New cruisers often worry about having to dine with the same people every night. The reality, though, is that cruise lines offer some wonderful alternatives to the main restaurants.

Food, Glorious Food! Since ships first started carrying passengers for leisure travel, food has played an important role, and even when the ships offered little more than dolled-up mess halls, to which everyone flocked for one of two scheduled feedings, the fare was usually quite respectable and always plentiful.

But over the past two decades – since Norwegian Cruise Line introduced its first Bistro in 1988 – the cruise lines have been reworking the dining rules and adding variety. Today it is not uncommon for a large ship to have more than a dozen different dining places, enabling the lines to promise that their passengers can eat in a different setting each evening.

At first this movement was subtle, with small cafes and additional buffets being incorporated into new ship designs. But since larger and larger ships have been built, the options have increased dramatically to include very type of hamburger joint, pizzeria and ice cream parlour known to a healthy appetite.

Referred to as alternative or speciality restaurants, these venues offer a more customised meal in a smaller, more intimate environment. Typically upscale, these reservation-required settings deliver a more sophisticated ambience than the main dining rooms. The food is cooked to order, the wine list extensive, the service impeccable, and diners are given more time to linger and enjoy.

Most often the cuisine is a regional fare, such as Italian, Asian or what might be called Steakhouse, with leading chefs and cooking personalities – Todd English, Marco Pierre White and Jacques Pepin, to name a few – putting their names to some of these establishments. And with the most popular alternatives often fully booked within a day or two of departure, it’s no wonder that cruise passengers frequently spend their first moments on board making reservations. It’s worth remembering that many restaurants now even allow booking before you board.

Dining in a comparable land-based restaurant will set you back more than just a pretty penny, but among the mainstream and premium cruise lines these speciality restaurants generally only charge a moderate fee, and the luxury lines simply add an expected but nominal gratuity. It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that alternative dining venues (primarily adult-only, although children over 13 are welcome, and with a typically smart-casual dress code) now rank alongside balconies as a favourite feature of a cruise.

With so many alternatives currently available, and since several can be found on nearly every ship, it would be impossible to list all the options here, so instead join us as we explore some of the most noteworthy examples.

Innovative Dining: Yachts of Seabourn

Celebrated chef Charlie Palmer created the innovative menu for The Restaurant of Yachts of Seabourn’s three, soon to be four, yachts. Other dining venues include the indoor/outdoor Veranda Cafe, located all the way aft overlooking the wake when the ships are underway; reservation-only Restaurant 2 (above is a glimpse of the fourth yacht, Seabourn Odyssey’s 2), serving innovative tasting menus alternated with themed dinners in a casual setting; and the al fresco Sky Grill which overlooks then sun deck and whirlpool spas and is a popular spot both day and night. Odyssey will also boast The Colannade, an intimate eatery with an open kitchen and seating both indoors and out. None of these venues carry a fee.

Classic meets modern: Celebrity Cruises

From its beginnings just 20 years ago, Celebrity Cruises has paid attention to the dining experience it provides and was among the first to name a celebrity chef to oversee the menus when it aligned with Britain’s Michelin-starred chef, Michel Roux, in 1995.

One five of Celebrity’s ships – Infinity, Millennium, Summit, Constellation and Century – the Speciality Dining restaurants, decorated to match the décor of old steamships, deserve recognition as some of the best at sea.

With seating for 134, the restaurant feature continental cuisine with table-side cooking, carving and serving. The entire experience takes about three hours, and at $30 per person, is worth it.

Each restaurant also has a wine cellar in which small groups can enjoy a private party, as well as an open galley. Menus include the lightest goats cheese souffles, foie gras and rack of lamb en croute, as well as the perfect Caesar salad, made at the table.

