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Cruise Ship Dining – Your Ultimate Guide!

lobster ravioli scaled
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When it comes to dining on a cruise ship, your options are more than you can probably handle.

What we’re going to do in this article is set your expectations for what you can expect on a cruise ship when it comes to food.

Before we get into all the details, it’s probably best to make sure we’re all on the same page.

Depending on the cruise line – and even between ships within the same cruise line – you will find varying dining options.

Therefore, the focus in this article will be regarding those things that are consistent on every cruise ship regardless of the cruise line.

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To give you a preview and to help you find the information you want quickly, below are the topics we will be reviewing.

If you want to go straight to the subject, just click the hyperlinked title:

Let’s get into it!

Variety of Dining Venues

One of the primary reasons many people take cruises is to eat.

Not just food – good food in unlimited quantities!

In fact, eating on a cruise ship will spoil you.

With the exception of specialty restaurants that we will discuss momentarily, you can get as much food as you want, including as many entrees as you like.

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And when you’re finished, you simply get up from your table and decide what you want to do next.

That’s right!

No waiting for the waiter to come back to confirm you’re finished eating. No credit cards or cash to pull out.

Simply get up from the table and continue enjoying your cruise.

If that isn’t enough to entice you to book a cruise, hopefully going into more detail about how the different food venues operate on a cruise will push you over the edge.

Main Dining Rooms

Every cruise ship – no matter how big or small – has at least one main dining room.

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As the name suggests, it’s the primary location cruise passengers will eat while on the ship.

This is particularly true for dinner.

On most cruise ships, you will be assigned a table and a dining time for dinner.

The terminology might change between cruise lines, but when you book your cruise, you’ll be asked to select early or late seating in the main dining room (commonly called the “MDR”).

Early seating in the main dining room is between 5PM and 7PM. Late seating in the main dining room will run from 7PM to 9PM.

There is a possibility that you will not be sure when you will want to eat dinner.

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Don’t worry.

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mountains at cruise port viewed from deck of cruise ship

Just select a time to finish your preboarding documentation. Once you board the ship, you can go to the main dining room and make changes.

Pro Tip: If you want to make changes to your Main Dining Room seating, immediately after checking into your muster station, go to the MDR and request your change. The sooner you do it, the likelier it is that you will be able to get the change you want.

Make MDR Changes As Soon As You Board the Ship

These changes can be virtually anything regarding your seating in the main dining room.

Don’t like the late seating? Request early seating.

Have you been assigned to a table with other people but you prefer a private table for you and your cruise mate, request a table for two.

Would you rather be next to a window so you can watch the waves or dine with the sunset (which is an AWESOME experience), request it.

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This one might not be as easy to accommodate since the ship will have already assigned tables.

But it doesn’t’ hurt to check. The crew on cruise ships are very accommodating.

Pro Tip: Be nice and smile while making your request. Don’t be demanding. And be gracious. Many of the crew you will interact with in the main dining room will work in different areas of the ship like the bar and buffet. Making friends with the crew early can get you – we’ll call it – special treatment later.

Be Gracious Making MDR Changes

Alternatives to Early and Late Seating

What if you selected a seating time but want to change it because today is a port day and you’re exhausted? You’d rather have late seating than the early time.

Here’s where differences in cruise lines will affect your seating for dinner in the main dining room.

Some cruise lines have “open seating” or what we will generally call “Anytime Dining” in this article.

Depending on the cruise line, your flexibility with anytime dining will vary.

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For example, on Royal Caribbean ships, you can select anytime dining.

But it doesn’t mean what it says when it comes to Royal Caribbean.

For this cruise line, what you are saying is that you don’t want to have to be in the dining room at 5 o’clock every night.

The catch is you still have to pick a time. So if you say you want your dining to be at 6 o’clock, you are agreeing to eat at 6 o’clock every night.

Live Music – MDR on NCL Escape

On the other hand, if you sail with Carnival Cruise Line, you have tremendous flexibility!

