Cruise ship overeating is legendary, even Rick Steves suggests using the stairs as much as possible to burn off the calories, but what is the food really like? In general, on land or on the sea, a restaurant’s food quality fits a perfect bell curve – the more people they try to serve and/or the more locations they operate, the more they approach the mediocrity-of-average, not bad, just not great.
Disclaimer: we have only been on two cruises, both operated by Norwegian Cruise Line, so my observations are limited to the two ships we were on. One ship was the Epic, a huge ship, the second cruise was on the Sun, which carries half as many people, there are however a lot of similarities between the two.
There are three categories of onboard dining experiences. Included in your basic cost are the buffets, and a couple of table-service restaurants. The third category is the a la carte restaurants. Each of these are quite different.
On Norwegian (NCL) The Garden Cafe, along with a couple of smaller buffets usually near the pool area, is standard. These are open from early in the morning until well into the evening, changing the offerings from breakfast, to lunch, to dinner. I think a majority of the folks onboard eat most of their meals here.
On the plus side is that there are a lot of choices, from grab-and-go, to prime rib. But the quality is always mediocre, and at breakfast a crowd of people, often pretty aggressive people, jam the place; no relaxed morning coffee and croissant here – though the croissants are quite good. For folks in a hurry, or those who tend to eat because it is required to live and quantity is more important than quality, these buffets are fine. Again, they are not bad, but as with most buffets, just not memorable.
On our most recent cruise aboard the Norwegian Sun there were two table service restaurants that were included with our basic booking: The Seven Seas and The Four Seasons. Both have the same menus which change every day. They are white tablecloth, there is a sommelier, and great servers – nothing fast-food about them at all.
These restaurants are quite a few notches above the Garden Cafe, being the food-motivated-travelers we are, this is where we ate most often. They are not open for lunch so if we were onboard our only choice was the Buffett. Tricia had some good soups: spinach, cauliflower. The entrees (appetizers for non-European readers) were quite nice, and the mains (entrees for non-European readers) were varied and done well. They definitely move the quality of food and dining experience to the right of average on the bell curve.
The third option is the a la carte places, we bought a package in advance that gave us two visits, you can buy packages with more visits, or you can just go and pay as in any restaurant. On both ships Le Bistro was the top restaurant, a bill there for two including wine would be about $150, similar to what we would experience in Seattle. On this ship there were a couple of steak houses, a Mexican cantina, teppanyaki, and sushi.
These restaurants do give a fine dining experience, though they will push your budget significantly above the initial cost of the cruise. The service is always well above average, and if you get there early you can usually score a table by a window to watch the water go by as you dine.
My desert at Le Bistro on the Norwegian Sun just a week ago, quite nice.
Here are photos Tricia took of some of the dishes we enjoyed. (Be sure to visit her blog for more photos)
We ate well, avoided the Garden Cafe when we could, which should come as no surprise to those who know me since I am not a fan of any buffet, on land or sea. On NCL you can have average meals, good meals, and really good meals, but you will pay for the really good ones. In the end I don’t think I would go on this type of cruise for the food. If food is one of your prime reasons to travel, as it is for Tricia and me, other options for travel are a better choice than cruising – though I have heard of gourmet cruises, hmmmm?