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Some people have a misconception about food on cruises.  With a few notable exceptions, it is very, very good, but not true gourmet dining.  The food ranges from nearly gourmet food on a few of the upscale ships to consistently good and even great on occasion on other lines. 

On most ships, you'll get very high-quality hotel banquet food, as a rule competently (occasionally even creatively) prepared and served. The more ships I've been on, the more I marvel at how the cruise lines manage to deliver high quality in what is essentially mass production feeding.  On the larger ships, they get a thousand or so people in and out of the dining room, only to repeat the trick at the late seating yet again. 

Nearly every ship has lighter fare, including vegetarian dishes and those to accommodate special diets (e.g., kosher).   So take all of those stories about the sumptuous midnight buffet with a grain of salt! You can eat healthfully, watch your waistline, and still have a wonderful time!  In fact, many cruise lines have gone to one ultra luxury midnight buffet in which the chef and his or her staff "go all out." During this time, bring your camera and behold fantastic ice carvings and food extravaganzas. 

A confirmation of the dining room seating requested for you should be in your cabin when you arrive or will be denoted on your boarding pass. If not, see the Maitre d' as soon as possible to make sure your request is on record. (During embarkation, or shortly thereafter, he will be available in one of the lounges for this purpose). As in any nice restaurant, if you are particularly eager to have a specific table requested in the dining room, ask. Don't forget to take the card confirming your table number with you to the dining room on the first night or two, so that you know where to go.

Most ships have 2 seatings for meals. It's considered courteous to be on time (or no more than 10 minutes late) so that the dining room can function at its best in serving all passengers. It's usually fun getting to know your fellow table mates. But, on occasion, you may find you just don't hit it off. No problem, just ask the Maitre d' to change you after the first or second night. (He'll understand).

Have as much or as little from the menu as you wish. Your waiter will be happy to bring you second portions. Have 3 shrimp appetizers, if you wish, and skip the main course altogether. It's all up to you! If you have a craving for a dish not on the menu, (perhaps Beef Wellington, a special pasta, or soufflť), your Head Waiter can sometimes arrange for it to be specially prepared for your table. Ask a day or two ahead and plan to tip him extra for the extra service. 

Be adventuresome and try some of the new or exotic tastes offered aboard ship that you may not want to risk paying for at restaurants back home, such as caviar or escargot. (If you don't like it just send it back and try something else!)

If you decide to skip dinner some evening or if you think you might like to have dinner ashore some night in port, it's courteous to let your table-mates or one of your waiters know in advance, just so they don't wait or worry unnecessarily about you.

Most ships offer the choice of having breakfast, lunch, and dinner in the dining room, or a more casual buffet on deck or near the pool. And, on days when you want to get an early start going ashore, have breakfast in your cabin while you dress.

Alternative Dining 

The era of assigned tables, dining rooms and seating times is fast being eclipsed by one of cruise-domís most welcome innovations: alternative eateries. These new on-board restaurants, ranging from steak houses to Italian trattorias to fast food chains have, particularly in the past year, exploded. And youíll find them on a wide variety of vessels, not just the swanky new upstarts like Royal Caribbeanís Voyager of the Seas, but also on grande dames like Cunardís Caronia. The trend is even spawning entirely new dining programs, like Norwegianís Freestyle Cruising, which combines an all-open-seating policy with up to ten boutique restaurant choices and Princessí Personal Choice, which give patrons the option of selecting traditional dining -- or eating when and where they please. 

Passengers, in turn, are embracing the concept with fervor. ďWhen we first began Personal Choice on Grand Princess in January,Ē says Princess Cruises spokeswoman Denise Seomin, ďa third of guests opted for it and two-thirds remained with traditional dining. What weíre finding, though, is that once on board, people are switching over -- 2/3 are now picking Personal Choice.Ē 

The trend toward giving passengers a choice in dining isnít brand new: Crystal was the first, some 11 years ago, to create specialty boutique restaurants, from Japanese to Italian. Renaissance followed up, creating an all-open-seating all-day atmosphere on its R series of ships, along with identical alternative restaurants -- Italian and a steakhouse -- across the fleet. 

