Cruise Ship Dining – Then and Now | Travel Research Online


Cruise Ship Dining – Then and Now

In the beginning it was just first sitting & second sitting –

First (or main) sitting started between 6:00p and 6:30p – second (or late) sitting started between 8:00p and 8:30p. One could linger over dinner for up to two hours or more – before being shooed out so tables could be cleared and reset for the next sitting. One sat at the same table at the same time with the same waiter and bus-person night after night. And all was well with the world. This was the way the Cruise Gods intended it – a near religious gastronomic experience each and every evening.

Then along came the heretics at Norwegian Cruise Lines with “Freestyle Dining”. About the same time along came the unholy sacrilege called “Alternative Restaurants” – at extra cost no less – making the constitutionally mandated separation of church and steak complete.

And guess what? A large segment of cruise passengers love the new options – so many in fact that all cruise ships are beginning to offer some variation on these new dining choices. Read on to learn:

  • How to Select Meal Times
  • Freestyle or Fixed?
  • How to Book Alternative Restaurants
  • How to Work with the Maitre d’
  • How to Get the Best Table


How to select meal times –

 Get out your GPS, begin your 12-step program, create a spreadsheet, consult your astrologer, slip the maitre d’ a $50 bill, then throw a dart at a seating chart. If this seems like too much work for you…just do what we do when we can’t agree on when or where to dine. Put on your cleanest tank top, slip into your designer Flip Flops and head for the Lido buffet.

But if it is up to me…and it rarely is…I prefer the fixed late sitting. Why, you ask? Late sitting is best because you don’t feel rushed to dress for dinner; especially after returning from that exhausting, day long glass bottomed taxi ride and lizard roast.

And furthermore, it is enjoyable having the same waiter each night. They quickly learn one’s preferences and taste inclinations. By the third or fourth day of the cruise they are analogous to mind readers. My experience: cruise ship waiters have the uncanny ability to know exactly what I want before I know myself. Plus, it is a singular thrill to have my personal monogrammed L.L. Bean lobster bib folded neatly atop my place setting – ready to strap on – each and every evening when I make my grand entrance into the dining room.

Freestyle or fixed? –

Obviously for me it is fixed (see above) but many prefer a system named after an Olympic swimming event. Why, I don’t know. It is not really free, nor is it stylish. You just have a bunch of people wandering aimlessly around the ship from dining room to restaurant to dining room trying to decide where, when and with whom to eat. Why not make that decision once and be done with it? The very thought of having to go through that excruciating process each and every night gives me indigestion.

Each cruise line has been rolling out a flexible dining option under its own unique moniker. Norwegian Cruise Lines originated the innovation calling it “Freestyle” dining, Carnival and Royal Caribbean were late to the party but called their processes the “Your Choice Dining” program and the “My Time Dining” program, respectively. Princess jumped in somewhere in the middle with “Personal Choice” dining. Not to be left out, Holland America has introduced “As You Wish” dining. (Enough with the clever names already…I’m getting heartburn.)

How to book alternative restaurants –

Ok, admittedly, it is nice to book an alternative or “specialty” restaurant once or twice during the cruise. For a surcharge of $20 to $30 per person it is possible to dine in a venue so upscale that – were it shore side – probably wouldn’t let someone like me in the door, much less think I could afford the experience. The economics are simple. For this relatively paltry surcharge one dines in exquisite splendor. The cost would be at least $100 per person in an establishment of similar quality and opulence back home in Walla Walla.

Be sure to make reservations for these upscale gastronomic pleasure palaces immediately upon boarding the ship. They sell out quickly – especially on formal nights.

If you are fortunate enough to be camped out in a Concierge Class, suite or high-end balcony cabin, a butler may be available to handle alternative restaurant reservations on your behalf. If Jeeves isn’t available, march down to the front office or call the restaurant directly from your cabin. On some ships with in-cabin interactive video screens you can make reservations just by learning to point the remote control in the right direction.

How to work with the Maitre d’ –

There are far more possibilities here than just getting a table for two by the window. Two items are far more important than table location –

  • Your dining table companions for the cruise
  • The personalities & extra-curricular talents of your wait staff

Large tables – for eight or more – tend to be livelier and more likely to be seeded with a few outgoing eccentrics. This can make for some very entertaining evenings; often times a better show than anything happening in the main showroom. If – after the first couple of nights – your assigned table mates don’t seem to have much potential – or appear to be always whacked out on Dramamine – tell the Maitre d’ you’d like to be traded to another team. He will most likely be glad to oblige.

And here is the Mother of all Hot Tips – worth every penny you paid to access this article. Many cruise ship waiters are entertainers in their own right. However, you should not count on blind luck to get hooked up with a stellar personality/performer. Just ask, beg or bribe the Maitre d’ to seat you with  Mr. Personality, Mr. Close-up Magician or the Joker.

How to get the best table –

So, having identified the best table as the one with the most colorful dining companions and/or the most entertaining waiter – what’s the process for finding this needle in a haystack?

Look for the table with the most (empty) wine bottles – the one to where the   Sommelier  keeps gravitating – the one where people are turned sideways in their chairs talking to each other – not staring straight ahead silently shoveling food into their mouths. And, if you are fortunate enough to see otherwise sophisticated looking people balancing silverware on their noses…especially on formal night… BINGO!  Tip the Maitre d’ a hundred bucks if necessary to get a seat at   that  table.

