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Cruise lines upgrade dining options with specialty restaurants

Cruise ship specialty restaurants may offer better and more diverse cuisines, sometimes with no surcharge

Once upon a time, cruising was an all-inclusive vacation that bundled your cabin, many activities and meals in one package. That's largely still true, but today the major cruise lines also have specialty restaurants where you can dine, sometimes for an extra fee.

The fare in the main dining room can be elegant and excellent, but shipboard specialty spots offer a chance to sample more diverse cuisines, focusing, say, on Japanese, French or Italian, or let you experience celebrity-chef-helmed fine dining.

Are these culinary experiences worth it? Prices can vary widely, so your priorities must be the determinant. If you're looking for a way to make a special occasion — a birthday or an anniversary — even more special, these may be just the ticket. Specialty restaurants often are more intimate, ideal for a date night, a break from the kids on a family cruise, or just a way to say, "Let's make this trip even more memorable."

The value for the money also depends on which ship you're sailing. Although specialty restaurants generally offer a nice change from the main dining room or buffet, not all are created equal. How can you know? Check cruise websites — Google "cruise" and "specialty dining" — to get an idea of value.

Among some of the specialty restaurants getting buzz:

On Disney Dream and Disney Fantasy, Remy is an adults-only (18 or older) special-occasion restaurant. It charges $75 a person for dinner, $50 for brunch. This dining area offers an impressive take on modern French fare, such as sweetbreads with risotto and lobster in garlic sauce. The décor, although dotted with subtle references to the 2007 Pixar film "Ratatouille" (of which Remy is the star), is elegant, and floor-to-ceiling windows overlook the water.

On Royal Caribbean's new Quantum of the Seas and soon-to-launch Anthem of the Seas, passengers have a variety of specialty dining choices with surcharges. The costs vary, from à la carte pricing at a pub by Michael Schwartz of Michael's Genuine Food & Drink in Miami, a take on pub grub, to $45 a person at Wonderland, which features molecular gastronomy. At creative, playful Wonderland, you'll find such offerings as liquefied olives that burst in your mouth, baby vegetables that appear to be growing in a bed of pumpernickel "soil," and duck liver fritters that may be the richest fried food you've ever tasted.

On NCL's Norwegian Breakaway and Norwegian Getaway, Ocean Blue by "Iron Chef" Geoffrey Zakarian includes a raw bar as well as indoor and outdoor seating. You may know the chef from the Art Deco Lambs Club in New York City (Zagat says you'll be "looking around for Nick and Nora Charles" from the "Thin Man" films of the 1930s) or the Palm Court at the Plaza Hotel, also in New York, of which Crain's said, "Ostentatious luxury is back in style." Ocean Blue serves modern seafood dishes, such as gorgeous fresh crudo and fish dishes in which the preparation doesn't overwhelm the entree. The charge is $39 a person.

Some lines have equally impressive specialty restaurants that don't charge a fee. On Crystal Cruises, the Silk Road restaurant (helmed by Nobu Matsuhisa, also an "Iron Chef") serves fresh, exquisitely prepared sushi, sashimi and maki. The first reservation is complimentary; after that you'll pay $30 a person for the privilege of ordering the chef's signature, often-imitated rock shrimp tempura and miso-glazed cod.

This month, Royal Caribbean made its Devinly Decadence restaurants complimentary. The health-focused restaurant on Quantum of the Seas and Anthem of the Seas is led by Devin Alexander (hence the spelling of "Devinly"), chef of NBC's "The Biggest Loser." (If you go, look for the surprisingly rich low-calorie chicken satay.)

Oceania Cruises' two newer ships, Marina and Riviera, have two impressive specialty restaurants that are part of the ticket price. Red Ginger, a pan-Asian restaurant, lets flavors of exquisite spices shine through. There's also Jacques, a French restaurant helmed by TV chef Jacques Pepin. That means you can get Lyonnaise sausages, rotisserie duck and just-in-from-France cheeses without paying extra.

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Cruise Tip of the Week

Check cruise line's restaurant reservation policy in advance

Tip: Some shipboard specialty restaurants fill up for the entire sailing before you even embark, so check the reservation policies with your line in advance to ensure you don't miss out.

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