Cruise Ship Cuisine - How Good is it Really?

| June 8, 2009
Here's what you need to know about meal service options before you sail.

What could simpler than sitting down and eating dinner? Normally, nothing -- but a cruise ship is a different story. When it comes to cruise ship dining, the more you know, the more there is to learn. Cruise ship dining is an art in both the culinary sense and the realm of social skills. From wine selection to identifying the dessert spoon, cruise ship dining is fine dining, but don't let that worry you.

It's all a great deal of fun and a big part of the cruise experience. In fact, after you have done it once you will probably know almost everything you will ever need to know. But it is almost impossible to fully prepare the uninitiated. Even veteran cruisers can have a hard time keeping up with cruise line dining policies.

Here are some frequent questions we get:

  • What is the difference between first and second seating, and which one is better?
  • What does the Maitre D' do, and why would you have to tip him?
  • What is "open seating" or "any-time dining," and how do they differ from standard dining?
  • How many courses do you get and how big are they?
  • How do they track how much you are eating? Are there meal tickets, wristbands, checklists or other ways?
  • What is included with your meal and what is not?

While every dining program is a little different, most cruise lines stick to certain similar traditions, with a few distinct differences. These days, changes abound and just about every cruise line is constantly trying to improve its dining program. In some cases, they are completely overhauling them.

So here we present a general guide to dining on the high seas. We'll touch on a few of the exceptions, but mostly we will concentrate on the premises that are standard on most ships. This article is for the new cruiser who might be hopelessly confused.

Fixed Seating or "Traditional" Dining Most cruise lines offer dinner seating in two main formats. First is the traditional fixed seating format that cruise lines have offered since they began carrying passengers. (In fact, many lines refer to this as "traditional" dining.) It means you are assigned to a specific table at a fixed dining time. That table can seat as few as two people, or as many as eight to 10. You could be assigned a table for four that accommodates just your family. Or if you are traveling as a couple, you might be seated with others at a larger table -- e.g., a table for eight where you and your traveling companion join three other couples.

The assignment of table sizes and dining companions are up to the cruise line, which tries to group people together who have something in common -- such as age. But the line doesn't really know much about you in advance, so selection of tablemates is generally pretty random.

About the only thing you can request in advance is your dining time -- early or late seating. If you want just a table for two, you can request one, but there is no guarantee your request will be granted. In fact, most cruise passengers want to meet new people at dinner, and many who request tables for two soon grow tired of the isolation.

Traditional dining usually has an early and a late seating for the same table. So while you may dine at 6 p.m. at table 122, another couple will occupy your place at the 8:30 "late" seating at that same table.

The advantage of traditional dining is that you enjoy dinner with the same wait staff for every meal -- generally a maitre d', a headwaiter, your waiter, and an assistant waiter. Over the course of the cruise, they learn your likes, dislikes, and special preferences. If on the first evening you ask for a glass of iced tea, chances are that glass of iced tea will be waiting for you each subsequent night. If your kids like chocolate jimmies on their ice cream, your waiter will likely remember this and have their favorite flavor of ice cream delivered when dessert time rolls around, complete with lots of chocolate jimmies.

The disadvantage of fixed or traditional seating is that you are locked into the same dining time each night. You can't change off depending on your activities each day. If you're tired after spending a day in port and you want to eat in the main dining room that night, you may have only half an hour to get ready for dinner once you arrive back on the ship.

The other disadvantage is that you dine with the same fellow passengers every night. Ideally you will enjoy their company, but that is not always the case. If you're at a larger table with other people, you could find that you are not quite compatible with some of them. If you have compatibility issues with your tablemates, it is best to seek out the maitre d' early in the cruise to ask for a table reassignment.

Continue Article >> Open Seating Dining (Part 2)

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