice water, coffee and standard teas are always additional.
On cruise elegant night, the menu is dubbed "American Feast," and tables are dressed up with white table cloths.
Dishes in the main dining room are free, except Steakhouse Selections, a small section on the bottom right of the menu, which offers four entrees for an additional charge of $20 each. Choose from a Maine lobster tail, 9-oz. broiled filet mignon, a 14-oz. New York strip steak or a surf and turf with a filet and lobster tail.
The dessert menu introduces three new options each evening, in addition to the always-available ice cream, cheese plate, tropical fruit plate and, of course, the signature Carnival melting chocolate cake. A no-sugar-added dessert, like chocolate panna cotta with warm chocolate sauce, is also usually offered. Other options might include vanilla bean creme brulee or fig and date bread pudding. A range of after-dinner cocktails and specialty coffees are available from $1.95 to $9.25.
Held in the Pride dining room from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. on the sea day, Carnival's sit-down Seaday Brunch includes savory and sweet options like tomato soup, fruit and cottage cheese or bagels and smoked salmon, to start. Order steak and eggs, a pork chop, eggs Benedict or French toast coated with cereal for the main event. Even order ice cream for breakfast, if you want. A Bloody Mary bar is offered with tons of garnishes including hot sauce and rum, gin, tequila or vodka bases. Walk up to the bar or have one served tableside and save the trip.
Taste Bar (Deck 9): It's difficult to define the Taste Bar. This food station, conveniently located along the promenade, is open from about 5:30 to 8:30 most nights and offers two tastings from a Carnival dining venue. (Toothpicks are the only utensil, so grab a napkin.) The bites -- like lime/avocado/chicken tortilla soup and pork carnitas -- are scrumptious. The catch is that not everything you try is available on the ship. Items from restaurants like Cucina del Capitano or RedFrog Pub can be found here, even though the restaurants are not onboard. Still, it became part of our evening ritual to grab a drink along the promenade and a bite (or two) to tide us over until dinner.
Horizon Bar & Grill (Deck 10): Teal neon circles light the way throughout the Horizon Bar & Grill, just beyond the pool deck. This is the ship's buffet and while it's not very big, it offers a lot. There are two sides with the same items, which helps with crowding. In the morning, expect eggs, bacon, an omelet bar, cold cereals, hash browns and plenty of pastries. (Insider tip: the omelet bars get crowded -- to avoid the wait, check out the omelet station tucked between BlueIguana Cantina and Guy Fieri's restaurant outside the buffet by the pool. This is also where you can find a snack station, later in the day, with items that appear to have been brought over from the buffet -- we found strawberry cake pops, cookies and Jell-O here on the first day. A Continental breakfast is served between 6:30 and 10:30 a.m.; the full buffet opens at 7 a.m. and if you were cutting a rug the night before, a late-risers buffet is available from 10:30 until noon.
Lunch and dinner are themed, meaning you'll find Italian, Caribbean, French or traditional American fare featured each afternoon and evening of your cruise. On the afternoon we dined here, we found comfort food including fried chicken, mashed potatoes, salad, cornbread, baked fish, pot roast, turkey stuffing, clam chowder and even pickled okra. That same afternoon there was a chocolate buffet from noon to 2:30, with cakes, cookies, fondue and other treats derived from cocoa. Lunch is typically available from noon until 3 p.m. A variety of salads, cold cuts and other sides, like fruit, are always available during lunch.
Dinner is pretty flexible; it's open until 9:30 p.m., but doesn't start until close to 6. If you know you get hungry right at 5, grab a sandwich, burger or burrito from the deli or Lido. When it is open, you'll find plenty of hot entrees, including a carving station, as well as vegetarian and gluten-free items.
Self-serve beer stations are available from 9 a.m. to 1 a.m., but only stocked with Miller Lite. You need to swipe your card to purchase.
After a night of imbibing and/or dancing, you can find snacks -- chili dogs, fries and the like -- set out at a station in the buffet from 11 p.m. until around 1 a.m.
If you are patient enough to pass up the first available seat in the buffet, head outside at the very aft of the buffet or along the sides, there's usually plenty of great alfresco seating.
Pizza Pirate (Deck 10): This is your "anytime" option onboard Carnival Imagination, but leave some time for it to be prepared. Pizza Pirate is a popular stop at the back of the buffet, and while sometimes you might get lucky finding just the pie you want, other times you might have to wait 10 minutes or so for a new one to bake. Choices include Margherita, rustic (pepperoni), anchovies, goat cheese and mushrooms, and all veggie. Pies are typically medium in size and you'll get half -- two big slices -- unless you ask for the whole thing. Calzones and tossed Caesar salad are available upon request and so is gluten-free dough.
