By Dori Saltzman
Cruise Critic Senior Editor
3.5 / 5.0
Cruise Critic Editor Rating: Dining

With Carnival Vista, Carnival Cruise Line has broken from its tradition of emphasizing free food over extra-fee venues. Though included dining spots do outnumber those that cost money, the gap between the two has narrowed and many of the free venues are only open at select times or on select days. (Fresh Creations salad bar, for instance, is only open for lunch on sea days.)

There's still plenty to eat without spending a dime, from the main dining room (MDR) and Lido Marketplace buffet to Guy's Burger Joint and BlueIguana Cantina to the Mongolian wok and pasta bar lunch spots and 24/7 pizza.

Breakfast is offered in several spots on the ship including Horizons Restaurant, BlueIguana Cantina, a continental buffet at The Taste Bar, and full buffets for Cabana cabin passengers in the Havana bar and for Family Harbor passengers in the Family Harbor Lounge, keeping the Lido Marketplace from getting slammed in the hour before tours depart. Lunch is also available in multiple spots (including the lunchtime only Mongolian Wok and Pasta Bar, both of which vied for our favorite lunchtime spot), though lines for some of the more popular venues (Guy's Burger and BlueIguana Cantina, for instance) can get long.

Cruisers with special dietary requests should let the cruise line know ahead of time or talk to the maitre d' in their assigned restaurant on embarkation day. Gluten-free bread is available in most of the dining venues, but it's among the bitterest tasting we've ever had.

Complaints about the overall dining experience on Carnival Vista are few, mostly gripes about limited hours for spots like Bonsai Sushi and Guy's Burger on port days. While we found the MDR food to be acceptable, some cruisers said the food in the specialty dining venues was better than in the main dining rooms, and groused that MDR menus repeated dishes too often and that some of the selections were too fancy.

We did notice a few hiccups here and there in the main dining rooms. Diners on the Your Time Dining program told us that servers were hit or miss, with some dinners taking close to two hours while other nights they were in and out in under an hour. Menu items weren't always quite as expected, as well; the chicken Marsala, for instance, came on the bone and had a brown sauce that did not appear to have any mushrooms. Dishes listed under the Vegetarian header were always Indian (though there seemed to usually be at least one other vegetarian item), and the grilled chicken breast was dry and overcooked every time we ordered it.

Free Dining

Horizons (Decks 3and 4, aft) and Reflections (Deck 3, midship) Restaurants: Carnival Vista's two main dining rooms differ only by color scheme and dining style. The two-deck Horizons is Carnival's largest Your Time Dining restaurant in its fleet, while the smaller Reflections Restaurant is for those with assigned seating; dinner is at either 6 p.m. or 8:15 p.m. Horizons also has a small bar inside, perfect for a pre-dinner drink if you're waiting for a table.

One unusual detail regarding the Your Time Dining: Diners who have chosen Your Time Dining (which is on Deck 3, aft) must first stop at a desk on Deck 5 (midship), near Java Blue cafe, to sign in for dinner and get their table assignment. It's out of the way, depending on where you're coming from, and you then have to wait in line twice.

Breakfast is served in Horizons on port days; on sea days, it's brunch. Both are sit-down affairs. The breakfast menu features standard morning items like French toast, pancakes, eggs any way you want, bagel with cream cheese and lox and fresh fruit, while the brunch menu is double-sided -- one side for breakfast items, the other for lunch items.

For dinner, both restaurants offer Carnival's American Table on most nights and American Feast on cruise elegant nights. The casual American Table is characterized by a lack of tablecloths, which some veteran Carnival cruisers don't like, but we didn't miss, especially as we were too busy checking out the small decorative plates featuring iconic images from cities like Philadelphia, New York City, New Orleans and Seattle. On American Feast night, the white tablecloths do come out. Dinner menus are the same in both restaurants.

Appetizers, which rotate throughout the cruise so you can have your favorite more than once, might include smoked salmon, shrimp cocktail, lentil soup, seafood chowder or borscht with duck. Entrees can include oven-glazed ham, blackened catfish, baked polenta, Tex Mex penne, braised beef brisket, vegetable lasagna, sweet-and-sour shrimp and roast chicken. As with appetizers, sides rotate throughout the cruise and might include baked potato, ratatouille, French fries, creamed spinach or mac 'n cheese.

Each night also offers a few special items; one, an appetizer, is labeled a "Rare Find" and described on the menu as "food you always wanted to try, but haven't yet dared." These items could include alligator fritters, tuna tartar, braised ox tongue and escargots.

Also available every night is one appetizer and one entree representing the destination the ship is currently in. In Rhodes, for instance, the appetizer was bourekakia, crunchy phyllo dough rolls with a mix of cream, feta and cottage cheese inside, while the entree was arnaki fricassee, a lamb stew. In Barcelona the appetizer was salted cod fritters, and the entree was peix de roca a la planxa, a grilled Mediterranean rockfish dish.