Using the app, when you decide to eat (within the operating hours of the MDR), simply open the app, specify your time, and wait for the app to notify you that your table is ready.

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Then, you show up at the dining room designated in the app and enjoy your meal.

Most cruise lines sailing out of the United States will follow one of these two models.

But if you want even more flexibility, you want to book your cruise on Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) or Virgin Voyages.

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front of large cruise ship in port
NCL and Virgin Voyages Main Dining Rooms

For the ultimate in flexibility with dinner on a cruise ship, you will want to give NCL (Norwegian Cruise Line) a look.

On NCL ships there is no such thing as “early” and “late” seating.

Decades ago, back when every cruise line was very formal with dining times and required all passengers to sit at a table with other passengers, NCL decided to go in a different direction.

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Norwegian came up with a philosophy known as “Free Style”. In this case, “Free Style Dining”.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Go to one of the many MDRs on the ship.
  2. Wait to be seated.
  3. Enjoy your meal.

It’s that simple.

By default, all tables are configured to seat 2 or 4 people. If your party is larger than that, they will accommodate.

Virgin Voyages takes this a step further.

On Virgin Voyages ships, there are no main dining rooms.

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All the dining venues for dinner are what would be considered specialty restaurants on every other cruise line at sea.

We’ll get into specialty restaurants in the next section.

But how the restaurants operate is exactly the same as NCL.

So if you would like the ultimate in flexibility regarding dinner arrangements, I’d recommend these cruise lines in this order:

  1. Virgin Voyages
  2. Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL)
  3. Carnival Cruise Line

Advantages & Disadvantages of “Anytime Dining”

We’ve gone into detail about why you might want to consider opting for anytime dining.

To make it easier to digest, we created this chart to compare the advantages and disadvantages of anytime dining.

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Can eat anytime you wantDon’t have the same waiters everyday
Don’t have to worry about missing your assigned timeWaiters won’t learn your preferences
Can eat around activities you want to enjoy on the shipNot as easy to plan activities many days out
Private seatingLines may be long if you go when the dining rooms open
Advantages & Disadvantages of Anytime Dining

Specialty Restaurants

If you talk to seasoned cruisers about specialty restaurants, you’ll find that there are basically two camps:

Camp 1: Specialty restaurants are a total waste of money.

Camp 2: Specialty restaurants are awesome! Why would you not eat there?

Which position is correct?

The answer?

It depends on what you feel will make your cruise the most enjoyable.

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Before we analyze the pros and cons of specialty restaurants on cruise ships, let’s explain what they are.

Pro Tip: If you didn’t purchase specialty dining when you booked your cruise (which you should definitely do if you want to eat in those restaurants), do it on the first day. Some cruise lines like Royal Caribbean will have crew stationed outside the buffet to get you to eat at one of the upcharge restaurants. Lunch is cheaper and usually not as booked. If you wait past embarkation day, all the reservations may be taken.

Book Specialty Dining Early

What Are Specialty Restaurants?

Specialty restaurants on cruise ships are added costs restaurants.

That means these dining establishments on ships are not included after you have paid your cruise fare in full.

Specialty restaurants have themes.

They can include French, Italian, Hibachi, Sushi, American Steakhouse, Brazilian Steakhouse and more.

Some people will tell you that the quality of the food in specialty restaurants is higher.

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This isn’t necessarily true.

Food on most cruise lines have 5-star quality food in the main dining room.

The same is true for specialty restaurants.

I can tell you that not every person believes that paying extra for a meal on a cruise ship makes the food better.

I was on one ship eating in the main dining room. A conversation was struck with a woman at the neighboring table.

This was the infamous lobster night.

This passenger had lobster the previous night in the French restaurant. In her opinion, the lobster in the main dining room was better than the specialty restaurant.

On the other hand, there are food options that may not ever be offered in the main dining room.

