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I’m All In For Dining Options

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The very first “alternate” restaurant on board a ship that I recall hearing about was in 2000, just prior to the arrival of the Costa Atlantica into the United States.

At the time I was aghast, when I learned they would be charging an extra fee for those who wanted to dine there. At that time food – and as much of it as you wanted to eat – had always been included in the fare, as far I knew.  In fact the food was one of the most highly promoted reasons given to cruise, or at least a reason promoted to choose one cruise line over another.

How could they have the nerve to charge extra for food?…. I thought They are going to intentionally reduce the quality of the food outlets that are included in the fare, to drive business to the alternate restaurant… I thought.

Fast forward 13 years and I don’t know of a major cruise line which doesn’t offer at the very minimum of one alternate dining venue on their ships, on top of their dining room and buffet areas. In fact it’s much more the norm that a ship has at least 3 or 4 alternate venues; and on some, that number is now up to 20 dining venue choices.

Initially the alternate dining venues were mostly of the “fine dining” variety. The idea was serve food cooked a la minute (as it’s ordered) combined  with some table-side preparation, and charge a small extra fee. If memory serves, the alternate restaurant I first experienced on the Costa Atlantica was $5 or $10. In the 13 years since the surcharge for the “fine dining” alternate restaurants has risen more into the ranges of $30-$40.

I do admit my initial reaction to the idea of a surcharge for an alternate restaurant was less than positive. It was simple really; at that time the food on every cruise I had been on was quite acceptable, and in many cases quite good indeed.

Since that time in 2001 the cruise industry has suffered many challenges; from the attacks of 9/11, then the economic collapse in 2008, which led to the lowering of the cost of cruising to fill ships, and with that budgetary demands came cost cutting, including food budgets. They simply had to spend less per day per passenger for food. Some cruise lines managed those demands better than others, no doubt using all the creativity they could come up with to retain some semblance of quality.

In the time since there have been some noticeable ebbs and flows in customer’s opinions of which cruise lines food is better or worse at any given time. But frankly, for the cost of a cruise I believe all the majors have done a reasonably good job of making all the foods they offer quite satisfactory. This despite the fact cruise fares are currently near record lows.

During this space of time, aside from cruise fares, the cruise lines have also been finding any means they think feasible for increasing on board spending. Some people have called parts of these plans “nickel and diming”, but as I’ve mentioned in a previous blog post, I just call it math. It makes sense as a business plan to attempt to have users pay for optional amenities on the ship in an attempt to balance out the low cruise fares.

Aside from many of the “little things”, the results of these initiatives have brought specialty coffee bars on pretty much every ship, drink packages, special slight adjustments for increasing some costs on some cabin categories, etc,

During this time there’s also been a move to making these ships more resort like… and a major development towards that goal is more alternate restaurants.

In my view Norwegian Cruise Line has led the parade since they launched their “Free Style Cruising” initiative. And as they’ve added new builds to their folio they’ve continued to lead the way.

I believe the key to their success (and why I think they are still in the lead) is that they’ve combined a mix of alternate restaurants which are included in the cruise fare, as well as those which cost extra.

The combination of more choice in what is deemed acceptable cruise attire, with the choice of dining options, has made the limited spaces of a ship, at least seem like similar choices people have on land based vacations or at resorts. And certainly that is what the vast majority of the public have much more personal experience with, so might naturally find more attractive.

For Norwegian Cruise Line it has worked out very well, and that’s been fortunate because in my experience their dining room food didn’t really compete well on it’s own when judged against its competition. Though they recently announced their intention to upgrade their concentration and efforts to improve their food offerings in ALL dining venues onboard.

The other cruise lines have taken notice of this for quite some time, and have joined the movement to offering choices well past just a fine dining restaurant at an extra cost.

And I believe I have become a part of the majority who have fallen for the idea of options and choices.

Another seemingly significant growing trend I have noticed while reading many cruise reviews, reports and posts on our message boards is more and more people having dinner in the ship’s buffet restaurants, and skipping the dining rooms and alternate dining venues almost entirely. This is likely due in part to the overall popular trend of people choosing to make their overall cruise experience more casual, as well as lack of having to make reservations, or wait in line; ship’s buffet restaurants are always quite large, and easy to find space most times in the evening.

No doubt there are still cruisers who prefer the more traditional approach, and those who sail today who will have dinner only in the ship’s dining rooms.

Me, I’m all in for the choices and variety.

– A View From The Kuki Side of Cruising –

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Comment from Kenneth Eden
Time November 13, 2013 at 5:14 am

One very key fact and it is important, and pointed out in the above: BUSINESS Plan – cruise lines are a viable and multi billion dollar/euro corporate entity, most publically traded, a few not. Profit as with all corporation’s is key.

Move on to the alternate food venues – some of them are very good, choice and serve high quality food from superb men’s, others, not so.

I have not experienced this, but have learned of it, that on some cruise lines the pay for meals are better than the ones included in the cruise fare. Then again, there are cruise lines known for lousy food, so, why would the pay for venues be better? If there is snob appeal, and it reigns with superiority with some – cruise lines to avoid for food and other reasons, is well documented and acknowledged.

Next, the coffee bar with the pastries, not my cup of tea, I would not will not and do not pay for Starbuck’s or any other coffee joint so of course I have never purchased this on any ship. .

I do enjoy the alternate dining venues, but they are frequented by me and my husband only on ships we really enjoy, often to our disdain of having to not have our wait staff in the MDR , since we have always enjoyed – with very few exceptions, our MDR wait staff.

If money makes the world go ’round, it sure as heck makes the ships afloat.

