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Food served on cruise ships?

There was a cheftestant on TC Season 9 that didn't make it past the qualifying round. She works on a cruise ship and she was sent home for overcooking shrimp - it was pretty bad, you could see how overcooked it was.

That got me wondering how good the food on cruise ships is these days? I grew up with the stereotype of cruise ships either filled with families where the kids ran rampant or filled with senior citizens doing nothing more exciting than playing shuffleboard. In either case, the stereotype regarding the food was that the focus was on quantity rather than quality - ie the all you can eat buffets available 24/7, the ship wide food poisoning with everyone getting ill from eating dodgy seafood etc.

However, it seems the cruise industry has been trying in recent years to reach a different market, targeting young singles or professional couples without kids. To this end, they've been launching luxury behemoths touting high end dining or else smaller ships that offer a highly individual, intimate itinerary. Does the food reflect this new trend? I have never been on a cruise and don't plan to go on one anytime soon, so would like to hear from those who have been on them. What was the food like? And if you are a longtime cruise enthusiast, have you seen a improvement in the food over the years?

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  1. I have never been on a cruise with a buffet available 24/7, or even all throughout the day. There is always food readily available, but in my experience the buffets are only set up for breakfast/lunch/dinner. Nowadays, there are cheap cruises, expensive cruises, and everything in between, so quality varies a lot, as do people's expectations. You seem to have rather low expectations, so I think you would be pleasantly surprised by the food on a cruise ship.

    1. Depends on the cruise line and even the ships within the cruise line whether the food is good. Buffets are available for b-fast, lunch and dinner on all the cruises I've been on with only one "midnight" chocolate buffet on one ship. We had horrible food on one cruise in the dining room but went up to the "buffet" (you actually order at the counter and then sit) which had tablecloths, etc. and the food was VERY good. They also had a fresh pasta station and salad bar. I am not a real buffet person but it got so that we wouldn't even go to the counter - they'd just tell us the choices and we would order. My wine always arrived quickly lol!!!
      When you go to the "higher" end cruises like Crystal, Seabourn and Silversea (I hear Regent is good as well) the food is actually very very good.

      1. I've been cruising for more than three decades and I don't believe the reality ever matched your stereotyped description, especially the food poisoning outbreaks. However, you're right when you point out that cruise demographics and shipboard cuisine have changed.

        Each cruise line has a personality and a target audience and the food on each ship reflects this fact. Smaller, high-end ships like those in the Seaborne and Silver Seas line have excellent food which is prepared for each customer exactly like dining out in a restaurant. There's no inherent reason why those ships can't serve food that matches a land dining experience. Medium to medium-large ships like those in the Oceania and Crystal lines have made quality food part of their identity. In those, you'll find four or more specialty restaurants each of which serves a small sub-set of guests nightly and functions exactly like a restaurant on land. These food-centric lines also have a grand dining room. That venue tries to deliver a quality product but the numbers are larger so timing is not as precise.

        Food is less central to the identity of the general lines (e.g. Celebrity, Holland America, Norwegian, and Carnival), but the food situation is hardly as grim as you've portrayed. Those mass market lines now feature specialty restaurants, but often charge extra to eat in the more intimate restaurants. (e.g. Norwegian's ship Sprit has six specialty restaurants with a surcharge ranging anywhere from $10 to $20. Three of Celebrity's ships charge between $35 and $40 to dine in their specialty restaurants.)

        To counter the old gluttony stereotype, every cruise line offers lots of options for low-fat, low calorie dining. These options are seamlessly integrated into buffet tables and menus.

        There is considerable room for improvement for ethnic cuisine on a cruise. Shipboard versions may be pleasant enough, but their product is still not what a Thai, Chinese, Indonesian, South African, etc grandmother puts on the table. Of course, that's not dramatically different from the situation at most land-based ethnic restuarants.

        Bottom line: I don't go on a cruise to eat, although I've eaten well since Oceania came into the market. I've cruised in Asia, South America, Alaska, and the Caribbean. I get my authentic food fix by adding land stays at the beginning and end of my cruise. However, I've never cruised in Europe, and I have no plans to do so. There is no way I'd be willing to eat cruise ship food when I can eat in authentic land-based restaurants throughout Europe. For relaxation and for convenience, few alternatives beat cruising. Just know what a cruise is and isn't and choose intelligently.

