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    Travel: Cruise specialty dining — what is and isn’t included?
    • March 1, 2023

    In a day when decent meals have been taken from the mouths of airplane passengers flying economy, cruises are a breath of fresh ocean air.

    Going cheap on a commercial airline might get you a soggy sandwich or lukewarm Hot Pocket if you’re lucky. But some 36,000 feet below, even cruisers who book an inside cabin next to an elevator on a low deck are enjoying upgraded grub without an upcharge.

    From celebrity chef gourmet burgers to high-tech, movie-themed restaurants, more and more cruise lines are including specialty dining with fares. Increased value isn’t something consumers have seen much of since the pandemic wreaked havoc on the hospitality industry, but this trend bucking by cruise lines is happening simultaneously with unprecedented incentives to either woo back past guests or make new ones out of those hesitant to sail due to concerns over COVID-19 and other reasons.

    Even sweeter, it’s not just the pricey, all-inclusive ships that throw in specialty dining here and there. Take Disney of the premium cruise line category, which is nestled between mainstream (Carnival, MSC, Norwegian and Royal Caribbean) and luxury (Regent Seven Seas, Seabourn, Silversea, Windstar and the newly revived Crystal). One thing that sets Disney apart from Azamara, Celebrity, Cunard, Holland America, Oceania, Princess and Virgin at the premium level — besides mice running amok on its ships (sorry, Mickey and Minnie) — is that the company’s floating resorts redefine the term “main dining room.”

    Queen Elsa welcomes guests at her sister’s engagement dinner aboard the Disney Wish. (Photo by David Dickstein)

    On Disney Wish, no fees or engagement gifts are necessary to attend Queen Anna and Kristoff’s betrothal dinner dubbed Arendelle: A Frozen Dining Adventure. Also included is the flagship’s Worlds of Marvel, another family-friendly experience that’s part of Disney’s fleetwide rotational dining system. So, feast till your stomach’s content on Chilean sea bass, rib-eye steak, filet mignon and supercalifragilisticexpialidocious desserts because Scrooge McDuck won’t be tacking an extra charge to your account.

    From Disney’s “magical” ships to Carnival’s “Fun Ships,” here’s a bit of good news/bad news for cruisers counting pennies and calories: Perhaps the best burgers and chicken strips at sea are included with fares, and whoever doesn’t consider Guy Fieri’s meaty masterpieces or Shaquille O’Neil’s flavorful chicken tenders as specialty dining has never eaten at Guy’s Burger Joint or Big Chicken. Most of Carnival’s Fun Ships have the moo, but the cluck is only a defeathered friend on Mardi Gras, Radiance, Celebration and, come October, the new Jubilee.

    Back to the premium category, inclusive specialty dining on Oceania’s Regatta-class ships consists of Polo Grill for steaks, chops and fresh seafood, and Toscana, which, as its name suggests, serves gourmet Italian cuisine with a Tuscan flair. Viking’s ocean ships counter with their lavish takes on steak and seafood at Manfredi’s Italian Restaurant, while on Virgin vessels, carnivores graze at The Wake, part of the adults-only line’s Michelin-starred chef collective.

    Moving on up to the luxury cruise line category, Candles on Windstar ships is the epitome of all-inclusive specialty dining, featuring to-die-for steaks, sea bass and lemon tarts enjoyed al fresco by candlelight with amazing views off the stern. On some Silversea ships is a unique experiential program called S.A.L.T., which stands for Sea and Land Taste. The epicurean and educational treat combines onshore culinary excursions with onboard dining to tantalize the mouth and mind. Among the included specialty dining aboard Regent Seven Seas ships are the Prime 7 steakhouse, French-accented Signatures and Tuscan-inspired Sette Mari at La Veranda. When the beloved Crystal Serenity and Crystal Symphony return to duty this summer with new owners, A&K Travel Group, they’ll add Osteria D’Ovidio to the maritime mix of specialty Italian restaurants.

    Cruise lines across all categories are always finding ways to charge a premium for better accommodations, and one of the most popular is exclusive dining. Technically, a restaurant that serves only suite guests is less “specialty” and more an alternate main dining room. But that doesn’t stop some from adding these to their list of specialty restaurants.

    Holland America offers single-cruise membership into Club Orange with perks that include a private dining room. (Photo by David Dickstein)

    Azamara is one line that doesn’t charge suite guests who dine at its two specialty restaurants, Prime C (steak) and Aqualina (seafood). On Royal Caribbean, guests booked in mini-suites and higher in addition to Pinnacle Club members can dine at the understatedly elegant Coastal Kitchen, which features a fusion of California and Mediterranean cuisine. Passengers staying in AquaClass on Celebrity get exclusive access to Blu and its spa-style dishes at breakfast and lunch while suite guests are invited to enjoy the elevated breakfast, lunch and dinner menus at Luminae. On Holland America, you can buy your way into Club Orange, which, among other benefits, comes with a private dining venue and expanded menu on Pinnacle-class ships.