Carnival Deli (Deck 10): Looking for a quick sandwich? The onboard deli, located within Horizon Court, serves turkey wraps, tuna, hot corned beef or pastrami on rye, grilled ham and cheese, hot dogs and more. And, "like every good deli" (or so the sign says), you'll find pickles as well. Stop by for a bite from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., daily.
Guy's Burger Joint (Deck 10): Guy Fieri ushers you to Flavortown with a choice of burgers slathered in his signature "donkey sauce" with cheese, onion rings or even chili. Choose your caloric threshold wisely and leave room for the seasoned fries. Veggie burgers are available upon request. A toppings bar lets you pile on the pickles, jalapenos or ranch dressing, ad nauseam. Guy's Burger Joint is open from about noon to 6 p.m., daily.
BlueIguana Cantina (Deck 10): A poolside spot serving up tacos, burritos, arepas and huevos rancheros fits right in on a Baja California itinerary, but the BlueIguana Cantina has also good food anytime and anywhere. Choose from jalapeno or wheat tortillas. All meals are made to order and once your Mexican dish is complete, you can top it off with a sizable salsa and toppings bar. Watermelon and the black bean-corn salsa make any order complete. We were total suckers for the breakfast here as well, served from 7 to 10:30 a.m., most days. The hash browns in the breakfast burrito deserve a Nobel Prize. Lunch is served from 12:30 to 2 p.m.
Room Service: A continental breakfast (cereal, yogurt, toast, eggs, coffee) is available any day except debarkation morning, and can be ordered ahead of time by hanging an order card on the door handle of your cabin by 5 a.m. The rest of the day, sandwiches -- tuna salad, turkey, BLT, PB & J, ham and cheese and a Reuben -- are available with a choice of potato salad, coleslaw, chips or pretzels. You can choose from white, whole wheat, rye or gluten-free bread. Garden or Caesar salad and a vegetable platter are also available. Cheesecake, chocolate cake and cookies are on the complimentary section of the room service menu. Juice, soft drinks and coffee or tea are available to order anytime, but only coffee, plain tea and water are free.
The second half of the room service menu is available for an additional charge. Chicken tenders with dipping sauce, wings, pan pizza, cheesesteak or a chicken quesadillas are all $5 each. Spicy fried firecracker shrimp is $6. Sweet potato fries are $2 (regular fries are $1.50); a banana split is $4. While most room service is free, it's polite to tip a dollar or two upon delivery.
Green Eggs and Ham Breakfast (Main dining room); $5 per person: Dr. Seuss comes alive at the Green Eggs and Ham Breakfast. Held on the sea day morning at about 9 a.m., families and even adults interested in meeting Thing 1 and Thing 2 can attend a special breakfast hosted by Sam I Am and members of the activities staff. A Cat in the Hat ice sculpture is just part of the zany decor. Of course, green eggs and ham are on the menu, along with a stack (and we mean stack) of red velvet pancakes, waffles with icing and fruit loop-encrusted French toast with frosting -- steak and eggs and omelets are available for the less adventurous. Fruit parfaits serve as a sort of breakfast dessert. Photo opportunities with all the characters are offered, and the crew even perform a special dance near the end of the meal.
Chef's Table (location varies); $75 per person: Probably the most indulgent experience onboard outside of the spa, the Chef's Table is a multicourse dining event, including wine, held once per cruise and hosted by the executive chef. Location and menu items vary by sailing, so if you're curious, be sure to ask once you get onboard.
Vittorio's Cafe (Deck 9); a la carte: The onboard espresso bar draws a crowd with its specialty coffee drinks -- a tall latte for $2.95, $3.50 for an iced mochaccino, or $5.95 for spiked coffee. Tea lattes, hot chocolate, milk shakes and even cans of Rockstar energy drink can also be found, along with sweets like chocolate-covered strawberries, slices of carrot cake and entire cakes for special occasions like a birthday or anniversary. We cruised in the fall, and yes, pumpkin spice lattes were available (you could even add in a shot of Bacardi Oakheart). We were surprised to find the World Series playing on the flat-screen TVs behind the bar, hence passengers dutifully gathered at the seating in the promenade to watch. One touch we appreciated was that each day, a different crossword puzzle is offered at the cafe. The coffee shop is open 7 to 10:30 a.m. and then 3 p.m. to midnight, on port days, and 7 a.m. to midnight on the sea day.