Many Celebrity ships also offer a Sushi Bar, while with the recent introduction of Celebrity Solstice (and for the upcoming Celebrity Equinox), Celebrity has gone one step further and created several additional, alternative dining venues: Tuscan Grille, Italian flair highlighted by superb steaks ($25 per person); Silk Harvest, serving a fusion of Asian selections ($20 per person); Blu, a speciality venue exclusively for guests in the new AquaClass cabins that are attached to the spa; Murano, serving classic and modern Continental cuisine ($30 per person); and Bistro on Five, serving a variety of speciality crepes as well as sandwiches, soups, salads and a selection of entrees ($5 per person).

A Romantic Ambience: Holland America Line

Candlelight and fine décor create a romantic ambience that sets the stage for fresh dishes and select wines at Pinnacle Grill, on all of Holland America Line’s ships.

Elegantly appointed with Bvlgari china, Frette linens and elegant Riedel stemware, the Pinnacle Grill is a reservations-only restaurant and features a Pacific Northwest menu of seafood and steak dishes with specialities such as lobster tail, cedar-planked black cod and prime beef.

Grilled items are prepared in a 1,600-degree clamshell grill that seals in juices and closely approximates an open fire grill (which of course you couldn’t have on a cruise ship). You can choose from five prime cuts of beef, grilled and served with delicate sauces. And because this is a cruise ship, desserts include based Alaska with a contemporary touch (one of the ingredients is Ben & Jerry’s Garcia ice cream).

As you might expect, there are some outstanding wines from the Pacific Northwest on the list. The lunch menu features lighter portions and more salads, and has a cover charge of $15. For dinner this increases to $20. Ideal for a romantic dinner for two or a special group celebration, it’s worth knowing that passengers can pre-book before they cruise – a nice feature, as the room frequently sells out.

In addition to the Pinnacle Grill, Holland America Line’s new Eurodam debuted the Asian-inspired Tamarind restaurant which specialises in sushi and sashimi. Here lunch is complimentary, however in the evening, diners can expect a £15 cover charge.

Mediterranean Flavours: Cunard

Cunard Line’s infamous Queens Grill and Princess Grill are reserved for guests who book suites or upper-level categories, but anyone can dine at the alternative, reservations-only Todd English restaurants that are found on Queen Mary 2 and Queen Victoria.

Known for the success of his restaurant Olives in Boston, this American chef serves up delectable Mediterranean-influenced cuisine at sea.  Start with the Truffle Potato Love Letters and follow with the sumptuous main course of Roasted Duck Breast, Confit Duck Leg and Ginger Carrot Cannelloni.

You’ll find that lunch carries a surcharge of $20 per person, and dinner a charge of $30 per person.

A touch of the Orient: Crystal Cruises

Spend an evening at Matsuhisa Restaurant in Beverly Hills, and you can rack up a tab totalling a few hundred dollars.  But at the famed chef’s restaurants on the two ships operated by Crystal Cruises, you’ll need to pony up only $7 each after you’ve laid down your chop sticks.

Long a land-based favourite, sushi has returned to the sea on Crystal Serenity and Crystal Symphony.  Charging nothing for dining at Silk Road and The Sushi Bar, that $7 is simply for suggested gratuities, no more.

Every detail is perfect, right down to the chopsticks, sake cups and decanters, and the think, blocky glass platters for serving sushi.

Take a seat at The Sushi Bar to see such Nobu specialities as yellowtail sashimi with jalapeno and tuna tataki with ponzu sauce prepared in front of you, or dine at a table in the Silk Road restaurant and choose from more than two dozen men selections, including Nobu-style lobster with truffle-yuzu sauce and saikyo miso black cod and beef with three distinctive sauces.

Fine American steakhouse: Royal Caribbean International

Entering Chops Grille is like stepping into a fine steakhouse in New York or Chicago.  And from the ‘Rat Pack’ era jazz in the background to the red velvet banquettes and dark woods in the decor, that’s the idea.

Only the floor-to-ceiling windows reveal that are sailing on a ship.  Chops has a casual club-like elegance that makes for comfortable and relaxed dining and can be found on most of the ships in the Royal Caribbean fleet.

