5 reasons you should splurge on a cruise ship specialty restaurant
While you might at first blush think that everything is included in your cruise fare, that's not actually true on many lines. Unless you're sailing a top-notch luxury cruise line that generally does include nearly everything you can imagine -- from gourmet restaurants to unlimited top-shelf liquor to butlers serving your suite to sometimes even shore excursions -- mainstream lines have more modest cruise fare inclusions.
While all cruise lines include complimentary meals in the main dining room (known as the MDR in cruise lingo) and usually also a buffet and pool grill, many mass-market cruise lines like Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise Line, Carnival, Holland America and Disney Cruise Line all have something called "specialty restaurants."
Specialty restaurants are, well, special. They tend to include venues like high-end steakhouses, fancy chef's table experiences or an evening dedicated to the cuisine of a region like Italy, France or Southeast Asia.
These shipboard restaurants carry a per person surcharge or a la carte menu prices. Want to treat your family to a night out at Carnival's Fahrenheit 555 steakhouse? It will cost $38 per adult and $12 per child. For a cheaper meal, you could alternatively book either Cucina del Capitano for Italian fare or Ji Ji Asian Kitchen on Carnival ships, both of which charge $15 per adult and just $5 per child.
Related: The ultimate guide to Carnival cruise ships and itineraries
Most lines, like Norwegian, also offer dining packages. Pay for a certain number of meals at the ship's specialty restaurants upfront and you'll get a discount. Norwegian lets you buy packages of two to 14 meals with pricing ranging from $79 to $219 per person.
But, we're getting ahead of ourselves. How do you know if you're even the specialty restaurant type of cruiser? Read on to learn why you should book a specialty restaurant on your next cruise.
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You usually sail luxury ships
When most people take their first cruise, they tend to pick a short, inexpensive voyage to see if the experience meets their expectations. Some people like my colleague Benet Wilson, TPG's senior credit cards editor, go into their first cruise with low expectations but are then won over by the experience.
When I took my first voyage, I bucked convention. I didn't book a three-night Bahamas cruise to test the waters. I signed on for a three-week "Grand Voyage," a segment of a World Cruise, aboard Regent's Seven Seas Mariner.
With a passenger count of 700, Seven Seas Mariner is downright petite compared to megaships like Royal Caribbean's 5,518-passenger Symphony of the Seas. Regent is probably one of the most luxurious cruise lines on the planet. Experiencing Regent as your first cruise is like flying for the first time ever on a Singapore Airlines A380 in a first-class suite.
In my case, that first luxury cruise experience set the stage for all my cruise expectations -- especially when it comes to onboard dining. I got very used to small dining rooms adorned with unique works of art, custom china and extras like Hawaiian sea salt and high-end virgin olive oil on the table.
Related: The 7 best meals you can have at sea
I'll admit that when I finally sailed aboard a mass-market cruise line and entered the massive two-story main dining room, I was taken aback by the noise, the number of people and the tiny tables pushed so close together that you might as well be dining with others -- even though you reserved a table for two. Don't get me wrong. You can have an incredible dining experience in a cruise ship's MDR, but it might not be the atmosphere you normally prefer.
The thing is, sometimes you want a big ship experience for the other amenities it has, such as an adults-only sun deck, an expansive spa, Broadway-style shows, waterslides, laser tag or even a skydiving experience. You might think you need to give up your food fantasies on a ship like that and enjoy every meal in the main dining room or buffet. And, that's how it was in ye olden days of cruising. But not anymore. Now, large cruise ships have a main dining room, buffet, pool grill and a series of interesting for-fee specialty restaurants. It's the best of both worlds for many cruisers.
Take Norwegian Dawn, for example. At double-occupancy, it can accommodate 2,340 passengers. It offers a huge main dining room but also seven sitdown specialty restaurants ranging from Los Lobos Cantina, Moderno Churrascaria, Sushi, Cagney's Steakhouse, La Cucina, Le Bistro and Teppanyaki. You'll pay $39 per adult at the churrascaria and Teppanyaki restaurants while the other venues offer a la carte menu pricing.
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You're a foodie
I have enjoyed plenty of fine meals in cruise ship main dining rooms. But, if I'm being honest, I think the food is almost always better in the specialty restaurants. Because you're paying a premium, the chef has more resources to invest in the best provisions (think Prime beef, local seafood that was fished sustainably and small-batch cheeses from independent dairies). For example, many cruise ship steakhouses, such as Celebrity Cruises' Fine Cut Steakhouse, offer high-quality USDA Prime ribeye and New York strip as well as Australian wagyu. Celebrity's Tuscan Grille also offers USDA Prime dry-aged meats and other specialty items, such as the meats and cheese that comprise its antipasto tray.
