Cruise ship restaurant nirvana: The 9 best meals you can have at sea
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When it comes to onboard restaurants and 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 25 years, I can tell you this is far from the truth. Quality dining has always been a big part of the cruising experience, and cruise ship restaurant offerings only have improved over the years.
You’ll now find standalone restaurants on high-end cruise ships created and overseen by some of the world’s most famous chefs, including Thomas Keller and Jacques Pepin.
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But even on the largest cruise ships, the food is getting ever more elaborate and diverse. Norwegian Cruise Line brags that its biggest vessel, 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.
Over the years, as part of testing and reviewing nearly 200 vessels operated by 41 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.
But the bottom line is there are a lot of wonderful cruise ship restaurants. Below are my picks for the very best cruise restaurants at sea. As you might expect, many of my favorites are on higher-end ships, but several of the top restaurants can be found on the bigger, more affordable cruise ships.
Where you’ll find it: All Viking ocean and expedition ships.
Found on every Viking ocean and expedition ship, Manfredi’s is our hands-down pick for the best Italian restaurant at sea. 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, Parmigiano Reggiano and truffle dressing.
Here’s a bit of trivia: Manfredi’s was named after Manfredi Lefebvre d’Ovidio, who once owned one of Viking’s rivals, Silversea Cruises. Viking chairman Torstein Hagen and Lefebvre are friends. 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. It’ll also be on Vista, a new Oceania ship debuting in 2023.
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, Riviera and Sirena — Red Ginger offers classic Asian dishes with a contemporary twist, all dreamed up by Oceania’s well-regarded, in-house culinary team with input from famed chef Jacques Pepin. We’re talking about miso-glazed sea bass wrapped in a hoba leaf, and sole tempura with an orange ponzu sauce and spicy daikon. For dessert, don’t miss the lemongrass creme brulee.
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 except Seabourn Venture.
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 (that’s for a nine-course meal; there’s an even more expensive, $850 per person option that includes more courses). 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 ships will have the chance to sample Keller’s cuisine throughout the main restaurants.
Most Seabourn vessels also have 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 meuniere. For dessert, there are ice cream sundaes and a seven-layer coconut cake. In my view, Keller’s extraordinary talents are wasted a bit on such traditional fare (his creativity comes through much more with the dishes he created for Seabourn’s main restaurants), but the dishes at The Grill by Thomas Keller are done superbly.
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-served basis, up until 15 days before departure. Reservations also can be made on board.
Where you’ll find it: Carnival’s Mardi Gras, Carnival Breeze, Carnival Vista, Carnival Horizon, Carnival Panorama, Carnival Sunshine, Carnival Sunrise and Carnival Radiance.
One of the great paradoxes of the cruise world is that one of the lowest-cost operators — Carnival Cruise Line — has one of the best steakhouses at sea. At a fixed price of $42 per person, Fahrenheit 555 also is a relative bargain compared to similar steakhouses on land.
Found on Carnival’s five most recently built ships plus a few 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 19 of Carnival’s 23 vessels, with varying names and decor. When it comes to culinary offerings, they’re all similar to Fahrenheit 555.
Cost: $42 per person.
Where you’ll find it: All Silversea ships except Silver Explorer and Silver Origin
The premier restaurant on Silversea Cruises 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. The menu includes two different styles of foie gras, as well as caviar.
As you might expect for a fancy French venue, the service is all white-glove elegance in a refined but contemporary setting. As you might not expect on an upscale all-inclusive cruise line, the restaurant does have a hefty cover charge.
Cost: $60 per person.
Where you’ll find it: Regent Seven Seas Cruises’ Seven Seas Explorer and Seven Seas Splendor
Another one of my favorite cruise ship restaurants is Pacific Rim, found on the two largest Regent Seven Seas Cruises vessels. 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, my 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.
Where you’ll find it: Celebrity Cruises’ Celebrity Edge, Celebrity Apex and Celebrity Beyond.
Celebrity Cruises has created a temple to gastronomy with Eden Restaurant, found on its new Edge-class ships. Located at the back of each vessel in a whimsical glass-walled and plant-filled dining and entertainment space called Eden, it offers a recently revamped, fixed-price menu with a choice of three appetizers, three entrees and two desserts.
In a sharp departure from Eden Restaurant’s original concept of mesmerizingly imaginative dishes with fanciful names and often exotic ingredients, the new menu offers such classic dishes as filet mignon and mini short rib Wellington with mashed potatoes, vegetables, mushrooms and bordelaise sauce, and slow-cooked halibut — all cooked perfectly.
Where you’ll find it: Disney Cruise Line’s Disney Dream and Disney Fantasy.
For the most part, the food on Disney Cruise Line ships is just so-so. It’s a line you book for its great family entertainment, not cuisine. But Remy is the great exception — a dining experience that is among the finest at sea.
Created by two renowned chefs (Arnaud Lallement of France’s three-Michelin-starred l’Assiette Champenoise and Scott Hunnel of Disney World’s high-end Victoria & Albert’s), it offers exquisitely presented, French-inspired cuisine of the highest quality in an elegant setting at one of the highest prices of any cruise ship eatery.
Like pretty much all venues on Disney ships, Remy has some whimsical Disney touches. Named after the rat hero in the Disney animated film Ratatouille, it has his stylized likeness worked into the art nouveau design. But there’s nothing Mickey Mouse about the restaurant’s sophisticated decor and finishings, which include high-end Frette linens, Riedel glassware, Christofle silverware and gold-cushioned stools to hold ladies’ purses. This is a fine dining establishment where you wear a jacket or cocktail dress to dinner while savoring mouth-watering small plates of duck, quail, Wagyu beef, king crab and the like.
Cost: Tasting menus for $125 per person, not including wine; $230 per person including wine pairings with each course.
Steakhouse at the Verandah
Where you’ll find it: All Cunard Line ships
Steakhouse lovers will find another great option in Steakhouse at The Verandah, located on all Cunard vessels. It’s a shrine to the most indulgent, marbled and mouth-watering cuts of beef, from 35-day dry-aged Scotch grass-fed Black Angus to Australian grass-fed Wagyu beef (the latter for an $30 upcharge). It also serves up seafood options such as grilled whole Dover sole and Maine lobster. Appetizers include clam chowder and lobster cocktail.
At a price of just $40 per person if booked in advance of sailing (with a few supplemental charges for premium items), it’s a great bargain in my book — at least compared to fine steakhouses on land.
Cost: $40 per person if booked in advance of sailing; $45 per person if booked on board. A few premium dinner items come with extra “supplemental” charges.
Good food is plentiful on cruise ships, where you will even find 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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