And if lots and lots of fabulous ships are what the public market can bear, all the better – something for everyone, and everyone that loves a cruise is well looked after.

Comment from Kenneth Eden
Time November 13, 2013 at 9:49 am

Re dining options really number one now. or ever?

Just having returned from Caribbean Princess Sabatini’s was not even half full when we dined there, and was even emptier when I peaked in on other evenings, and the gorgeous, probably the most beautiful steak house at sea, when we dined ther there were three tables with diners during our nearly three hours there.

Move back just a touch, on both Celebrity Summit and Solstice a few months ago, one night we were the only table dining in Murano on both ships, other venues not even half full. Same goes for Queen MAry 2 –

Could it be that the ships that have honestly good food and excellent service in their MDR’s see the alternate venues lack for takers?

The ships with many, many alternates are in my opinion inferior, and in many instances, use completely pre-prepared and cooked food in all dining venues,which is microwaved, similar to the chain dives that are spread all over the place, coast to coast. ( except the lousy hotdog/burger, you can see them burning away ) Mall mentality, huh? Golden Corral divas?

Comment from Kenneth Eden
Time October 1, 2014 at 9:02 am

When HAL first debuted the Pinnacle, their pay for alternate dining venue, it was okay – just okay. That for use goes back to the Zuiderdam, maiden voyage season, 2002.

On subsequent cruises this venue improved, with selections of the choice meat cuts and seafood on ice to view prior to ordering, a copy of Morton’s Steak House, and other higher end ones, which is not a bad thing at all.

The searing, the taste and all was quite incredible. The Pinnacle being purpose built in the newer HAL ships. On the older ones, Maasdam and Ryndam for example, chaos reigned and the food was horrid, even to the point of having searing smoke pour out to the dining area. One blaming the next for what all happened. even drinks were watered down – Bloody Mary with no vodka?????

On two HAL cruises the veal chop was not a veal anything, another form of meat was disguised, filet mignon was a piece of some beef “cut” to shape and not a filet mignon cut. I even had Lobster Mac and Cheese, a given in the Pinnacle, served still slightly frozen in the middle, and not one chunk of lobster was to be found.

On our last visit to a Pinnacle on the Nieuw Amsterdam, there were two tables plus ours dining there. Throughout the meal empty tables were reset for guests in suites to breakfast at, and the room was spot carpet – shampooed and vacuumed. Our waiter kept going someplace to smoke, as you could smell it on him. This was totally unaceptable.

Fast forward to Princess, the old Sabatinis was awful – plate after plate of food was brought, way too much, and not very good at that,. Now, the place is pretty, service excellent, menu, not platters of food, from which to order, all in all, a welcome change. and, The chop house, exceptional in every way. First Sabatinis meal was 1997 on dawn Princess.

As for Todd English on Queen Mary 2, nothing short of heaven at sea, truly excellent, and they remember your favorite drinks or meals from visit to visit and welcome you by specified your specified salutation. Of course, it is in the computer!

Then the fabulous places on Celebrity ships, Murano, the French place with the Italian name, Normandy, the French place with the French liner name – and so

These are but a few of our favorite places at sea, worth whatever the fee, and on Celebrity as on Cunard, we are accorded the same remembering of our past meals as well.
These cruise lines and ships also have the finest dining in the main dining room as well, as far as we are concerned.

Comment from Mike M
Time October 1, 2014 at 10:35 am

I love the dining options. However, the cost has more than doubled in the last ten years. I would always advise people sailing NCL to add $100 to their cruise budget and they would be able to do alternative dining two or three times during the cruise. That number is now around $150 – $200 and probably higher because there are now many more alternative dining options on NCL. Alternative dining isn’t just dinner anymore.

However, NCL has maintained a more consistent standard in their alternative dining than others. My last three Celebrity cruises have been disappointing in the alternative dining areas. I personally think Qsine is long on gimmicks (Ipad ordering, Rubik’s cube menus) and short on delivery. I still remember our first experience on Millenium in the Olympic restaurant. It was one of the top three best meals I’ve had on land or sea. Sadly, my last experience, last year, was a huge disappointment. Service and food quality had dropped to a mediocre level. I have to say that Murano’s on Century and SS United States on Infinity were nothing spectacular. I’ve actually had far better and more consistent meals at Carnival’s steakhouse. Overall, I still love NCL’s diverse offerings and the meat coma inducing Cagney’s and Moderno restaurants. 🙂

Take care,

Comment from Kenneth Eden
Time October 5, 2014 at 6:05 am

One thing – and I know some of you reading this either do not care about it, are unaware of it, or simply accept it – is this:

Look on the ships deck plan, locate the specialty restaurants, look for a “blank” and shaded area adjacent to the restaurant – size matters – if the space is small, picture microwaves cooking the multitude of menu items offered in the many number of restaurants – this does not make for a memorable meal – anyone can do it at home – frozen, thawed, served. (also loook for the ships “galley space” for the MDR – it should be a large space.

Also, the fav dessert, it usually comes down to that, the dessert. That special volcano or molten chocolate cake, or the creme brule or the Grand Marnier souffle and those featured sorbets and even the tiramisu, heck, they can be purchased in Wal Mart and elsewhere, frozen, just like the cheese cake.

Comment from Kenneth Eden
Time October 7, 2014 at 7:18 am

And, last but not in the least, the cruise ship is competing with the all inclusive resort which there are many in the Caribbean.

DON”T think all is fresh and just picked, or slaughtered in these all inclusive resorts – these are islands, on third world nation soil, and EVEYTHING is brought there, frozen canned and NOT fresh, ok, hopefully the fruit is.

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