If "spoiled for choice" is the main theme on Symphony of the Seas, dining is certainly no exception and the budget-conscious will be pleased to know that this extends to restaurants included in the cruise fare: six venues on Symphony offer included food beyond the main dining room and buffet; seven if you are staying in a suite or have a high-standing loyalty status.
As for specialty restaurants, options range from modern Italian helmed by a celebrity chef to a popular sushi and hibachi spot to a whimsical menu of molecular gastronomy, as well as one of the best-reviewed steakhouses at sea. Speaking of which, 150 Central Park makes a repeat appearance, as on all Oasis-class ships, but now without Chef Michael Schwartz behind it. Most of these are quite popular, so be sure to make reservations in advance. Capacity limits are adhered to closely in the paid-for restaurants to ensure that the experience is an intimate one.
Debuting on Symphony of the Seas are Hooked, a for-fee New England-style seafood restaurant, and El Loco Fresh, a complimentary Mexican eatery open for breakfast and lunch.
Also be aware that the cover charge listed for each specialty restaurant is not the price you'll actually pay -- you have to factor in an additional 18 percent gratuity and 10 percent service charge for each person.
Even if you choose not to pay more to dine out, we were impressed by the quality of the food in the main dining room. Our crab cake was fresh, the curried chicken was piping hot and spiced perfectly and the cheesecake was beautifully prepared and not at all dry. Serving thousands of people each day, for three square meals, this is not a feat to be taken lightly. And considering the capacity of the ship, dietary restrictions are still paid careful attention, with options like gluten-free or dairy-free offered in most of the dining venues.
Main Dining Room (Decks 3, 4 and 5): Once inside, this three-deck dining room becomes one massive yet elegant restaurant. Breakfast and dinner are served here each day, with lunch on sea days. Which deck you dine on depends on factors like which meal is being served and whether you've selected set seating (6:30 and 8:45 p.m., on Decks 3 and 5) or flex dining (6 to 9:30 p.m., on Deck 4).
Decor is luxurious with deep red carpeting, gold detailing along the walls, a light fixture in the entranceway that looks like oversized diamond rings and an impressively large chandelier that sits in the center of the main dining room complex and runs the length of the decks. Chairs and carpeting are cream with black detailing, some covered in velvet roses, and crisp white tablecloths adorn each table. There are tables for groups of every size.
Breakfast is open to everyone in the morning, with an a la carte menu featuring American standards like pancakes and eggs, as well as a buffet that offers sides like fresh fruit, yogurt and pastries. It's a quieter and more intimate alternative to breakfast in Windjammer, and with the supplemental buffet section it doesn't have to take all day -- unless you want to drag out your coffee and croissant.
Lunch is served in a similar format with soups, sandwiches, entrees and desserts available to order off the menu, supported by a sumptuous salad bar featuring various greens, toppings and proteins. Once you've made your selections, a server will chop and mix your custom salad in front of you. You can also find a nice variety of cheeses at the buffet section, along with a few hot items like boiled fish and curries.
Dinner comes with a selection of starters, main courses and desserts. Waiters will make their recommendations for the evening, and we found these to be spot on. To begin, expect appetizers like crab cakes, kale salad, roasted garlic soup, escargots or a classic Caesar salad; mains include standards like a sirloin steak and roasted chicken as well as Thai chicken breast, Moroccan-spiced Ahi tuna steak and a pie of the day, like shepherd's pie. Premium selections are offered each night for a splurge, and include a whole Maine lobster for $29.95; filet mignon from Chops Grille for $16.95; and a surf and turf for $34.95. Dessert hits all the highlights from a cheesecake with strawberry topping or a baked Alaska, to ice cream, creme brulee and a slice of chocolate cake so large it could feed a family.
All meals have items that are designated vegetarian, gluten-free and no-sugar-added. It's best to notify the line of any allergies or food preferences before boarding, but to ensure that these are known, speak with the maitre 'd on the first night of your cruise to be positive that the dining staff is aware of your restrictions.
