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Oceans of Opportunity

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The cruise line industry is growing, and adding full-service restaurants onboard—from casual franchises like Johnny Rockets to upscale steakhouses and fine-dining enclaves.
By Joy Taylor Wolf August 2014

Dining on a ship today has sailed far beyond the Love Boat years, when traditional dinner service was the only option and passengers arrived en masse to the dining room for pre-assigned early or late seating. These days, cruise lines offer multiple dining venues and specialty restaurants, from pizza and tapas to authentic Italian cuisine and steakhouses.

While romance, adventure, and escape may all be perks to vacationing on a cruise ship, food—and fine dining in particular—are among the biggest attractions. In fact, according to a 2011 study by Cruise Lines International Association (clia), 56 percent of repeat cruise vacationers say that fine dining is the No. 1 attribute of a trip aboard an ocean liner.

One reason the industry is growing—and the passenger growth rate is up 7 percent per annum since 1980—is that people who go on a cruise are very likely to go on multiple cruises in their lifetime—10.5 cruises per person to be exact, according to CLIA. And these are the people who say food and fine dining matter.

Catering to their desires, cruise lines are expanding their full-service restaurant options beyond the onboard meals and all-you-can-eat buffets that are included with the cruise package. Increasingly, passengers can also choose to spend a few dollars above and beyond the all-inclusive fare to eat in a variety of restaurant venues from contemporary casual concepts to elegant, full-service settings.

Add-On Options Make Waves

Almost without exception, every major cruise line offers a steakhouse dining option, and the additional surcharge for guests usually runs $25–$35. That per-person cost covers the three- or four-course meal, including tip, although all beverage expenses are extra.

The surcharge apparently doesn’t deter passengers, as most dining rooms are filled each evening and many travelers book reservations—often for multiple restaurants—to eat in the special dining venues.

“It’s important that our extra-charge restaurants be available at a very reasonable price,” says Carnival Cruise Lines executive chef Peter Leypold. “Our steakhouses are very popular, and even with the $35 fee, they are an incredible value compared with what guests would pay for a similar meal on land.”

In most cases, value also means a variety of choices. For instance, diners at the Crown Grill on Princess Cruises or those eating at Chops Grille on Royal Caribbean International may order the 8-ounce petite filet, the 22-ounce bone-in porterhouse steak, or any size steak in between. Signature sauces and exotic salts may also be selected to adorn the beefy cuts. Adding a lobster tail on the side is not only doable, it’s also typically available at no extra cost, depending on the cruise operator.

Ethnic cuisines are as popular as the traditional American steakhouses, with most cruise lines featuring diversity in restaurant options that might include Japanese, French, British, Brazilian, or Mediterranean eateries.

“Shipboard trends parallel those of land-based restaurants, and we’re constantly updating and enhancing our options to keep pace with consumers’ preferences,” says Carnival’s Leypold. “We’re always looking for ways to incorporate new ingredients, creative preparations, ethnic specialties, and even new serving styles.”

For instance, some Carnival ships have full-service restaurants that feature family-style Italian cuisine while other restaurants may offer sushi. As with the steakhouses, guests pay a nominal fee to dine in these concepts.

It’s all about tailoring experiences to guests’ desires. Aboard the four family-friendly ships operated by Disney Cruise Lines, there are two upscale restaurants reserved exclusively for adults. Disney’s Northern Italian-inspired Palo restaurant seats 120–160 (depending on the ship), with each guest paying $25 to dine there. Palo is typically booked months in advance, especially for the prime seating times of 7 or 7:30 p.m.

The $75 per-guest surcharge at Disney’s second restaurant, Remy, is one of the pricier options for a cruise line, but serves a lavish eight-course meal, led by a French-trained chef, and each course includes wine pairings. The luxurious dining experience is enhanced with Riedel crystal, Bernardaud china, Frette linens, fresh flowers, and candlelight.

Similarly, the Chef’s Table—an opportunity copied from upscale land-based restaurants that allows a small group of diners to witness much of the meal’s preparation and often be served by the chef—has become an increasingly popular choice for the foodies onboard many ships. A seat at the table runs $75 on a Carnival ship and $95 at Royal Caribbean, but it entitles passionate food lovers to a VIP experience including a multi-course meal prepared by one of the ship’s master chefs.

Not all of the add-on experiences carry a premium price tag. Royal Caribbean International has also expanded its full-service dining options in a casual direction by bringing Johnny Rockets, an international franchise, to 11 ships. The dinner menu is much like that found in any of Johnny Rockets’ 300 land-based restaurants, with passengers able to order burgers, onion rings, shakes, and malts—anything on the menu—for a mere $5 cover charge. Not to be outdone, Carnival teamed up with Food Network personality Guy Fieri to open Guy’s Burger Joint on seven of the Carnival ships, bringing a free poolside lunch to guests on those cruises. It’s been a success, with Guy’s Burger Joints serving more than 1,000 burgers per day on each ship it is on.

In fact, several cruise lines turn to celebrity chefs to bring a signature dining experience to their guests. From television personality Jamie Oliver to renowned cookbook author Jacques Pépin, celebrity chefs work with the ships’ executive chefs to develop menus and elevate the dining experience.

All Hands on Deck

In terms of operational functions, at-sea restaurants are very similar to their land-based counterparts. On most cruise ships, each specialty dining venue has its own kitchen facility, and rarely is there a central kitchen that services multiple dining rooms.

“Our Palo and Remy restaurants don’t operate any differently than a fine restaurant in Chicago, New York, or London,” says Ozer Balli, vice president of hotel operations (which includes food and beverage) for Disney Cruise Lines. “There is no difference in how we cook or serve.”

However, Carnival’s Leypold notes there are two major differences between shipboard and shore-side restaurants: the provisioning of items and the overall scale of dining. With today’s mega ships holding up to 4,900 passengers plus a 1,200-person crew, stocking the ship for a seven- or 14-day cruise requires thousands of pounds of provisions.

“Dining is such a key component of [the experience] that cruise lines have the operation of their dining venues down to a science, which means ordering supplies well in advance, stocking provisions for multiple weeks, and prepping food according to a specific schedule,” Leypold says, adding that the placement of food orders is centralized through the company’s main office, which accepts delivery of items while the ships are in port.

The design of ocean kitchens is also different. Due to the swaying motion of cruising ships (which obviously can be exacerbated in bad weather), shipboard kitchens are designed and built specifically for that dynamic sea experience. “All equipment is custom-fitted for a ship; nothing can move,” says Balli.

In Disney kitchens, that means electric stoves have storm railing to help keep pots secure, trolleys have locking wheels, and storage shelves have a metal lip to keep items in place. Even plate storage is customized to prevent breakage.

The designs are crafted to protect both the kitchen equipment and the employees, but engineering can’t prevent the inevitable seasickness that some individuals experience. “New chefs may get seasick, so we give them a rest until they get their sea legs,” Balli says.

Cooking for and serving all the passengers take an experienced culinary crew. For example, on the Caribbean Princess (with a passenger load of 3,000), the kitchen staff includes 29 first cooks, 40 second cooks, 27 third cooks, 52 assistant cooks, five sous chefs, plus specialty butchers and bakers, and multitudes of galley assistants and waiters.

As in any restaurant operation, at-sea specialty restaurants hire personnel with specific culinary skills. For example, Disney only hires French sous chefs for its upscale Remy restaurant, and individuals hired to work in Remy do not work anywhere else on the ship. The same is true for Palo, Disney’s Italian restaurant, but recruitment is primarily from individuals in Italy.