        1. Silver Seas is good, foodwise. Really any cruise that touts itself as food-centric is likely to have better grub than your run-of-the-mill Carnival cruise ship. I can't say I've ever had truly BAD food on a cruise, but some of it certainly leaned more towards a buffet you'd find in Vegas than, say, a sit-down meal at Lucques or something. Never have heard of a shipwide food poisoning outbreak, which isn't to imply it never happened, but I have to assume it's a very rare thing. I think the food on most cruises is geared towards the average, Prime Rib lovin' palate, but I do agree that it seems to be a quantity over quality agenda for the most part....I've never gained so much weight in so short a time, what with all the eating opportunities not even to mention the room service, 24/7. Of course, this was in Jamaica so I had plenty of reasons to stuff my face anyway.

          1. A Regent Cruise is apparently the way to go. Friends of ours gained 11 pounds (each) on their Mediterranean voyage.

            1. Only been on 4 cruises, so I am no expert, but the only food I ate off of a buffet was fresh fruit as a light snack. I pay the extra nominal fee to dine in "restaurants" on board. That, combined with eating in each port of call makes for a decent enough dining experience. Certainly not my ideal vacation, but not too bad either.

              1. I have to tell you that I have eaten at that chef's restaurant on the Allure of the Seas named 150 Central Park and it is AMAZING!! I know Molly overcooked her shrimp but I think we underestimate how hard these challenges really are.

                Now the buffets on the cruise ships are still not stellar, but the dining rooms and especially the fine dining restaurants I have found can stand up to many fine dining establishments on the shore! Molly, you are a wonderful chef and I am very happy to have eaten at your restaurant!


                1. When folks says "restaurants" on the cruise ships are we talking about actual restaurants? If yes, is it something like Cheesecake Factory or are we talking Daniel Boulud?

                  3 Replies
                  1. re: SeoulQueen

                    The restaurants on cruise ships aren't branches of existing restaurants with recognizable names, but they are restaurants in the way most people define restaurants. For example, the steakhouses on the Nautica and Insigna (Oceania) each has seating for 96 diners. The meat quality at those restaurants is very, very good -- not necessarily Peter Lugar good -- but very good and the degree of doneness tends to be spot on. The Italian restaurant on those same ships is quite good, but it should be judged as an Italian American restaurant rather than an Italian restaurant.

                    The new Oceania ship, Marina, is introducing a pan-Asian restaurant, a French bistro, and a tasting menu experience. (This last restaurant involves a hefty $75 per person surcharge plus gratuity.) The menu here was created by Jacques Pepin, the culinary consultant to Oceania cruise line. During the day, this space serves as the location for wine tastings;twice each cruise this becomes a specialty tasting restaurant. I'll be trying all of these restaurants for the first time in late December.

                    Remember, I'm talking about Oceania, a cruise line whose identity focuses on food. Years ago, we dined at the signature restaurant on Celebrity's Summit. The name of the restaurant was the Normandie and the decor was actual decoration from the long-ago ocean liner, Normandie. Simply eating in that gorgeous space was a special experience. Happily, the food equaled the setting assuming you're interested in rich, classic French food. I haven't cruised Celebrity ships in a very long time, but I see that the Normandie no longer exists on the Summit. Instead, the restaurant is name Qsine and the menu is much more contemporary cuisine. (I understand the switch; I was finding the rich food hard to take and this was easily twenty years ago.)

                    I found the food in the steakhouse and Italian restuarants on all the lines -- food centric or not -- to be better than that in the main dining room. Things start to go downhill on other cuisines. For example, on NCL Jade, the Thai food in the pan-Asian restaurant is too sweet, but that's the way it is in most of America.

                    The other detail to point out is that we're primarily talking about dinners. These fine dining restaurants tend to be open only for dinner, although I think during at-sea days some of the restaurants are open for lunch. I know the sushi bar in the pan-Asian restaurant on NCL is open then. (The rolls are made with too much rice!)

                    1. re: Indy 67

                      We are booked for the Le Cirque dinner on HAL over Christmas and Crystal has Nobu - I am sure there are others.

                      1. re: Indy 67

                        You seem to have a lot of cruise experience. My family is wanting to go on a trip this X-mas to the Caribbean. There are quite a few heads so we are wanting to keep things a bit more economical. Of the economy cruise lines (Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, Celebrity, or Holland America), which would you recommend if we are seeking good food? thanks