Travel & Dining: Inseparable for discerning travelers

Come into Qusine aboard the Celebrity cruise ship Summit with us.

It would be hard to imagine traveling without considering the pleasures of dining on the road.  For us, travel means time away from our own kitchen and dining room, and invites us to sample more than just the sights and the sounds – we can taste our travels as well.  And when you seek information about dining while away, you usually think about finding restaurant reviews in the cities and countryside where you‘ll be traveling.  We’ve had many memorable experiences in wonderful city restaurants as well as some in more off-the-beaten track locales, but one of the most memorable dining experiences we had recently was on board a cruise ship.

The fun begins with the innovative decor in orange, black & white. See those light fixtures?

As difficult as it may be for some of the more jaded among us to comprehend, cruise ships today are truly entering the competition for dining experiences.  Of course we’re not talking about the main dining room where hordes of wait staff flutter about taking hundreds of orders and serving mountains of meals all within an hour and a half time frame – although that experience does have its merits.  We’re talking about the continuing move in the cruise industry toward offering more and more inventive ways to entice you away from that main dining room for an experience that you might not be able to have anywhere else.  As we’ve discussed previously, the notion of specialty dining spaces on board cruise ships is not without its challenges, but it is also not without its rewards.

Dinner for your group or just the two of you.

Earlier this year we traveled from Puerto Rico through Bermuda and landed in New York aboard the Celebrity Summit.  While on board, we had dinner in several of their specialty restaurants, but the one that rewarded us with the most original experience was Qsine.

From the moment we walked into the space we felt a bit like Alice Through the Looking Glass.  Surrounded by orange, white and black, we sat beneath a light fixture composed of multiple table lamps – all hung upside down.  Then the server brought the menu.

What fun!  An iPad menu.  This wasn’t the first time we’d ever been handed an iPad at a restaurant (it seems to be a bit of a fad for those that can afford it), but it was the first time that the menu had such interactive capabilities.  We were charmed from the start.

A bit like a tasting menu, the selections sounded interesting and different – just what you want when dining is more than simply eating, as it is for us.  Then we had a bit of fun with the mixed drinks menu.  The iPad allowed us to ‘mix’ the drinks by moving the offered ingredients into the glass on the screen, finishing with ice and then shaking!  A great way to get to know your drinks!

After a very entertaining run-down of the menu by the most enthusiastic and knowledgeable wait staff you could encounter anywhere (they seemed to be having as much fun as the rest of us), we chose a variety of their items all designed for sharing.  Then the parade began.

Chefs will always tell you that the presentation is as important as the dish itself, and it is true that we experience our food not only through taste and smell, but also through our visual sense.  The staff at Qsine seems to have this down to a true art.  We’ll leave some of the presentation as a mystery so that you too might experience this some time, but for those of you who might not, we‘ll highlight one particular presentation.

Have you ever had a dish served to you vertically rather than horizontally?  Didn’t think so – neither had we until we dined at Qsine.

The vertical serving dish as Patty peeks through from the other side.

When the waiter brought the course to the table, he placed something that resembled Patty’s Victorian dollhouse in between us on the table – but with the front wall missing.  In each little cubby-hole resided a different tasting dish from the part of the world we’d chosen for that particular course.  What fun it was to look, consider and sample the food.

Oh, and about the food?  It was one of the most satisfying dining experiences we’ve ever had.  It occurred to us that if Celebrity wanted to franchise this concept on land, hip Torontonians and maybe even New Yorkers would flock to just such a spot.  Maybe we’ll invest!

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)