On top of the changing menu items, you'll also find the same four grill selections every night: salmon fillet, flat iron steak, chicken breast and pork chop, all with your choice of one of six sauces. And, as if all that wasn't enough, also available every night are several steakhouse selections that carry a surcharge of $20 each. Choices are broiled Maine lobster tail, surf and turf, broiled filet mignon and New York strip loin steak.

The menu is slightly smaller on American Feast nights when the dishes available are bumped up a notch. Appetizers might include shrimp cocktail, fried oysters, Italian wedding soup, ceviche of shrimp and redfish, and kale or Romaine Caesar salad, while main courses can include spaghetti carbonara, seared striped bass, broiled Maine lobster tail and slow-cooked prime rib.

Desserts rotate as well, though the line's famous chocolate melting cake is always available, as is a selection of ice creams.

Regardless of whether it's an American Table or American Feast night, dinners on Carnival Vista are a festive affair, as they are on all Carnival ships, and your waiters will sing and dance for you every night. Feel free to join them, they love it when you do! On our sailing we were lucky enough to have Ken, the singing maitre d' whose Frank Sinatra covers are always dead on. He's only on Vista for part of the year, however.

The Taste Bar (Deck 5, midship): Located just off Ocean Plaza and right outside RedFrog Pub & Brewery's game space on Deck 5, The Taste Bar offers samples from the various free and extra-fee dining venues on the ship. Each night is different: one night the samples might be from Cucina del Capitano, the next from JiJi Asian restaurant or Bonsai. A continental breakfast is also served in The Taste Bar daily, with a small selection of cereal, fruits, toast, danishes and cold cuts. It's a much quieter and less crowded spot to eat on a busy port morning than the Lido Marketplace.

Lido Marketplace (Deck 10, midship): The ship's buffet, Lido Marketplace, offers an impressive amount of seating, both in terms of quantity and variety (traditional two- to eight-seat tables by the windows, bar-style elevated tables and more interior space than we usually see in a ship buffet). Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served here.

Breakfast includes hot and cold items including cereal, fruit, yogurt, scrambled eggs, pancakes, hash browns and cold cuts, among other traditional breakfast items. An omelet station is also available, but you could end up waiting 10 to 15 minutes.

For lunch and dinner, Lido Marketplace is divided into distinct areas. Comfort Kitchen, located near the entrance by the Lido Pool, offers a variety of American favorites including items like mac 'n cheese, chicken fingers, fried fish, meat stews and other comfort-style dishes. At the back of Lido Marketplace, you'll find the carving station as well as a section called (on a rotating basis) Caribbean Favorites, Italian Favorites and Good Eats. You'll find a small salad bar in each section.

The Carnival Deli is located all the way at the back of Lido Marketplace, right in front of the aft Sweet Spot. A variety of deli-style sandwiches are available here including turkey wraps, grilled cheese, tuna on your choice of bread, smoked salmon on a bagel, and pastrami or corned beef on rye.

Both sides of the buffet have a Sweet Spot dessert station with a variety of cakes and pastries. Only at the front Sweet Spot, however, is an ice-cream station with freshly made ice creams (made in special machines located right there) and a toppings bar. You won't find chocolate or vanilla here; on our sailing, the options included passion fruit and caramel. Around the corner are the popular 24/7 soft ice-cream machines, which do always have chocolate, vanilla and strawberry.

Also on both sides of the buffet are self-pour beer taps with Bud Light ($3.95 for 14 oz.) and ThirstyFrog Red ($4 for 14 oz.); swipe your card to activate the tap. Self-service beverage stations with lemonade, water, tea (iced and hot) and coffee are scattered throughout the Lido Marketplace, as well as near the aft pool outdoor seating area. At breakfast, the beverage choices are orange, apple and orange-passion fruit-guava cocktail juices.

Pizzeria del Capitano (Deck 10, aft): Located at the back of the ship, right by the Tides pool and across from the Seafood Shack, this pizza place makes five varieties of individually sized pizzas, all available free of charge 24 hours a day. Slices are available as well. Options include margarita, mushroom, pepperoni, prosciutto and four-cheese. Gluten-free pizza is available as well. Open 24/7.