Let’s see if we can clear this up.

Camp 1

Those in the first camp believe that spending money on cruise specialty restaurants is a total waste of money.

They reason that you are already paying a lot of money to board the ship. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, even sweet treats are available at no additional costs.

These people also feel that the food in the MDR is more than sufficient.

On that note, there is another reason why this group would prefer not to eat in specialty restaurants.

It varies depending on the cruise line, ship, restaurant, and waiter, but typically you are allowed one or two appetizers, one entree, and one dessert.

This is not the case in the main dining room.

We’ll get into that more in the review of Camp 2.

In short, those in Camp 1 feel that it isn’t necessary to pay extra.

On top of that, you are limited in how much food you can order.

Camp 2

As you’ve deduced, this group feels opposite from the first group.

Let’s get more specific.

There is no need to pay extra to eat in specialty restaurants.

That’s a fact.

Beyond that, one of the main reasons that this group prefers the MDR over specialty dining is that you can order as much food as you like.

And you won’t pay extra for it.

Do you really like shrimp cocktail? Get 4.

Do two of the soups seem interesting? Get them both.

Do you see your favorite dish as the main entree but there’s something else that you always wanted to try but never pulled the trigger?

No problem. Try them all.

You won’t be able to do this in specialty restaurants.

Now, I can tell you from experience, if you ask the waiter or waitress if you can get more appetizers than “allowed” or a second entree in the specialty restaurants, many times they’ll let you do it.

In the main dining room, however, none of this is an issue.

Whether you pay for the upcharge restaurants or not depends on if you are open to spending the extra money and if there are restaurants are places you want to eat.

The Buffet

A staple on every cruise ship is the buffet (except Virgin Voyages).

If you are new to cruising, it might be challenging for you to find the buffet.

That’s because most cruise ships give them catchy names.

For example, Royal Caribbean calls their buffet the “Windjammer”. NCL calls their buffet “Garden Cafe”. Celebrity Cruise Line calls their buffet “Oceanview Cafe”.

Regardless of what they call it, the function is the same: self-serve food on the cruise ship during breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

There are some things that you’ll find on every cruise ship buffet. Burgers, hot dogs, and fries will be standard.

Other things consistent on buffets across the board are salads, soups, and desserts.

Pro Tip: Most cruise lines send everyone to the buffet on embarkation day (the exception is NCL. You can eat at the main dining room on embarkation day on Norwegian Cruise Line ships). The buffet will be busy and crowded. You may not be able to find seating. Instead, arrange to have lunch at a specialty restaurant on embarkation day. It will be a considerably less stressful and enjoyable first day to your cruise.

Eat at Specialty Restaurants on Embarkation Day

Where things begin to diverge is when different cruise lines do special things.

Royal Caribbean will usually have Indian cuisine as an option in the Windjammer.

Celebrity Cruises will change the buffet menu each day to reflect a different culture every day on the cruise.

Just like specialty restaurants, not everyone will like buffet.

Conversely, some swear by the buffet.

Let’s show the reasons for and against eating at the buffet.

Pros for the BuffetCons for the Buffet
Wide variety of foodsSome don’t wash their hands before entering
Get as much as you wantPopular items might go quickly
Don’t have to wait for waitersSeating may be hard to find, particularly on embarkation day
Self seatingLines could be long
Create whatever crazy concoction you likeSelections may not be as “fancy” as the MDR
Pros & Cons for Cruise Ship Buffets

I do have to make a note about the food not being as fancy as the MDR.

This depends HEAVILY on the cruise line.

Celebrity and Holland America are two that do not fall into this category.

On one Celebrity sailing we had seafood paella on embarkation day.

Holland America regularly had varieties of sushi on the buffet every day for lunch.

Now, to be fair, both these lines are premium cruise lines. Therefore, it shouldn’t be a surprise that interesting options appear on the buffet menu.

But as a general rule, don’t expect this on most family-focused cruise lines like Carnival and Royal Caribbean.

