by Fran Golden, Special for USA Today June 26th, 2015
When you go on a cruise, food is an important part of the experience. Cruise lines have made great strides in bringing up the level of cuisine.
Food choices abound. For instance, on Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Breakaway and Norwegian Getaway, you can choose from 20 dining options; on Royal Caribbean’s Anthem of the Seas there are 18 eateries. Even the pickiest foodies will be impressed by the appearance on cruise ships of dishes and restaurants by Michelin-star and celebrity chefs – the most recent Thomas Keller, arguably America’s top chef, who has signed on with luxury line Seabourn.
Here we dispel five myths about cruise ship food.
1. You’re stuck with what’s on the menu
If you have a craving for a particular dish, tell your waiter or the dining room maître d’. On many ships, particularly the luxury lines, you can make a special off-menu order – with 24-hour advance notice. For instance, a popular special request on Crystal Cruises is a whole roasted kosher chicken. On Seabourn, you might ask the chef to prepare a special order of foie gras. On Cunard, a popular request of top-tier Queens Grill passengers is Lobster Thermidor. Even on mainstream lines, with international crew in the kitchen, you can request adobo, the delicious Filipino stew, a real Indian curry or Indonesian fried rice. Note: Passengers with specific dietary needs such as food allergies should let the cruise line know well in advance of your sailing.
2. The buffet is not as good as the dining room
Wrong. Obviously you won’t have the pomp and circumstance when you serve yourself at this casual venue, but don’t dismiss dinner at the buffet. We’re not talking a bland cafeteria lineup. Often the dishes at the buffet are the same at dinner as in the main dining room. Sometimes they are even better. Some buffets particularly shine: On Oceania Cruises ships, the Terrace Café has a grill where passengers can order all-you-can-eat lobster rib eye steaks, shrimp and lamb chops, and there’s also a chef preparing sushi and sashimi. On Viking Cruises’ Viking Star, a cold sushi and sashimi bar puts the buffet over the top. An advantage of buffet dining is it is come-as-you-are, no need to dress up.
3. it’s impossible to eat good nutritious food
Cruises are probably not the best place to diet. That said, it’s perfectly okay to order, say, a salad and entrée for dinner and skip the appetizer, soup and dessert. Creativity shines on the latest cruise ship menus, with an emergence of more Asian and other lighter international cuisine – it’s no longer only about the prime rib and Baked Alaska, though you can get that too. You’ll find flavorful regional cuisine options (based on where you are cruising), local seafood and a wide variety of fresh fruit and vegetables. Most menus designate low-calorie or healthy choice options, and include a vegetarian appetizer and entrée (SeaDream Yacht Club even has a complete raw food menu). In all cruise ship dining rooms you can get basics such as grilled chicken. At the buffet, those watching their waistlines will find an extensive salad bar. At the burger grill you’ll find a veggie burger option.
4. Everyone goes to the midnight buffet
What midnight buffet? Most ships don’t even have one any more. Cruise lines have moved away from the late-night gorge fest/photo opp in favor of a 24-hour café or other dining spot where you can eat whenever you want. There’s also typically 24-hour room service, though some menus are better than others – on Viking you can order Norwegian salmon served with dill sauce whenever you like. Be aware that Norwegian and Carnival have been testing fees for room service (but have also expanded food options). Royal Caribbean charges $3.95 for orders placed between midnight to 5 a.m.
5. Food is included
First of all, you will not go hungry. There are plenty of free food options, in fact some of the best bites on the ship may be free – an example, we can’t stop eating those decadent Guy Fieri burgers on Carnival ships.
However, if you want a special meal in an intimate venue with fine service you’re probably have to pay. Specialty restaurants such as the excellent Italian venue Sabatini’s on Princess ships and French-influenced adults-only Remy on Disney Cruise Line are well worth the extra bucks (if you plan on hitting several of the venues see if there’s an advance-purchase, discounted dining package). If you’re so inclined, you can have surf and turf (lobster and filet mignon) every night in the dining room on Carnival and Royal Caribbean ships, but you’ll have to pay extra for it.