Author’s Bio – Lyn Edwin Cathey – Network Travel Services, LLC

A veteran of 25 years in the travel industry – holding positions within the industry such as trainer, educator, agent, consultant, agency owner/manager and product specialist. For 15 years prior to joining the travel industry Lyn worked as a full time entertainer/comedian, performing on banjo & guitar – often as a featured act on cruise ships. He created and currently maintains several websites, including – ; and

  7 thoughts on “Cruise Ship Dining – Then and Now

  1. Cheryl Baker says:

    My husband and I love the fixed, late dining on ships. Nice that the waiter anticipates your requests, recommends based on what you’ve ordered other times, etc. We also have dear friends we’ve kept in touch with over the years after meeting them on a cruise ship. When you dine with the same people, you are able to get beyond the surface name-where from-what do (or did) you do. Our last trip out of Dover we were able to meet separately with two British couples we met on our Panama Canal cruise. Priceless!

  2. Elmer Farkle says:

    Edwin Lyn Cathey…..That’s the same feller that spilt a $900 bottle of 1976 Romane Conti all over my wife’s new Bob Mackey French lace dress. We were on a Caribbean cruise at the time. I thought I recognized that face…..his short bio did not mention that he was also a waiter. My tux was ruined as was the dress. Mr. Cathey had the nerve to offer us a bottle of Manischewitz grape as a replacement. To make matters worse, the next night he came over to our table with his banjo and sang an off-key song called “Bottle of Wine, Fruit of the Vine”. While we had a bad experience with that cruise, we stumbled across Mr. Cathey a few years ago at his Trip Finder website. He has since booked several trips for us and will be our travel agent for many years to come. Although he is a horrible waiter, he really knows his stuff when it comes to cruises. I highly recommend his services.

  3. Bob Ensten says:

    Lyn, my wife and I just spent a week on the NCL Spirit. Never again. The dining was the pits, literally. There were pits in the olives in the salad! But free sltyle dining is NOT the way to go. The dining room staff could care less about the individual patron because they get their tips whether you like the service or not. Although the brochures say that you can make a reservation in the main dining room, that only applies to “large” parties. Problem is they won’t tell you how large the party has to be. And I won’t pay to go to a “specialty” restaurant to get the same food that they used to serve in the main dining room routinely. I think that too many of the low end cruise lines picture themselves in the same class as the vintage airlines. They are all cutting prices by cutting services and adding all sorts of additional charges. I would rather pay more up front, get the service, food, wine, shore excursions, and more included.

  4. Jim Connolly says:

    I have travelled 4 times on NCL and never had a problem with staff or food on the 3 ships I have travelled on, NCL Sea, NCL Dream and twice on the NCL Star. Just returned from the latter and always ate in the main dining rooms for all dinners and a few lunches. Staff were always friendly and efficient. Never had a bad meal. Again I won’t pay to go to a “specialty” restaurant.

  5. Lyn Cathey says:

    Bob & Jim – Once again I hear conflicting opinions on NCL. Seems that people either love it or hate it! It has been quite a while since I have cruised on Norwegian – maybe I should book a cruise on the new Epic. Anyone else on TRO planning to cruise that ship this year?

  6. Regarding Elmer Farkle’s comments above – let me set the record straight.

    What Mr. Farkle fails to mention is that – on that cruise night when we first met – he mistook me for a waiter. It was formal night – I was in a tux – he’d been drinking Singapore Slings all day and by dinner time – well, anyone in a tux was a waiter, as far as he was concerned.

    Mr. Farkle also leaves out other pertinent details – the Bob Mackey French lace dress was a rental, and his tux – probably a holdover from a cousin’s wedding – was burgundy colored – so the wine stain did not show.

    As to “off key singing” the following night – two corrections are in order. Mr. Farkle, who fancies himself a “sanger”, took the lead on the lyrics to the “Bottle of Wine” song, not me, and – well, let’s just say I can – and often do – tune my banjo to concert pitch. If only he could do the same with his voice!

    We certainly appreciate Mr. Farkle’s business at and are grateful for his kind comments and hope that he will not be too disappointed to learn that – as of the first of the year – we no longer sell bus tickets on our website.

  7. Bob Ensten says:

    I think that Jim Connolly might have missed my point. I did not say that the food on NCL was bad, only that “it was the pits,” which I then explained. But I was very disappointed that the menu carried one meat, one fish, one pasta, one Asian dish and one vegetarian dish. Anything else had to be obtained in the specialty dining rooms. In the “olden days,” you had a choice of two or three meats a couple of fish, a pasta or two, and a vegetarian – all in the main dining room. There were many other choices in the salad department as well, not one or two.

    Also, when I said that the wait staff could care less about service, I would ask how many times they came by and filled his water glass, coffee cup, or offered additional bread and butter without being reminded. Never on our NCL cruise. In fact, three days into the cruise, all salt and pepper, and butter was removed from the tables because three passengers out of 2200 had shown symptoms similar to Norovirus, and the line did not want the infection to spread. So, we had to beg for salt and pepper to get individual packets. Our maitre d’ never came to our table during the seven nights we ate in the dining room, and there are no longer someliers onboard. The waiters are all supposed to be wine experts now. How likely is that?

    Mr. Connolly can have NCL and United Air Lines. I prefer something that gives me more for the same price.

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