Windjammer Marketplace (Deck 16): The ship's wraparound buffet serves as a casual catchall for every meal and every taste. Additionally, it's always without a dress code so it's a safe alternative for anyone not observing formal night. The Windjammer Marketplace opens early in the morning (around 6) for a Continental breakfast and then fully opens for a hot breakfast, complete with an egg station that does omelets, something missing from previous ships in the Oasis Class. Breakfast items include tons of bacon and sausage but also Indian and Chinese dishes. Stations in the middle of the buffet typically offer a variety of meats, cheeses, fruit, side salads all day long, with an extensive salad bar in the afternoon and evening.
Some stations do repeat as you wind your way around the large space, but it's sometimes worth a loop around. At lunch, plan to find burgers, fries and pizza at an Americana counter, a Mongolian wok, and pasta and crepe stations, just to name a few. You'll also find dessert and bread counters. The buffet stays open with limited items in the late afternoon and again after dinner, for snacks.
Dinner might feature a specialty, like German brats, at one of the hot entree stations. Otherwise, with the exception of offerings being a little more hearty (plenty of fish and meat dishes) you'll find many of the same stations as at lunch. Beverage stations with water, juice, coffee and tea are all around the buffet and a few Coke machines are available as well for anyone with a soda package.
The Windjammer offers plenty of seating, much of it near windows. There are also nooks by the walls with cute white-and-red chairs on one side, a booth on the other and a wall behind that looks like the tiny painted bows of boats are popping through. Look up for another interesting design element.
Soft-serve ice cream stations are located on the pool deck (Deck 15) along each side.
Sorrento's Pizzeria (Deck 5): This pizzeria serves up complimentary slices, calzones and fresh pies -- including gluten-free upon request -- from early in the afternoon until late at night (after the bars wind down). Standard flavors include pepperoni, margherita and daily specials like chicken tandoori or Japanese (trust us, they work). You can also customize your own personal pie from a counter with tons of toppings (this place is a hazard to the waistline). If you have a soda package, two Coke machines are located here to pair with your pizza, and if not, a drink station with dispensers of ice water is on hand. The red-green-and-white motif of the Italian flag can be seen everywhere from the bricks in its columns to seat cushions and the tiled floor, but it's tastefully paired with black-and-white photographs of the Motherland. Sorrento's is located along the Royal Promenade so it's central to the action and always bustling.
Cafe Promenade (Deck 5): A haven for anyone who requires a quick cup of coffee or tea along with a light bite, any time of day, Cafe Promenade never closes. As its name suggests, it's a primo people-watching spot, with a handful of tables located on the Royal Promenade. Pastries like fresh doughnuts are available in the morning, and paninis, sandwiches, cookies, cupcakes and other snacks (we even found scones with clotted cream and berries one afternoon) filter in and out throughout the day. Gluten-free options like Udis-brand cookies, and turkey and tomato on gluten-free rye bread are available as well. Self-serve coffee and tea are complimentary, as is the food, but specialty espresso drinks incur an additional cost. Seating here is comfortable and an attractive table in the middle of the cafe looks like one large piece of natural wood; despite seating 10 people it somehow doesn't obstruct the space.
Boardwalk Dog House (Deck 6): Reminiscent of the hot dog stands on the boardwalks along the East Coast of the United States, Symphony's Dog House will sate any hot dog-lover's cravings with a variety of sausages and toppings.
Vitality Cafe (Deck 6): Vitality is a juice bar and coffee counter just to the right of the spa complex. It serves as a relatively calm spot to grab a light snack (fresh fruit, veggie sandwiches, "healthy" muffins or granola bar) as well as a waiting area for customers who have booked salon appointments. Open hours vary, but more or less match up with those of the spa. We noticed many patrons of the gym swinging by for a fresh-squeezed juice (say: beet, ginger, celery and apple) after a strenuous workout. The food is free, though the juices, smoothies and specialty coffee come at an extra fee.
