Cruise ship restaurant nirvana: The 7 best meals you can have at sea
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When it comes to dining, cruise ships often get a bad rap. There’s a storyline out there that cruises are little more than gorge fests, prioritizing quantity over quality.
After writing about cruising for more than 20 years, I can tell you this is far from the truth. Quality dining always has been a big part of the cruising experience, and the culinary offerings only have improved over the years.
You’ll now find restaurants on high-end cruise ships created and overseen by some of the world’s most famous chefs, including Nobuyuki Matsuhisa (of Nobu fame) and Thomas Keller.
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But even on mass-market vessels, the food is getting ever more elaborate and diverse. Norwegian Cruise Line brags that its latest ship, Norwegian Encore, has more than 20 different food venues — everything from a casual barbecue restaurant (with live country music) to a high-end Italian spot from the creators of New York City’s Scarpetta.
In short, there’s a lot of wonderful food out there on the high seas. Or, at least, there was before the coronavirus outbreak began. We’re confident there soon will be again once ships resume sailing.
A brief history of dining at sea
Long before cruise ships ballooned into giant floating megaresorts chock full of every sort of amusement known to humans, from go-kart tracks to (soon) a roller coaster, they were known for their often-elaborate, elegant and drawn-out meal services.
There was a time, in fact, when heading to dinner — preceded by a drink at a nearby bar and maybe followed by a show — was the big activity at sea. That, and maybe a game of shuffleboard.
The big change from those early days of cruising is that you’ll now find not just one or two main restaurants on the typical cruise vessel but a whole array of options — everything from greasy burger joints and Chipotle-like burrito purveyors to fine French restaurants and high-end Asian eateries. Gone are the days when everyone assembled in one big, traditional dining room for a one-size-fits-all dining experience.
The restaurants you’ll find on ships today vary in style and quality depending on the brand. As you might expect, upscale lines such as Crystal Cruises and Seabourn offer some of the most exquisite restaurants at sea. These eateries often are set in stylish spaces designed by top hospitality design firms. But even low-cost operators such as Carnival Cruise Line now have an impressive array of culinary options on their vessels.
As you’ll read about in a moment, Carnival offers what I’ve consistently found to be one of the best steakhouses at sea. It’s also home to what may be the best burger at sea. The deck-top Guy’s Burger Joint was created in partnership with celebrity chef Guy Fieri, someone who knows a good burger. It’s now found on all 24 Carnival ships.
The best restaurants at sea
Over the years, as part of testing and reviewing more than 150 vessels operated by 40 different lines, I’ve eaten at pretty much every cruise ship restaurant.
Just like at resorts on land, there’s incredible diversity out there. Some are great. Some aren’t. Some are too pricey for what they are. Others are bargains.
Speaking of bargains, on some ships — mostly at the luxury end of the market — there’s no extra charge to eat at any of the restaurants on board, even restaurants created by world-famous chefs. That’s not something you usually see at resorts on land. Of course, you’ll pay plenty just to be on board a luxury ship. The cost of the food is built into the fare.
One of the great bargains at sea, for instance, is the Nobuyuki Matsuhisa restaurant, Umi Uma & Sushi Bar, that’s found on Crystal’s Crystal Serenity and Crystal Symphony. It doesn’t cost a single penny. Every passenger is entitled to at least one visit per cruise as part of their base fare.
Even the drinks are free at Umi Uma & Sushi Bar. On Crystal ships, nearly all drinks are included in the fare (you’ll only pay extra for a few ultra-premium spirits and rare wines). That’s typical for luxury vessels. On many less high-end vessels, by contrast, you’ll pay extra for drinks at restaurants — even if the food in the eatery is included in the fare.
Below are my picks for the very best restaurants at sea. For the most part, as you might expect, they’re on higher-end ships. But not every restaurant mentioned is on a luxury vessel. As noted above, I’ve long been smitten with the steakhouses on Carnival vessels.
Umi Uma & Sushi Bar
Where you’ll find it: Crystal Serenity and Crystal Symphony
When it comes to sushi at sea, the gold standard for years has been Umi Uma & Sushi Bar. Found on Crystal’s two biggest ocean ships, the venue is the creation of famed Japanese chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa — yes, that Nobuyuki Matsuhisa — and offers sushi as well as Matsuhisa’s trademark Japanese-Peruvian fusion cuisine. We’re talking dishes like lobster with truffle-yuzu sauce and miso-glazed black cod.
If you’ve been to Matsuhisa’s Nobu restaurants in New York, Las Vegas or other cities, you know what we’re talking about. This is Japanese cuisine transformed into high art. On the two Crystal ships, it’s also one of the best deals on sushi anywhere. While it’s easy to rack up a $150 per person bill at a Nobu on land (a single piece of toro sushi costs $17 at Nobu New York Fifty Seven), a night at Umi Uma on a Crystal ship is included in the fare. That fare, of course, isn’t insignificant. Crystal voyages can run as much as $1,000 per person, per day.
Cost: There is no extra charge to dine at Umi Uma. Passengers are entitled to one visit per voyage. Additional reservations may be requested, on a space-available basis, for a $30 per person reservation fee.
Where you’ll find it: All Viking ocean ships
Found on every Viking ocean ship, this is our hands-down pick for the best Italian restaurant at sea. Named after Manfredi Lefebvre d’Ovidio, the part-owner of one of Viking’s rivals, Silversea (Viking chairman Torstein Hagen and Lefebvre are friends), it serves up authentic and hearty Tuscan and Northern Italian specialties such as bistecca fiorentina and osso buco alla Milanese. Appetizers range from hand-cut beef tartare to — our favorite — a chilled asparagus and polenta dish that’s served with a perfectly poached egg, Parmagiano Reggiano and truffle.
