By Simon & Susan Veness
No-one can truly put their finger on the Who or When of this issue, but it’s largely a moot point. The fact is, alternative dining restaurants have become an established fact of cruising in the past 15 years or so, and we are all the better for it.
In reality, it probably all started with the first ship to install the traditional class system, going all the way back to the 19th century. First-class offered a distinctly superior dining experience to Second, Third and Steerage class, but that was hardly an ‘alternative.’
After all, if you’ve paid for First class, you’re not likely to want to eat in the canteen that was all Steerage passengers had on offer, while those in the lower classes were strictly verboten from the areas reserved for those paying top dollar. It was not an egalitarian state of affairs.
Even when cruising became a de-classed occasion in the 1970s, there was no real move to change mealtimes from anything other than the traditional affair of two sittings in one main dining room. Sure, many lines added a buffet option for breakfast and lunch, but that was largely to take the strain off the dining room and make serving a lot easier.
A major nod in a new direction was provided by Norwegian Cruise Line in 1979, converting the fading SS France into the new-look SS Norway, complete with a genuine speciality restaurant, Le Bistro, that served top-quality French cuisine.
Norwegian remained an isolated example, though, and it wasn’t until 1990 that the paradigm began to shift when Crystal Cruises introduced their Crystal Harmony, a carefully crafted offering featuring not one but two speciality restaurants, the Italian dining of Prego and Asian fare of Kyoto. True, there was a separate charge for these two, at least at first, but it established a radical new principle.
Still, it took forward-thinking Norwegian to permanently break the mould in 2001 with the advent of Norwegian Sky and its bold Freestyle dining policy, featuring no fewer than six alternatives for lunch and dinner and no set meal-times. Finally, the industry as a whole took notice.
When Cunard launched Queen Mary 2 in 2004, they opted for the relatively revolutionary measure of adapting their buffet dining option for a completely different dinner-time experience, breaking it into four separate restaurants with full-service dining.
Meanwhile, the likes of Princess Cruises, Royal Caribbean, Holland America, Celebrity and even Carnival were all aboard the alternative dining idea. By 2010, no new ship arrived without at least two speciality restaurants. In the ultra-luxe category, these restaurants were part of the all-inclusive experience while the mainstream lines charged a premium, but the accent on ‘alternative’ was firmly established.
So, with so many speciality restaurants now on offer, who has the best, and what should you look out for? As ever, we have the answer with our Top 10 Alternative Dining Restaurants At Sea:
Holland America – Tamarind
Asian-fusion cuisine has become big news in the cruise world in the past 10 years or so, and Holland America has one of the best examples with their Tamarind restaurant, on each of Eurodam, Nieuw Amsterdam, Koningsdam and Nieuw Statendam. The menu is superb across the board, but look out in particular for the Chinese Five-Spice Baby Back Ribs.
Celebrity Cruises – Murano
Anyone looking for classic French dishes, given a modern twist, will definitely be happy on all Celebrity’s Solstice-class ships, where Murano is both a wonderfully elegant setting for a special meal and a great example of inspired cuisine. A bonus here is Murano’s Champagne Afternoon Tea.
Princess Cruises – Bayou Café
Not many lines have opted – so far – for a full-on New Orleans experience, but Princess definitely deserves praise for their daring in this instance, as Bayou Café – on Coral Princess and Island Princess – is a delightful example of genuine Creole and Cajun cooking, done with just the right amount of spiciness. Try the Chorizo Jambalaya for proof!
Remy – Disney Cruise Line
Anyone unfamiliar with the unique premium cruise style of Disney may be surprised to discover they boast a genuine contender in the Alternative Dining stakes. An option on both Disney Fantasy and Disney Dream, Remy serves up a gourmet French experience that is both exclusive and adults-only, making for a Michelin-star quality indulgence.
Oceania Cruises – Red Ginger
When Oceania debuted their Marina in 2011, they introduced their all-inclusive Red Ginger concept. And a jolly good one it was, too. As well as a vibrant, eye-catching setting, it offered a new frontier in Asian-fusion dining, featuring the likes of spicy coconut chicken soup and lobster avocado salad alongside amazing sushi and scrummy curries.
Cunard – Steakhouse at the Verandah
Virtually every line features a signature steakhouse these days but, for one of the very best, we recommend the Cunard fleet, where this latest option replaced the former French style of The Verandah with something distinctly more contemporary. From New York strip steak to Maine lobster, this is a repast to relish. The Bar’s craft cocktails are pretty good, too.
Regent Seven Seas – Prime 7
Talking of steakhouses, we definitely can’t let the opportunity pass to recommend an absolute ocean-going classic. Prime 7 has been a Regent favourite since it was still Radisson Seven Seas and it remains an utterly refined, elegant choice today, serving up some of the juiciest steaks and succulent seafood. The filet mignon is an inspired choice here.
Silversea – La Terrazza
Cunard may have been among the first to reposition its buffet break and lunch alternative to a fine-dining evening experience, but Silversea has definitely refined it with their Italian-inspired La Terrazza. The alfresco dining option here is an added bonus to splendid fare and an impressive wine list.
Seabourn – Earth & Ocean at The Patio
It’s no secret Seabourn set its stall out from the start (in 1988) to offer the finest culinary experiences at sea, and they remain a maritime paragon of delectable dining. The introduction of 2018’s Seabourn Ovation kicked things up a notch with the imaginative Earth & Ocean, featuring the new world cuisine of Chef Anton Egger. The service and presentation are equally memorable.
Crystal Cruises – Silk Road
From its earliest days, Crystal has offered superb Asian-inspired fare. In 2003, they partnered with top Japanese chef ‘Nobu’ Matsuhisa on the new Crystal Serenity, and alternative, speciality dining had a new benchmark. Today, both ships feature a Nobu-overseen restaurant that continues to set new standards in Asian-based cuisine – including outstanding sushi and sashimi – that isn’t afraid to include new elements and dramatic, bold flavours. We’re not saying Silk Road is THE reason to cruise with Crystal – but it’s pretty close!
What are YOUR favourite alternative dining restaurants at sea? Tell us about your experiences in the Comments section below.