Park Cafe (Deck 8): This Central Park staple is a great place to grab breakfast or lunch, especially at its outdoor seating along the park. While the bagels are nothing like you'd find in Brooklyn, creative cream cheese options (roasted garlic or apricot and raisin) and a variety of toppings make up for it with a morning build-your-own bagel sandwich. Fruit cups and parfaits are also available to grab-and-go or dine in, which can be a lifesaver for families who need to stash some snacks for hungry kids. A drink station provides juice, tea and coffee. At lunch or for a snack, come for the cafe's famed kummelweck -- a roast beef sandwich -- along with other hot items, side salads and sandwiches and salads packed to go. There is also a case of trifles and other sweet treats. If you look carefully, there are cushioned rocking chairs outside the cafe to the side.
Solarium Bistro (Deck 15): Probably the best-kept secret when it comes to included dining onboard Symphony of the Seas, the peaceful Solarium's restaurant is open for a buffet breakfast and lunch, along with a sit-down dinner. While the food is simple, influenced by the Mediterranean, the ambiance is stunning and gives the glass-enclosed venue the air that it's worth an upcharge (but we're just fine with it staying free).
Breakfast and lunch are served buffet-style, and include an omelet station with a mix of other hot and cold items in the morning, and crepes, salads and sandwiches in the afternoon. We liked the variety of meats, cheeses and grilled vegetables.
At dinner many of the appetizers, entrees and desserts available are Greek. Expect hummus and baba ganoush, watermelon salad, Greek roasted potatoes and even ceviche. Kebabs, fish, lamb meatballs and steak are included. A few premium items, like lobster tail, can be purchased (the lobster tail is $15). Dessert is a smorgasbord of Greek and Italian sweets like baklava, loukomades and chocolate nocciole.
El Loco Fresh (Deck 15): This (covered) outdoor Mexican eatery, with bright and cheery decor meant to invoke a sense of "fiesta," is a new complimentary venue, located aft of the Pool Deck. It replaces Mini-Bites on other Oasis-class ships, and also serves as a substitute for Sabor, a Mexican dining venue found on many other Royal Caribbean cruise ships.
El Loco Fresh is open for lunch and late-afternoon snacks. From 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., take your pick of chicken or beef burritos, cheese or chicken quesadillas, nachos, corn on the cob, and beef, chicken or pork tacos with fresh, soft corn tortillas. Packaged salads are also available with a variety of dressings. What makes the meal is the salsa station, where you can take your pick from homemade guacamole, fire-roasted tomatoes, pico de gallo and many more toppings. For dessert, try one of the parfait cups in flavors like tres leches, chocolate dulce de leche or flan. For something lighter, there are watermelon chunks and other fresh fruit. A self-serve drink station is located in the space, but servers will typically walk around offering refills and clearing platters.
Coastal Kitchen (Deck 17): Immediately adjacent to the Suite Lounge at the top of the ship is the dedicated restaurant for suite passengers as well as Pinnacle-level members of Royal Caribbean's loyalty program. Coastal Kitchen serves breakfast, lunch and dinner in a light-filled space, although only Sky-class suite passengers and above can come here all day for drinks and snacks, while other (Sea Class) suite passengers can only partake in dinner. Coastal Kitchen's cuisine is California-meets-Mediterranean as showcased by simple preparation and fresh vegetables used in grilled salmon and other entrees at night. Breakfast is a sit-down meal supplemented by a luxe buffet on the suite lounge side. We felt the breakfast menu was pretty standard -- eggs, cereals, pastries and fruit -- with the exception of one California-inspired dish (Baja eggs) and one from the Med, aptly called a Mediterranean plate and including toasted points with a tomato spread, hummus, prosciutto and Manchego cheese.