On specialty restaurant menus, you're also more likely to see expensive or unique ingredients like saffron. Considering an ounce of saffron costs more than an ounce of gold, you can imagine why it might not adorn a dish served to 5,000 passengers in the main dining room.
The menus themselves are also more apt to tell you where the ingredients were sourced. Look for small ranches and vineyards, dairies and olive oil purveyors.
Want another reason to book that specialty restaurant? Many cruise lines partner with renowned chefs who create the menus and train the staff at their shipboard venue. On select Royal Caribbean ships, for example, Jamie's Italian -- a prix fixe restaurant ($35 per person for dinner and $25 for lunch) -- was created by chef Jamie Oliver. The menu dazzles with White Oak Pastures beef short rib, San Daniel prosciutto and coppa piccante made by Nduja Artisans, a family-run salumeria in Chicago.
Related: The ultimate guide to Royal Caribbean cruises and itineraries
You want a more intimate setting
More often than not, cruise ship specialty restaurants are much smaller than the main dining room and far less crowded than the buffet. That in and of itself can be a valid reason to pay a bit extra for a quieter and calmer experience.
If you usually sail smaller ships with greater space-to-passenger ratios than the mega-ships -- and if you prefer a slower-paced dining experience at the time of your choosing -- a specialty restaurant has your name on it when sailing with the big boys. Generally speaking, these restaurants accommodate fewer people and operate on a traditional restaurant reservation system so you can dine when you want and with whom you want versus a set early or late dining time.
On MSC Seaside and MSC Seaview, you can enjoy Hawaiian fusion cuisine or sushi at the Asian Market Kitchen by Roy Yamaguchi, a Japanese-American "celebrity chef." Remember that these ships have a maximum capacity of 5,000 people so dining at this venue with just 74 seats is a welcome treat if you spent the day jockeying for a lounger by the pool.
Smaller restaurants also often equate to a better experience when it comes to service. The maitre d', waiter and sommelier will all have more time to tend to your table and provide more personalized recommendations.
Related: The TPG guide to cruise line loyalty programs
You love a value
The ability to try new types of cuisine or dine somewhere you normally never would is a huge draw of the specialty restaurant phenomenon. Oftentimes, for just a small cover charge or a la carte pricing, you get to try menu items designed by some of the world's top chefs.
Sail Princess Cruises, for example, and you can enjoy cuisine created by chef Curtis Stone, a Michelin-starred chef. Do you know what the average price of a meal at a Michelin-starred restaurant on land is? A heck of a lot more than the $29 per person you'll pay at Share, Stone's restaurant on Ruby Princess, Emerald Princess and Sun Princess.
Not a Michelin type of diner? No problem. You could also grab an incredible burger designed by chef Ernesto Uchimura at The Salty Dog Gastropub aboard Princess ships. The "Ernesto" burger is made with ground ribeye, short rib and pork belly and is topped with cave-aged Gruyere cheese, caramelized kimchi and beer-battered jalapenos. It's served on a brioche bun with charred onion aioli. The gourmet burger is a bargain at $12.
Related: Which cruise brand is right for you?
You're celebrating a special occasion
Are you celebrating a special occasion or is it just date night and you want to do it in style? Book a specialty restaurant in either of those scenarios, and you won't be disappointed. When you make your reservations, be sure to tell them if it's your birthday or anniversary or retirement party. Oftentimes, the chef and waitstaff at a specialty restaurant have the time and ability to do something special -- maybe a special toast or dessert designed for the occasion.
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And, specialty restaurants are nearly always romantic. Believe it or not, Remy aboard Disney Dream and Disney Fantasy is an incredible dining experience, but it comes at a cost. You'll pay $125 per person for dinner and an additional $105 per person for the wine pairings. The menu is inspired by French culinary traditions. In addition to the main restaurant, there's also a private Chef’s Table dining room, called Chez Gusteau.
If your budget allows, try one or more specialty restaurants on your next cruise. They are a valuable addition to the options on many cruise ships and give you the opportunity to try new cuisines, sample food from famous chefs and get a breather from the crowds on today's megaships.