The only challenge to this hot new trend is that so many cruise ships are offering so many options that passengers are faced with more details than simply deciding between a Johnny Rocketís burger or prime rib in the dining room. Choices also involve advance reservations, restaurants with extremely limited capacity, and sometimes rather exorbitant extra fees. A good tip to remember: if youíre booking a ship because you have your heart set on experiencing its alternative restaurant, make that reservation immediately upon boarding. 

When people return from a cruise they often talk about the meals, whatís the deal? 
The deal is food, food, and more food. Breakfast, brunch, lunch, mid afternoon snack or tea, dinner, midnight buffet and room service, youíve never had so many eating opportunities. They have to think up names for all the different meal times. Youíll have as many as 10 opportunities a day to eat. 

Does the quality of food vary between the Cruise Lines? 
Of course, some of the Cruise Lines focus on high cuisine. The more expensive Cruise Lines will generally have the more exotic foods to please all those pampered taste buds. So if you have those taste buds, youíll want to do a little research to find the best match for you. Sample menus are usually posted on the Cruise Lineís web pages to give you an idea of their offerings. Most Cruise Lines sailing from U.S. ports provide very good quality food, but donít expect to compare most ships to a five star restaurant. Remember, many ships may have to serve 2000 or more passengers, ten meals a day. 

Can the Cruise Line handle my special dietary needs? 
If you notify the Cruise Line up front, they can usually make some accommodations for your special needs. Often the menus will already have choices that are low calorie, low sodium or vegetarian. But, youíll still want to notify the Line up front to see if they can accommodate your requests. 

With all the different meals, how will I know when to eat? 
Cruise ships generally offer two main seating schedules. 
The early seating generally starts with a breakfast around 7:00 a.m. with lunch at noon and dinner at six. 
Late seating starts around 8:30 a.m. for breakfast with lunch at 1:15 p.m. and dinner at 8:15 p.m. These times arenít exactly the same for every ship, but these examples should be close. 
Once you pick a mealtime youíll be expected to follow it for the three main meals of the day. 
Some ships are more flexible about breakfast and lunch than dinner. 

What if I canít make it to my scheduled mealtime? 
You might let your waiter know so they donít wait for you. Youíll have lots of other meals that you can catch. You canít go hungry on a cruise ship. There are lots of other opportunities to find food. Early breakfast on deck, maybe an informal lunch on deck by the pool, tea, midnight buffet and most ships have room service, some for all 24 hours. 

Which meal seating should I choose? 
Itís up to you and those in your party. 
Are you early risers or late sleepers? 
When do you usually eat? 
What type of cruise activity is your favorite? The early schedule will cut into your sunning on deck time. The late seating cuts into your nightlife. 
If you like to linger over a long dinner, the later seating will feel less pressure to clear the table since there wonít be another seating immediately following your dinner. 

What are my choices when picking my table preference? 
Many ships have 2, 4, 6, 8 and larger person tables in their dining rooms. The Cruise Line will do its best to match you to your preference, but just like the cabins, those who book earliest will have a better chance at getting their request. 

How do I know which size table is best for me to request? 
If itís just the two of you, and you want privacy, go for the 2 top. You will have to move quickly, since there is a limited number of two person tables available. 
The four tops can be risky for a couple. Youíll only have one other couple at the table, and you might get lucky or get stuck with some duds. 
Many cruisers enjoy the chance to get to meet others and go for the larger tables. 
A bigger table will also increase the chance that youíll be able to find others in the mix whom you will enjoy meeting. 

How does the Cruise Line figure out the seating arrangements? 
They look at what seating time you requested, your preference for smoking or nonsmoking, as well as your table size preference. 

How will I know which seating I have been assigned? 
They should have your request listed on the cruise information packet that youíll receive after booking. 
Some Cruise Lines will confirm your seating before you arrive. 
Youíll usually also find a meal assignment card in your cabin when you arrive. It should have your tableís number on it. 
You might want to take the assignment card along to your first meal, so you know where you are going. 

What if I donít like my meal seating assignment time? 
Speak with the Maitre dí immediately. They probably wonít be able to do anything immediately since the time you want may already be full, but they can start to work on solving your problem. 

What if I donít like my table companions? 
Speak with the Maitre dí immediately. They probably wonít be able to do anything immediately since all the tables will already be full, but they can start to work on solving your problem. 

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