Cruise ship dining once conjured images of gluttons bellying up to the buffet. Now gastronomy trumps gluttony: A more discerning generation of foodies is selecting ships and itineraries based on culinary allure. In response, cruise lines — from mainstream to luxury — are going overboard to meet the more refined tastes of passengers.
The number of food-themed cruises, food-based shore excursions, and food market and galley tours is growing. Presentation has been upgraded too, with meals served on designer china, flanked by silver flatware and crystal, on tables sporting imported linens and fresh flowers.
"At every price point, cruising has never been as food-oriented," said Chuck Flagg, a frequent cruiser who owns a Cruise Holidays franchise near Atlanta.
Once upon a time, there were two choices: the main dining room or the informal, all-you-can-eat buffet. That landscape has changed considerably. On virtually all lines, cruisers can opt for open or reserved seating.
"You can pretty much choose when you want to dine, who you want to dine with and how you want to dress for dinner," said Naomi Kraus, cruise editor for Frommer's Travel.
"Food is so wrapped up in culture that it's an integral part of travel," added Bruce Good, public relations director for the Seabourn Cruise Line. On Seabourn's 200-person sister ships, Pride, Spirit and Legend, the 48-seat Restaurant 2 offers a "small plates" tasting menu at no additional charge. For those who prefer privacy, dinner can be delivered to your cabin piping hot course by course.
On the Queen Mary 2 and the Oceania and Regent Seven Seas lines, guests can choose from a health-conscious menu designed by Canyon Ranch. Royal Caribbean added seven new food venues when it relaunched the refurbished 2,500-passenger Radiance of the Seas.
Imagine eating a special meal hosted by the executive chef in the ship's galley during the busy dinner hours. For $75 per person one or two nights per cruise, as many as 10 Princess Cruises passengers enjoy a multicourse chef's table menu paired with wines.
The 1,250-passenger Oceania Marina has two private dining rooms (with surcharges) among six gourmet restaurants. La Reserve is an intimate 12-seat venue offering food and wine pairings by Wine Spectator ($75 per person). Privee, an ultra-contemporary small room, offers a chef's table with a seven-course tasting menu designed with the chef, for a flat fee of $1,000 for as many as 10 people.
Celebrity chefs also are lending their names and expertise to the trend. Jacques Pepin, executive culinary director of the Oceania Cruises line, has a French bistro called Jacques on the Marina. He is one on a long list of celebrity chefs linked to various lines. Cunard has a Todd English restaurant on two of its Queens; Seabourn's menu is designed by Charlie Palmer, and the menus of Nobuyuki "Nobu" Matsuhisa are served in Crystal's Sushi Bar and Silk Road.
When a celebrity name isn't associated with a ship, guest chefs join certain cruises or replicate award-winning menus onboard. On Regent Seven Seas, television chef Michael Lomonaco conducted demonstrations, gave talks and led a wine tasting on a 10-day August cruise. Holland America has an exclusive agreement with Le Cirque to re-create the legendary eatery's whimsical experience on the 15 ships in its fleet.
Healthy eating comes into play too. Gone are the days when someone with food allergies or gluten intolerance had to avoid cruising. Lines offer alternative menus for these guests and honor requests for kosher, low-sodium, low-fat or low-sugar meals. Some even provide baby food. The ice cream parlors on Crystal Cruises' ships offer 30 ice creams (including low-carb), 24 homemade sherbets and, for the diet-conscious, some 20 nonfat yogurts.
Lines also are tailoring menus to a ship's history, ports of call and the calendar. On Holland America, you will be served midmorning iced tea in the Caribbean, hot chocolate on the deck on Alaskan itineraries and, once per cruise, a ceremonial Indonesian afternoon tea and coffee.
Cunard is known for its daily English tea service accompanied by finger sandwiches and freshly baked scones. In the Golden Lion Pub, passengers enjoy traditional British dishes such as fish and chips or shepherd's pie.
Passengers don't have to stand on the sidelines either. In Oceania Marina's sparkling, 24-station Bon Appetit Culinary Center, overseen by a Culinary Institute of America-trained chef, guests take cooking lessons in single- or multisession classes. And Holland America partners with Food & Wine magazine to operate a culinary center (on select ships) that offers cooking lessons for kids and teens.
So does all this signal a death knell for the buffet? "Buffets and specialty dining will continue to live side by side," said Frank Weber, vice president of food and beverage operations for Royal Caribbean. "The simplicity and casual nature of the buffet, the variety and choices, and having food on display still appeals to guests."
Though alternative restaurants may be the rage, they come at a price — sometimes a very high one," Kraus added. "But for those with sophisticated palates, you generally get what you pay for."
Experts such as Cruise Holidays' Flagg say the industry is in the midst of a sea change, and food has become a major selling feature. "Dining at a chef's table is often the most memorable part of a cruise," he said. "Just like air bags began in luxury cars, they eventually trickled down to every model on the road."