Guy's Burger Joint (Deck 10, midship): Burger lovers flock to this poolside grill on steroids. One of Carnival's most popular eateries, Guy's Burger Joint is the brainchild of celebrity chef Guy Fieri. Build your own or choose from five pre-designed burgers. Highlights for many are the Ringer, a cheeseburger with a giant onion ring on top; the Chilius Maximus, a beef patty with super melty cheese, an onion ring, donkey sauce and chili; and the Pig Patty, a combo of one beef patty and a second made of bacon, topped with cheese and donkey sauce. You'll also find delicious crispy fries and a toppings bar with everything from lettuce, tomato and pickles to sauteed mushrooms and caramelized onions. Be prepared for a long line during prime lunch hours, but it usually moves fast. Veggie burgers are not advertised but are available upon request. Hours vary, particularly in the Mediterranean, but in the Caribbean the venue is usually open from noon to 6 p.m.

BlueIguana Cantina (Deck 10, midship): It's Cinco de Mayo every day at this poolside Mexican venue, where fish, chicken or beef tacos and shrimp, chicken or beef burritos are on offer every day for lunch. Tortilla choices include wheat or jalapeno (or have your taco or burrito served up on a platter if you don't want the wrap), and optional ingredients include all the necessities: black and refried beans, guacamole, cilantro lime rice, diced tomatoes and shredded lettuce, roasted corn, sauteed onions, sour cream, Monterey jack cheese and pico de gallo. As if all that weren't enough, there's a salsa bar with even more toppings. BlueIguana Cantina is hopping for lunch, but breakfast is quiet and the scrambled egg burritos are delish. Hours vary but are generally from 7 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. and noon to 2:30 p.m.

Mongolian Wok (Deck 12, aft): Only offered for lunch, this free Asian noodle venue is located inside of JiJi Asian Kitchen. Mongolian Wok diners fill out a paper selecting a protein (chicken, beef, pork, calamari or mussels and clams), what type of noodle (lomein, cellophane or rice), and what sauce (spicy Szechuan, Thai BBQ, black bean or soy) they'd like, and then add extras like onion, mushrooms, bok choy, bamboo shoots and snow peas.

The Pasta Bar (Deck 12, aft): Located in Cucina del Capitano for lunch only, the pasta bar is a great, free spot for Italian food lovers to get a quick meal. Diners sit down and fill out a paper detailing what they want in their pasta. Choices begin with the pasta itself (linguini, penne, farfalle, gluten-free). Then pick from five sauces and a variety of ingredients that include grilled chicken, garlic shrimp, cherry tomatoes, onions, mushrooms, zucchini, eggplant and arugula, among others. You can also order a meat lasagna if you don't want pasta, and can supplement any meal with a Caesar salad and bread. Half-portions are available, as well.

Fresh Creations (Deck 15, forward): This salad bar heaven is only available on sea days. You can choose one of the five pre-designed salads or design your own from a choice of nine greens and dozens of toppings. (It's not a buffet; the crewmember behind the counter will mix the ingredients for you.) Choose from the usual assortment of salad ingredients, plus herb-marinated chicken, steamed shrimp, tuna, hard-boiled eggs, anchovies, ham, pickled radishes, pineapple, kidney beans, watermelon, golden raisins, cranberries, crispy quinoa, chia seeds, toasted coconut and black and green olives, among many other choices. Open for lunch only.

Room Service: In-cabin dining is available 24 hours a day, though breakfast choices are all cold options (cereal, yogurt, fruit and pastries). Anytime options are sandwiches including tuna, roast turkey, ham and cheese, peanut butter and jelly, grilled cheese and grilled Reuben, plus garden or Caesar salads, and a market vegetable platter. For a small fee, you can order wings, chicken tenders, fried shrimp, chicken quesadilla, Philly cheesesteak, pizza and fries.

Fee Dining

The Chef's Table (Deck 5,forward); $75: Carnival Vista is the first ship in the line's fleet to have a dedicated space for Chef's Table. Located inside the Reflection's main galley (kitchen), the 16-seat Chef's Table is separated from all the action by a glass wall so diners can watch the hustle and bustle as waiters come and go. The evening kicks off with cocktails and hors d'oeuvres inside the galley, followed by a tour of the galley, then concludes with an eight-course meal, all hosted by one of the ship's master chefs. The Chef's Table is proving to be very popular with cruisers, and on most sailings it's already sold out by the time the cruise departs.

Fahrenheit 555 (Deck 5, midship); $35 for adults, $10 for kids: Dark wood tables and golden accents give Fahrenheit 555 a sophisticated steakhouse feel. Only open for dinner, it's a great date night choice; its selection of aged beef steaks, lamb chops, lobster tail and grilled fish specialties, along with 17 appetizer, salad, soup and side dish choices means there's something for nearly everyone. (We don't recommend it for vegetarians.) Several tables are located outdoors for al fresco dining on warm evenings. Dinner only.