Izumi Hibachi and Sushi (Deck 4); a la carte, or $45 or $49 for the Hibachi Experience: Book your reservation early, because the Samurai-themed Izumi is not a large space, and it fills quickly -- especially around the hibachi tables. The sushi restaurant is priced a la carte, and open for lunch or dinner. Expect starters like five pieces of pork gyoza (dumplings) for $8; a $6 seaweed salad; carpaccios and nigiri or sashimi -- $10 will buy you an octopus yuzu chimicurri; a long list of signature sushi rolls ranging from $12 to $17; a satisfying menu of soups and noodles, including two varieties of ramen for $13 apiece; and trendy poke bowls with vegetables and raw seafood for about $17. Dessert includes mochi ice cream, 3 pieces for $5.
Hibachi is only available for dinner and two options are offered: "Teppan Classics," a choice of yaki udon (chicken, beef or tofu), tori (chicken breast), gyu (beef tenderloin) or ebi (tiger shrimp) or a premium combination for $4 more per person, which affords the diner selections like beef tenderloin, shrimp, sea scallops and lobster. If you're not familiar with hibachi restaurants on land, the chef puts on a show, flipping fried rice and knives, while cooking your meal before your eyes; you might sit with other people not in your party in order to fill a table.
Starbucks (Deck 5); a la carte: Can't do without your daily Starbucks macchiato fix? You don't have to on Symphony of the Seas, as Starbucks has a stand in the middle of the Royal Promenade. Keep in mind you'll pay standard Starbucks prices for that reliable grande extra-hot soy latte. A few extra-fee snacks like muffins and other pastries are also offered. Seating along the back of the Starbucks stand faces giant TV screens showing sporting matches and other events on the wall of the On Air Bar.
Johnny Rockets (Deck 6); $9.95: Much like the diner-style hamburger chain on land, Johnny Rockets at sea offers chili cheese fries, hot dogs and patty melts at its fitting location on the Boardwalk. The difference is that for lunch and dinner on the ship you'll pay a cover, rather than per item. The exception is milkshakes and malts, which will cost you extra. The real insider tip here is the included breakfast, which serves up diner breakfast items like eggs, pancakes and bacon made to order. Most passengers don't catch on to this offering, so it's usually an uncrowded place to come for your first meal of the day.
Sugar Beach (Deck 6); a la carte: This new venue on the Boardwalk is a sweet treat, offering a dizzying rainbow variety of loose candy to bag, novelty items like pink poodle plushies, as well as ice cream, sundaes and even classes on cupcake decorating. Precious pastel tables are outside on the boardwalk so you can sit and lick your ice cream while watching the carousel. Ice cream is $3 for one scoop, $4.50 for two, $5.75 for three, $6.50 for a cone and $9 for one of three signature sundaes including a Cookie Crunch Split.
Playmakers Sports Bar & Arcade (Deck 6); a la carte: The gastropub-style food offered at the Boardwalk's new bar and arcade includes all the crowd favorites like burgers ($9), sliders ($3 each), wings ($8 for a dozen), nachos ($7), loaded potato skins ($6) popcorn shrimp ($7) and even a warm chocolate chip cookie served with Nutella, melted marshmallow and a side of milk shooters ($6). The Playmakers Challenge presents any one person who can eat 100 wings in 45 minutes a T-shirt -- the "experience" costs $45. Seating is available indoors and out.
Chops Grille (Deck 8); $49: While some other restaurants were tweaked onboard Symphony of the Seas, Royal's signature steakhouse remains the same. Come to Chops Grille, with its romantic location in Central Park, to splurge on premium steaks, seafood and other contemporary American entrees like roasted chicken. Expect colossal shrimp, two different sizes of filet mignon, branzino and gruyere tater tots. For a splurge, pay about $20 more for a selection of dry-aged steaks.
150 Central Park (Deck 8); $49: As its partnership with celebrity chef Michael Schwartz is at an end, Royal Caribbean took the opportunity to revitalize the menu at its upscale restaurant 150 Central Park. Eight new and slightly eclectic entrees and seven appetizers offer a mix of veal, venison, lamb, duck, lobster, salad, scallops, ribs and a cauliflower steak. A beef tenderloin for two can be prepared tableside and doesn't cost anything additional. 150 Central Park comes with a decent wine selection and a house cocktail, if you imbibe, though alcohol is additional. Don't miss the hazelnut passion fruit bar on the dessert menu.