    Lovely as specialty restaurants with no surcharge are, with few exceptions you’re still paying for the upgraded experience in the fare. Going with a more affordable cruise line, especially one in the mainstream or premium categories, will likely result in your specialty dining adventure being à la carte. Fees generally range from $29-$59 per person, and most non-all-inclusive cruise ships with multiple restaurants offer package deals. MSC even has an “Unlimited Dining Experiences” bundle on some ships with a price tag of about $200 per person.

    Tip #1: Often the best price for packages is offered online in the booking manager tool. Tip #2: Better chef’s table experiences can run a few hundred dollars but, unlike with most fee-based meals, typically includes wine; booking early is wise as these ultimate splurges tend to sell out.

    Augmented reality meets gourmet cuisine at Le Petit Chef on Celebrity ships. (Photo by David Dickstein)

    Some of the best upcharging specialty restaurants are found on premium-category ships. Going one further, Celebrity has perhaps the finest collection on a single vessel. On its Solstice class ships, for example, guests can’t go wrong with any of the four aboard. Augmented reality meets gourmet cuisine at Le Petit Chef; Tuscan Grille is arguably the only reliable Italian restaurant south of the luxury-ship category; surf and turf are well represented at the elegant Murano; and Sushi on Five is simply raw-some.

    It’s chateaubriand for two prepared tableside at Murano, Celebrity’s finest fine dining option. (Photo by David Dickstein)

    More premium-class dining worth the premium is on Holland America. Tamarind does justice to cuisines of Southeast Asia, China and Japan, while Pinnacle Grill, the ship’s steakhouse, has a candied bacon side that goes perfectly with its cuts and salmon. Another winner on Holland America is Rudi’s Sel de Mer, an intimate French-hinting brasserie from master chef Rudi Sodamin. Meanwhile, Disney has two instant classics on its Wish flagship: the “Beauty and the Beast”-inspired, adults-exclusive Enchanté, and Palo Steakhouse that makes every dish a work of art. On Cunard ships is The Verandah, perhaps the best steakhouse at sea. Princess holds its own with Crown Grill for steak and seafood, and the more beef-leaning Sterling Steakhouse.

    Palo is known for its steaks, but the tiramisu is to die for on Disney Wish. (Photo by David Dickstein)

    Sailing on a mainstream cruise line might save enough money to splurge on a full-service, sit-down specialty restaurant as opposed to Guy’s Burger Joint, Big Chicken and other distinctive quick-serve eateries.

    Steakhouses on value megaships that make the grade, U.S. prime or otherwise, include Cagney’s on Norwegian, Chops Grille on Royal Caribbean and those on Carnival; they go by different names, but have virtually the same menu.

    The wagyu short rib as pretty as it is popular at Ji Ji Asian Kitchen on Carnival ships. (Photo by David Dickstein)

    Take a tasty trip to Bayou Country at the Southern-comforted Mason Jar, home of lip-smackin’ beef brisket, pork ribs and fried chicken, with and without waffles. The bourbon-chocolate pecan pie, alone, is worth the surcharge. Same with the sweet and sour shrimp at Carnival’s two Asian dining spots, Ji Ji Asian Kitchen and Chibang!

    For a magical dinner experience on select Royal Caribbean ships, Wonderland immerses patrons in the world of Lewis Carroll on their first step through the looking glass. If that’s Royal Caribbean’s counter to Disney’s fantasy-rich dining experiences, then Carnival’s version is the once-a-cruise Green Eggs and Ham Breakfast with The Cat in the Hat and friends. Journey into the deliciously whimsical world of Dr. Seuss and you, too, might say you like green eggs and ham. Tip #3: Despite what the book says, Carnival discourages you from eating them in a box or eating them with a fox.

    If you go …

    Azamara —
    Carnival Cruise Line —
    Celebrity Cruises —
    Crystal —
    Cunard —
    Disney Cruise Line —
    Holland America Line —
    MSC Cruises —
    Norwegian Cruise Line —
    Oceania Cruises —
    Princess Cruises —
    Regent Seven Seas Cruises —
    Royal Caribbean International —
    Seabourn Cruise Line —
    Silversea Cruises —
    Viking Cruises —
    Virgin Voyages —
    Windstar Cruises —

    ​ Orange County Register