If you’re a cruising aficionado, be sure to hunt among the photos on the wall for the images of Lefebvre and Hagen experimenting with recipes during the restaurant’s creation. The Italy-born Lefebvre supposedly shared some of his favorite childhood recipes for the venue.
Cost: There’s no extra charge to dine at Manfredi’s, but reservations are required. Passengers are entitled to one visit per voyage (those staying in top suites can go twice).
Where you’ll find it: Oceania Cruises’ Marina, Riviera and Sirena
Red Ginger may be the most gorgeous restaurant you’ll ever see on a cruise ship. With a nod to feng shui, it radiates harmony and tranquility with ebony woods, a soothing waterfall wall and striking, modern Asian artworks. But it’s not just a pretty place: It’s a den of yumminess, too.
Found on three Oceania Cruises ships — Marina, Oceania and Sirena — Red Ginger offers classic Asian dishes with a contemporary twist, all dreamed up by Oceania’s well-regarded in-house culinary team. We’re talking about miso-glazed seabass wrapped in a hoba leaf, and sole tempura with an orange ponzu sauce and spicy daikon. For dessert, don’t miss the lemongrass crème brûlée.
Cost: There is no extra charge to dine at Red Ginger, but reservations are required. Passengers are entitled to one visit per voyage (those staying in top suites can go twice).
The Grill by Thomas Keller
Where you’ll find it: All Seabourn ships
It isn’t easy getting a table at one of Thomas Keller’s restaurants on land, and if you do, you’ll pay up for it. The price of a dinner at Keller’s flagship in New York, Per Se, for instance, is fixed at $355 per person, not including drinks. But you can avoid the hassle of snagging a reservation for a Keller meal — and the cost — by booking a Seabourn cruise. Every passenger on Seabourn’s five ships will have the chance to sample Keller’s cuisine throughout the main restaurants.
Each of the vessels also has a dedicated restaurant, The Grill by Thomas Keller, which offers Keller’s take on classic American chophouse fare with New York Strip steak, Lobster Thermidor and Dover sole meunière. For dessert, there are ice cream sundaes and a seven-layer coconut cake.
Cost: There’s no extra charge to dine at The Grill by Thomas Keller, but reservations are recommended. Passengers can make reservations in advance of their sailings online, on a first-come, first-serve basis, up until 15 days before departure. Reservations also can be made on board.
Where you’ll find it: Carnival Breeze, Carnival Vista, Carnival Horizon, Carnival Panorama, Carnival Sunshine, Carnival Sunrise (and coming soon to Carnival Radiance)
One of the great paradoxes of the cruise world is that one of the lowest-cost operators — Carnival — has one of the best steakhouses at sea. At a fixed price of $38 per person, Fahrenheit 555 also is a relative bargain compared to similar steakhouses on land.
Found on Carnival’s four most recently built ships plus a couple others, Fahrenheit 555 offers all the steakhouse staples, from a 14-ounce New York strip to a nine-ounce filet mignon (both USDA Prime, aged 28 days). Other entree choices include an appropriately marbled hunk of Australian Wagyu beef, grilled lamb chops and Dover sole. Starters include Heritage Berkshire pork belly, bone marrow and hand-cut beef tartare, and — of course — jumbo shrimp cocktail.
Carnival has a long tradition of offering high-end steakhouses on its ships. The line began rolling out steakhouses in 2001 with the debut of its Spirit Class ships (where, in one of the great quirks of cruise ship design, the steakhouses are located in red domes that form the forward portions of the ships’ funnels). There now are steakhouses on 20 of Carnival’s 24 vessels, with varying names and decor. When it comes to culinary offerings, they’re all similar to Fahrenheit 555.
Cost: $38 per person.
Where you’ll find it: All Silversea ships except Silver Explorer and Silver Origin
The premier restaurant on Silversea ships is a temple to high-end French cuisine. Named after La Dame de Paris, aka the Eiffel Tower, it serves such classic dishes as filet of Limousin beef, grilled rack of lamb and pan-fried Dover sole. Appetizers include two different styles of foie gras, and there’s also caviar on the menu.
As you might except for a fancy French venue, the service is all white-glove elegance in a refined but contemporary setting.
Cost: $60 per person.
Where you’ll find it: Seven Seas Explorer and Seven Seas Splendor
One of the latest culinary stars at sea is this eatery, found on the two newest ships from Regent Seven Seas Cruises. Serving Pan-Asian cuisine, it’s elegant and upscale — as you would expect from one of the world’s leading luxury lines — and has a mouthwatering menu. Signature dishes include grilled Korean barbecue lamb chops (served with wok-fried Brussels sprouts and gochujang sauce) and a miso black cod wrapped in a hoba leaf. Signature appetizers include a crispy soft-shell crab served with a kizami wasabi mayo.
For dessert, don’t miss the chili chocolate mousse. True to its name, it’s infused with chile and wonderfully spicy. For something more neutral, our pick is the green tea panna cotta, served with mango and a lychee ragout.
Cost: There’s no extra charge to dine at Pacific Rim, but reservations are required.
Good food is plentiful on cruise ships, including a few truly world-class restaurants. Some of the same chefs behind the best-known restaurants on land have turned their attention to restaurants at sea in recent years, making it easier than ever to have a knockout meal during your cruise.
Planning a cruise? Start with these stories:
- The 5 most desirable cabin locations on any cruise ship
- The 8 worst cabin locations on any cruise ship
- A quick guide to the most popular cruise lines
- 21 tips and tricks that will make your cruise go smoothly
- 15 ways cruisers waste money
- 12 best cruises for people who never want to grow up
- What to pack for your first cruise
Featured image courtesy of Regent Seven Seas Cruises
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