Buffet Hours and Accessibility

Most cruise line buffets have extended hours to allow passengers to plan their day in a way that fits them.

Many cruise lines open the buffet at 7AM until the end of lunch around 3 o’clock.

Some cruise lines will stay open until dinner is finished. Those that offer late night buffet will stay open until around midnight.

Notice I said “some” cruise lines will be open this long.

That’s because some cruise lines will shut their buffet down between meal times.

For example, Holland America has very short windows for buffet operation.

On the other hand, Royal Caribbean will leave the buffet open between meal times.

But what Royal Caribbean will do is shut down half the buffet to prepare it for the next meal while keeping the existing meal food open.

On all the cruise lines I’ve been on, the only cruise line that has hours that will interrupt how you plan your day will be Holland America.

The rest are pretty flexible with buffet hours of operation.

Even for the ones that do shut down between breakfast/lunch and lunch/dinner, it’s only for about 30 minutes.

So you won’t have to wait too long to get something to eat.

Casual Dining Options

What if you really want something to eat and the main dining rooms are closed and the buffet is switching service?

What can you do?

That’s where casual dining options on cruise ships come in.

It’s kind of hard to define all the casual options available on cruise ships.

That’s because, unlike buffets and main dining rooms, there are no set rules surrounding casual dining options.

The one exception to this is that there is “usually” one casual dining option on each ship.

So, what I’ll do here is to give you some casual dining options on different cruise lines that will help you make a decision on which cruise line you would like to book your cruise on.

Norwegian Cruise Line – O’Sheehan’s and The Local

O’Sheahan’s and The Local are the casual dining options on NCL ships.

You’ll get one or the other depending on which ship you sail on.

What’s great about these two are that they are open 24 hours a day, every day on your voyage.

You can get everything from salads, to a variety of specialty burgers and specialty hot dogs, along with a variety of wings, bar food, desserts and other food items.

The only thing to remember about these locations is that after 11PM the menu is scaled back.

You will still have a good variety to choose from.

And the best part?

These are included in the price of your cruise. So you won’t pay extra for any food here.

Royal Caribbean – Sorrento’s and Cafe Promenade

On Royal Caribbean’s smaller ships, you’ll find Cafe Promenade.

Here you can find coffee, snacks, pizza, sandwiches, and pastries available to you any time, day or night.

Even though the line may be long, it moves quickly. So don’t get discouraged if there is a queue.

Pro Tip: Pizza is provided by the slice. However, if you want a whole pie, simply ask for one. You’ll have to wait. But not long. If the server tries to put a bunch of slices from pizza that’s already in the case, insist that they make you a new one.

Request a Whole Pizza Instead of a Slice

Sorrento’s will be found on the larger Royal Caribbean ship – Oasis, Icon, and Quantum class ships.

Here you can also get pizza. But unlike Sorrento’s, this pizza is designed to give you a New York-syle pizzeria experience.

You can order the traditional pizzas. You can also enjoy rotating specialty pizzas.

And just like Sorrento’s, if you want a whole pie, just ask for it and wait.

Both these establishments are included in the price of your cruise.

You won’t pay anything extra for food at these locations.

Casual Dining on Cruise Lines

This isn’t an exhaustive list by any means even for these two cruise lines.

We decided to focus on what’s open 24 hours. Both these lines have other venues that are available most of the day. The same will be true for the other cruise lines as well.

Not every ship within the line will have the same venues.

Check your ship for the restaurants that will be available.