Java Blue Cafe/Shake Spot (Deck 5, mid); a la carte prices: Passengers who can't go a day without their cappuccino or espresso keep this cafe busy all day long. On top of the specialty and spiked coffees, hot chocolate and herbal teas, cruisers can also partake in delicious pastries, cookies, cupcakes or slices of cake, as well as gelato, shakes and floats (all for a small extra fee). A couple of tables are available for eating on-site, plus Ocean Plaza is right around the corner so you can grab a coffee and slice of cake in between trivia sessions without having to go too far. Open 6:30 a.m. to midnight.

Bonsai Sushi (Deck 5,mid); a la carte prices: Carnival might want to consider expanding the hours for this mostly dinner-only specialty restaurant as it is, hands down, the most popular eatery onboard Carnival Vista. With a comprehensive menu of sushi, sashimi and bento boxes, as well as cooked-to-order items like shrimp tempura, chicken katsu and various noodle bowls, there's always a wait. Prices start at $1.50 for sushi and sashimi pieces and go up to $7 for rolls, noodle bowls and Japanese cooked specialties like shrimp tempura and miso salmon. A teriyaki steak is $8. The more adventurous can choose the Omakase meal, in which the chef prepares a series of sushi and sashimi dishes just for you. For one person the price is $15;for two it's $22.A small section of outdoor seating is available; Bonsai Sushi is open for dinner daily and lunch on sea days.

Cherry on Top (Deck 5, forward); a la carte prices: Primarily a spot to grab all kinds of candy to take with you, Cherry on Top also has an ice cream bar with several yummy flavors and lots of toppings. (You'll find lots more flavors here than in the buffet.) Carnival Vista's Cherry on Top is the only one in the fleet with an outdoor sitting area with tables and sun umbrellas for enjoying your cold ice cream on a hot day.

RedFrog Pub & Brewery (Deck 5, midship); a la carte prices: In addition to its liquid libations, you'll find Caribbean-inspired pub grub after 6 p.m., with each dish priced at $3.33. Options at RedFrog Pub include coconut shrimp, grouper fingers, firecracker Jamaican wings, Bahamian conch salad, Caribbean sliders, Jamaican jerk pulled pork sandwiches and the West Indies roll (steamed curried chicken pockets with tropical chutney dipping sauce).

Seafood Shack (Deck 10, aft); a la carte prices: Fans of comfort seafood, like fried shrimp, lobster rolls, crab cakes and good old-fashioned fish and chips, will want to check out this new-to-Carnival eatery at the back of Vista, near the Tides pool. Inspired by a New England beachside seafood restaurant, Seafood Shack is also the spot to pick up steamed lobster, snow crab and peel-and-eat shrimp by the pound, as well as raw oysters by the piece. We were surprised it wasn't that popular on our sailing, but then we were in port nearly all day, just about every day. We're guessing it'll do better in the Caribbean where there are more sea days and people often come back to the ship for lunch on port days.

You can also purchase fresh fish, bought at one or more ports along your cruise. Pick which fresh fish you'd like and have it cooked on the spot or pre-order to have it delivered to whichever restaurant you're dining at that night. Prices start at $4 for New England clam chowder, fried clam strips are $5, lobster rolls are $12. Market prices on our cruise for by-the-pound-options included $16 for snow crab, $18 for steamed lobster and $2.50 for each raw oyster. Open from 2 p.m. to 11 p.m.

Cucina del Capitano (Deck 11, aft); $15 for adults, $5 for kids12 and under: Prepare to walk away from this old-fashioned trattoria stuffed to the gills, where familiarity and comfort are king. Red and white-checkered tablecloths, pale golden stone counters and small vases with fake basil on the tables give Cucina del Capitano its casual feel. The menu of Italian staples including linguine and meatballs, spaghetti carbonara, chicken parmigiana and grilled shrimp with pasta, among other dishes inspired by the family recipes of Carnival's Italian captains and officers, feels like coming home. (Who never had spaghetti and meatballs as a kid?!)We could have done without the singing waiters, though a travel companion loved them. Only open for dinner. (The lunchtime-only pasta bar is held in the same space, however.)

JiJi Asian Kitchen (Deck 11, aft); $15 for adults, $5 for kids: Dining at JiJi is a smorgasbord for the taste buds, where menu items from China, Mongolia, Vietnam, Indonesia and Singapore and are shared family style, giving everyone a chance to taste multiple appetizers, entrees and sides. Among the appetizers are slow-braised pork belly, shrimp pot stickers, chicken spring rolls and tamarind shrimp soup; entrees include peppered beef, Singapore chili or sweet and sour shrimp, and a super spicy Kung Pao chicken (the most popular item at our table of spicy food lovers). A variety of noodle, rice and side dishes are also on offer. Unusual deserts (like a rose creme brulee or fried wontons with lychee fruit) are also on the menu but chances are you'll be too full to do more than just take a quick bite. The chefs at JiJi pull double duty, serving up free noodle dishes for lunch at Mongolian Wok, located inside JiJi during the day. Dinner only.

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