Jamie's Italian (Deck 8); $25 lunch, $35 dinner: The food at Jamie's Italian is inventive, but no-nonsense, and was one of our favorite dining experiences we've ever had at sea (and we only had lunch!) Chef Jamie Oliver, known for his simple, fresh ingredient philosophy, takes a well-known item like bruschetta, and both serves it in a creative way (topped with white crab, crunchy apple, smashed avocado, yogurt and chili) as well as the traditional version. But the original is made with such high-quality ingredients that the world seemed to stop when we took a bite of the cold whipped ricotta, warm slow-roasted cherry tomatoes, basil and olive oil on a piece of garlic-rubbed toasted ciabatta. The dinner menu is slightly more expansive than lunch, but both serve modern Italian mains and homemade pasta, sides and antipasti, which includes the house specialty planks (meat or veg) meant for sharing. A kids menu is available, but try to convince them to order something like the penne pomodoro (so you can steal a few bites). Dessert takes standards like brownies or cheesecake to another level. The small addition of orange zest to our tiramisu launched it into the stratosphere (and paired with an espresso, fuhgeddaboudit). Shaded tables on Central Park make it a wonderful place to dine alfresco.
Wonderland (Decks 11 and 12); $49: According to an executive chef with Royal Caribbean, some of the ship's best chefs can be found at Wonderland. This is because the intricate preparation of each dish takes immense focus and attention to detail. If you are someone who appreciates the details, and especially if you are a fan of "Alice in Wonderland," you will love the thought put into the decor and the presentation at Symphony's Wonderland space. (Your unofficial maitre 'd is the Mad Hatter, and look for the hidden Alice.) Items are divided into natural elements (sun, earth, ice) and sharing is encouraged so the table can experience the nuances of more dishes. The menus have been revamped for this Wonderland, and a new kids menu promises the same level of discovery and experimentation, but one that would be more palatable to fussy eaters: mac 'n' cheese fries or edible paper, anyone? Our advice: If you're not sure about shelling out for a dinner here, come to the bar (on Deck 12) for a drink. The experience is just as whimsical, you can enjoy the spectacular views afforded by the two-story windows and you can head back out of the rabbit hole after one cocktail. Editor's Note: if you're not an adventurous eater, don't force it -- you're probably better suited to spending on a specialty dinner you know you'll enjoy.
Hooked Seafood (Deck 16); $49.99: Royal Caribbean brought in a Connecticut native with a restaurant background to help develop Hooked, a New England-inspired seafood restaurant whose focus is delivering the fresh catch. Upon walking into the country-chic space, you'll face the raw bar, lined with their best offerings -- like Florida stone crab, Alaskan king crab legs or Maine lobster -- on ice. A few premium items, including the shellfish listed above, do come with an upcharge -- $18 for a half pound of the king crab or $30 for a lobster -- but plenty of incredible seafood is included in the cover. A raw oyster sampler for two comes with a half-dozen daily fresh market options. Don't miss the New England clam chowder, lobster mac 'n' cheese or if you want a giant pot of mussels, the drunken mussels. However, the unanimous vote for favorite entree the night we dined was the "messy fish sandwich," an accurate name but one that doesn't entirely describe the satisfaction of battered cod with slaw and pickles on a toasted roll with kettle chips. We really appreciated that dessert and drinks follow the New England theme. Indulge in an IPA, a rosé or the house cocktail (a spritzer that was the best thing we drank onboard) and follow with blueberry cobbler, Boston cream pie or a whoopie pie. If you're really looking to kick things off, order some oyster shooters.
Room Service; $7.95: There is a complimentary Continental breakfast menu, with items like toast, pastries, cereal, fruit, coffee and juice. Otherwise, all other hot breakfast and regular room service items (sandwiches, salads, desserts) incur a fee per order (not per item). General room service is available from 11 a.m. to 6 a.m. and features dishes like chicken fettucine alfredo, grilled salmon, chicken wings or a personal pizza.