All, however, come included with the price of your cruise (a.k.a no extra money out of your pocket to eat here):

Cruise LineCasual Restaurant
Carnival Cruise LineCarnival Deli, Pizza, Guy’s Burger
Celebrity Cruise LInePool/Mast Grill, AquaSpa Cafe
Disney CruisesDaisy’s De-Lites, Flo’s Cafe, Cabanas
Holland AmericaDive-In, New York Pizza
MSC CruisesTake-away Station
Norwegian Cruise Line O’Sheehan’s, Uptown/Topsiders Bar & Grill, The Local, 24/7 Pizza
Princess CruisesInternational Cafe, Top Deck Pizza, Burger & Hot Dog Grill
Royal Caribbean Cafe Promenade, El Loco Fresh, Dog House, Sorrento’s Pizza
Virgin Voyages24/7 Diner, Razzle Dazzle, Pink Agave, The Pizza Place
Casual Restaurants on Different Cruise Lines

Room Service

If you’ve had room service in a hotel on land, you know what to expect from room service on a cruise ship.

Once upon a time, room service was completely free.

Now, most cruise lines will charge for items on the room service menu.

The exception is usually a continental breakfast. This tends to be complementary.

On top of this, you may also be charged a delivery fee in addition to any items ordered from the room service menu.

Pro Tip: Even on cruise lines that charge for delivery, most will have free delivery if you order water, tea, or coffee. If this is true on your ship, order 5 or six waters to be delivered to your cabin. This way you don’t have to pay for bottled water to drink in your room.

Get Extra Water Delivered by Room Service

If you are OK with the extra fee to order room service, it could be a very nice experience.

This is particularly true if you have a balcony.

Imagine yourself on a sea day, the sun shining, sitting out on your balcony in your robe as the sound of the waves gently brush against the ship.

Enjoying your breakfast in an setting like this is unlike anything you’ve every experienced.

Even being in a beachfront luxury resort on land doesn’t compare to this experience on a cruise ship.

I should say at this point that not every cruise line’s room service food is equal.

From my experience, Holland America has good food on their room service menu.

Another honorable mention is NCL.

Carnival and Royal Caribbean are among the those that are just “OK”.

Nonetheless, regardless of what cruise line you choose, enjoying food on the balcony of a cruise ship is a unique and relaxing experience that must be experienced.

Dietary Accommodations and Special Requests

Do you have special dietary needs?

Are you gluten free? Kosher? Vegetarian?

Not a problem.

You’ll be able to enjoy your cruise just like all the other passengers.

Let’s discuss.

Vegetarian, Vegan, and Gluten-Free Options

If you have a vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, Kosher, or some other dietary requirement, the ship can and will accommodate.

However, it requires you to do some work on your end.

When you book your cruise – and particularly when you complete your onboarding documentation – you will need to let the cruise line know your requirements.

In your onboarding documentation, you’ll be asked if you have any of these requirement.

By completing this, the ship can make sure they order the food you need to eat safely on the ship.

If you don’t have any of these serious dietary restrictions but you still want to have, say, a vegan meal, let your waiter know.

If you do it with advanced notice (a day earlier or possibly the same day if you talk to your waiter at breakfast), you might be able to get your needs satisfied.

This isn’t for food items that need to be ordered before boarding the ship like a Kosher meal or gluten free.

Other than that, there’s a high probability that you can get it.

Just remember, let the cruise line know BEFORE boarding that you have these needs.

Allergy Awareness and Safety Measures

Just like dietary requirements, don’t worry about food allergies.

Cruise lines are very, very sensitive to these things.

In fact, when you sit down in the dining room, your waiter or waitress will ask if you have food allergies.

However, you will want to notify the cruise line about your allergy requirements.

You’ll do this in the preboarding documentation.

In fact, in the same place where you are asked about your vegan or Kosher requirements, you’ll let the cruise line know about your allergies.

Therefore, if you have a peanut allergy or some other allergy, rest assured they will cook your food in a manner that there will not be any cross contamination.

Make the Most of Your Cruise Dining Options

As you can see, cruise lines want to do everything they can to make sure your dining experience is as enjoyable as possible.

Whether you want to eat in the main dining room, casual eating establishments, or specialty restaurants, you’ll be able to enjoy restaurant quality food that’s safe and satisfying.