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How Cruise Ship Dining Has Changed

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As early as a decade ago, when boarding a cruise ship, your choices for dining were early (main) seating in the dining room, or late seating in the dining room, for dinner, along with a self serve buffet line for breakfasts and lunches, a limited room service menu, and a “midnight” buffet.

It was generally understood that the ships rolled out their most glamorous and elaborate menus on Formal Nights. And all of the food you cared to eat was included in the cost of your cruise fare. Though there were a couple of European cruise lines that charged extra for room service.

The first big change to the dining arena that I can recall was when Carnival Cruise Line introduced the 24 HR. Pizzaria. This too was included in your cruise fare. Following that, some cruise lines began opening their buffets over the dinner hours, offering guests an alternative for evening dining, if they wanted a more casual experience, and if they didn’t want to dress up in response to the ship’s suggested dress code that evening.

I don’t recall if it was 1999 or 2000, when Costa Atlantica sailed from the shipyard, but it was the first cruise ship I’d heard of at the time, offering an alternate restaurant for guests to dine in, if they chose to pay an extra fee for the priviledge. The cruise universe was aghast with the announcement that a cruise line would be charging extra for food. I suspect, at the time, most people in the “cruiseaverse” thought this would be a futile excercise. Who would ever pay for food on a ship, where so much food is included in the fare, and you could eat that “free” food as many times a day as you like?

Within 2 years of that first step, there wasn’t a new ship leaving a ship yard without a miniumum of 1 alternate, extra cost, restaurant. Initially, these were promoted as “Fine Dining Experiences”, for those who would be willing to pay bit extra for a more sophisticated dining experience, with high quality ingredients. My first personal experience with this type of restaurant was on a Celebrity Cruise Line ship, and it featured impecable European-style “butterfly service”, with a lot of table-side preparations, food cooked  a la minute.  I remember leaving satsified; feeling we had enjoyed a world class restaurant meal and service, for only $50 per couple.

Of course, all the competition brought out their own versions; RCI with Portofinos and Chops; Princess with Sabitinis; Carnival with their “Supper Club” (now simply called The Steak House) ; Cunard with Todd English, etc., etc.

Then, along came Norwegian Cruise Line, introducing a new and innvoative concept called “Freestyle Dining” – touting the fact you could eat when you want and with who you wanted. Though at that time NCL was not that highly thought of when it came to their cuisine, they brought out new ships offering many different dining venues and styles, while still including the more traditional cruise ship dining rooms as well. Aside from the normal buffet and dining room food being included in the cruise fare, they were also giving their passengers a choice of other restaurant venues without the extra charge to dine there, as well a more choices which did cost extra for the opportunity to dine there.

Pretty much all the cruise lines began to chase the “Freestyle” concept, introducing some version of the concept for their passengers to choose their own dining times. Initially, with the ships they had, they could only offer those choices within the restraints of their existing dining room structures. If they had more than one dining room, they began designating one for those who did not want set dining times. Those with one two storey dining room, began designating one level of that dining room for those who wanted to choose their own time to dine. It took quite a bit of method restructuring and some growing pains, but now every major cruise line has some version of that dining system in place.

But, by the mid 2000s, any major cruise line in the process of building a new ship, also began including not just 1 or 2, but multiple restaurants, with all variety of cuisine choices they could think of, basically building their versions of “Freestyle” ships. As a result, today,it’s rare for any new ships being introduced by any of the major cruise lines, not to offer at a minimum of 5 or 6 alternate restaurants onboard. And yes, most require a payment over and above the cost of the cruise fare.

And of course, on cruise ships now, if willing, you can know purchase a “better cup of coffee”; a “better” steak in the regular dining room; a “better” spot on the outside decks; a “better” access behind the scenes (last week’s Blog); a “better” …anything… they think they can sell you.

If you like the dining system on land, where you have a choice of restaurants to dine in, and the pricing levels of the restaurants you choose to frequent, and the requirement to make reservations at the more popular ones, you’ll love the current trend of food management onboard.

I have to admit there are still many people satisfied with the traditional cruise ship dining experience with average quality food. Surprisingly there are also people who enjoy their cruises, without stepping foot in either the dining rooms, or alternate restaurants, and take all their meals at the buffet, and who don’t think they are missing out on anything.

– A View From The Kuki Side of Cruising –

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Comment from Trip
Time August 17, 2011 at 8:38 am

It was in 98, when you and I, and, a small group dined at Sabatini’s on the Grand Princess. I think the charge was $5.00 pp.
They’ve come a long way baby! I have tried many alternative options, and, have enjoyed most of them. A nice change of pace onboard.

Comment from Kenneth Eden
Time August 18, 2011 at 4:00 am

Kuki you hit it just right, again! Sure, why should’nt passengers be able to pay for a better, or fancy cup of coffee, like they can at home. Heck, every supermarket where I live has a Starbucks, so it seems. Hess gas stations have Dunkin Donuts.
Yes, passengers should also have the option for al la carte dining, and be able to pay -if that is the cruise lines policy – for such a meal.

Be it As you Wish, Freestyle or whatever the name, it is here to stay, and the alternate choices can enhance the cruise for those wishing and willing to indulge.

Oceania comes to mind, as they do not charge for the alternate dining experience, although their rates may be touted as “low” for many they are not.

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