The cruise ship dining experience: The mains and the specialties

The view from our table in the man dining room of the Celebrity Millennium.

There was a time in cruise ship history when the only dining option aboard was the main dining room.  We were mulling this over while on our most recent cruise as we were again puzzled by the inner workings of booking reservations in alternative (specialty) dining rooms; and it’s been a puzzle on almost every ship we’ve ever traveled on.  But before we get to that…let’s take a bit of a trip through the regular dining choices on cruise ships these days – and in the past.

The ‘main dining’ experience

Patty’s very first cruise experience was a down-market ship (from a cruise line that can now not be remembered), that picked her up in Halifax, of all places to board, and deposited her and a girlfriend in New York City – many years ago.  The single most vivid dining memory of that cruise was her introduction to the parade of the Baked Alaska and all the napkin waving that induced.  And what about those low ceilings? (Although to be fair, some of the dining rooms on the smaller, luxury cruise ships are quite low these days — but much more elaborate!)

The low-ceilinged dining room in the old Mercator One which was the Regina Maris when this photo was taken.

And low ceilings were the hallmark of the main dining room on the Mercator One, Art’s first cruise experience in the late 1970’s – and one on which he was actually one of the ship’s officers: he was the doctor on board.  Although he, too, had the Baked Alaska experience which is still a highlight (for lack of a better word) of cruise dining these days, oh how dining rooms themselves have changed since then!

Many cruise lines these days still adhere to the ‘traditional’ fixed-seating dining.  That means that if you request and are assigned the late seating (which is our personal preference) you’ll dine every evening at 8 pm or 8:30 pm depending on the line.  And you have to request the size of table you prefer.  We prefer to eat at a table for two and have no problem with this kind of fixed dining time – then we can get to know our serving staff and they can get to know us.  And we can bow out to an alternative dining space whenever we choose to do so (see below).

These days, however, there are more permutations and combinations of this kind of dining than we can even keep  up with as cruise lines try desperately to please everyone (an impossible feat).  Some lines have some kind of “freestyle” experience which sound to us like a bit of a free-for-all, to be avoided at all costs.

The exquisite Queen’s Grill dining room on the Queen Mary 2 as we did the trans-Atlantic voyage last summer.

Several of the six-star luxury lines have a variation on that, allowing you to dine at any time you like within the dining room hours. We had this experience on both Regent and Silversea, although Cunard does it best.  When traveling in a Queen’s Grill suite, you dine in the exclusive Queen’s Grill dining room where you have your reserved table awaiting you at any time you choose to appear for each meal.    It is your table for the duration of the cruise – no one else will sit there at all.  Bliss!

But, of course, you can dine in other places…

The ‘specialty dining experience’

Just as cruises offer more and more diversions to keep everyone happy, they have moved to offer more and more alternatives for dining.  Bearing an additional charge that varies from the nominal to the pricey ($25 to $75 per person for dinner), these specialty experiences can certainly add to your enjoyment of a cruise.  But we’ve always wondered: Since reservations are necessary (and often hard to get), why is it that there are so many empty tables at these venues.  Our case in point…

In February we boarded the Celebrity Summit in Puerto Rico and were immediately asked if we’d like to dine in one of the alternative dining venues that evening (see our post on the suite experiment).

After much wrangling about times and locations, we finally had our reservation and arrived at the beautiful Qsine restaurant at 7 pm. We had been told initially that there were reservations available only at 6 pm and 9 pm.  When we arrived the place was half empty and stayed that way for the duration of our evening.  This is not the first time we noticed that specialty dining spaces are usually half empty, and yet at the same time there are no tables available when you call.The first time we noticed this was aboard a Holland America ship in their Pinnacle Grill some years ago.  We could not get a reservation at all one evening, yet when we walked by, the place was more than half empty.  So annoyed, we finally had to find out what the problem was.

The exquisite Qsine on the Celebrity Summit where we dined in April, 2012.

We thought that they must keep empty tables for their highest-paying guests.  Well, that couldn’t be right since we are now among that group.  So, what was it?

We took our questions to the Summit’s Hotel Manager, Ugo Vaccalluzzo and his Guest Relations Manager, Simona Stumberger, both of whom graciously welcomed us into their inner sanctum..

We asked them simply what were the protocols for assigning reservations, and why were there always empty seats in these venues despite the unavailability of reservations on any given evening? They were both mystified that this should be the situation.  They did, however, promise to look into why this occurred.  And they did.

Several days later we sat down with the delightfully guest-oriented Simona who, along with Ugo, had approached the maître d’ of one of the specialty restaurants to find out what was happening.  It seems that there is a deep-seated desire to ensure that the wait staff and kitchen on any given evening in these restaurants are able to more than fully satisfy the guests, so much so that they will not run the risk of being over-crowded.  We asked the maître d’ in the Normandie restaurant ourselves and he indicated that they plan to serve only 20-30 guests despite the fact that there are two or three times that number of seats in the dining room.

All of this is understandable, but the optics are off-putting.  Perhaps it’s time that the mainstream cruise lines do what lines like Silversea do: have only four tables in that specialty dining room!

By the way, the food and service at these restaurants are by and large divine – some of the best dining experiences around.  The very inventive Qsine aboard the Celebrity Summit was a very special experience – we’ll tell you about it in detail later.

Photo credit:

Mercator One dining room (as the Regina Maris)


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