At Chips you might begin with Dungeness Crab and Shrimp Cake or a Not So Traditional Caesar salad.  Steaks include the popular 10-ounce New York Strip, and there are also lamb chops, a veal chop and even a braised pork shank for something different.  Sides are traditional including a large baked potato and creamed spinach, while the Chocolate Mud Pie and the Croissant Pudding Pie are ever-popular desserts.

The $25 service charge includes gratuities (as do the cover charges on most ships) and the open kitchen allows diners to watch the chefs grilling the prime dry-aged beef.

Classic 40s Supper Club: Carnival Cruise Club

Walk into Harry’s on Carnival Liberty, and you feel you’ve arrived in another era.  A duo sings jazz classics, a couple or two might be dancing, and everywhere diners are enjoying huge portions of steak and seafood specialities.  And while this is a slightly dressy environment, the atmosphere is one of friendly and attentive service.  It’s a classic 1940s supper club with contemporary food and great wine.

Carnival’s supper clubs, on most of its newer vessels, have been a huge hit.  They go by different names on different ships, but the concept is nearly identical, whether it’s The Point on Carnival Conquest of The South Beach Supper Club on the Carnival Triumph or the aforementioned Harry’s on Carnival Liberty.

The elegant steak-house format, featuring a superb selection of wines, strikes an old-school chord, serving beautifully marbled steaks and seafood.  Prime dry-aged steaks range from a 14-ounce New York Strip to a hefty 24-ounce Porterhouse.  There’s even a classic surf-and-turf or steak and lobster along with a whole Dover sole.

Where these Manhattan-chic restaurants really stand out, however, is in the presentation.    Lamb chops are carved and served in a standing rack, vegetables are arranged as art on the plate, and deserts are accompanied by lavish displays of pastry and sauce.  Do try the warm apple tarte tatin with vanilla ice cream!

Begin with a trio of escargot or the beef carpaccio, press on to a spinach and mushroom salad with warm bacon dressing and then tuck into a perfectly cooked steak, and you’ll know what great dining can be.  And after dinner, dance the night away to the soft strains of the jazz group.

The cost is just $30 per person, and the reviews are consistently enthusiastic.  With capacity of around 100 in each of the reservations-only supper clubs, passengers understandably tend to make their bookings early during each cruise.

A little taste of Italy: Disney Cruise Line

Sleek and trendy in style, adult-only restaurant, Palo, on both Disney Wonder and Disney Magic, allows parents and adults to escape the kids for a relaxing evening dinner or Sunday brunch.

The Northern Italian menu – featuring signature dishes such as Chilean sea bass, calamari, souffle, smoked fish and fresh shellfish – is enhanced by the open-air kitchen and top-deck views.

Reservations are required, and Palo does carry a $15 per person charge for both brunch and dinner.

Dining under the stars: Ocean Village

Try TV chef James Martin’s British-meets-Mediterranean menus on deck on Ocean Village 2, where the restaurant has outside seating by the pool.  You can’t beat it on a balmy summer night.

Special Occasions: P&O Cruises

Gary Rhodes’ two restaurants on P&O Cruises Arcadia and Oriana really are special, with attentive service, quiet tables for two and exquisite modern British cuisine.  Book early when you board the ship.

Vegatarians: Princess

Sabatini’s on Princess Cruises’ ships serves a vast array of Italian dishes with good veggie options among the delicious anitpasti, hearty soups and pastas including homemade ravioli filled with truffles.

Families

Children adore the Teppenyaki restaurant on NCL’s Jewel-class ships, where egg-and-knife juggling chefs produce delicious Asian dishes with great panache, right in front of you.

Looking ahead…  The future of alternative dining venues

While it’s unlikely that cruise ships would ever do away altogether with their main dining rooms, it does seem safe to say that the strong popularity of the new, smaller restaurants will drive the cruise lines to develop more and more dining concepts, and as a result expand the options for an evening meal on their ships even further.

One of the newest of the newest ships at sea, Celebrity Solstice, was launched with an impressive 10 dining venues, more than any other ship in its fleet.

Words: Ralph Grizzle