Perhaps you don't remember the bad old days on cruise ships, or imagine they ever went away. The days when dining meant cramming into a tuxedo, turning up at eight o'clock sharp for your assigned seat, and dining amid starch, chandeliers and the polite tinkling of cutlery. Nothing wrong with that, but just not every night, thanks.
Now the portholes have been opened to let breaths of fresh air blow through cruise-ship restaurants. Few venues now insist on assigned seats, set dining times or formal dress codes, and main dining venues are becoming increasingly sidelined as specialty and other restaurants emerge. In fact, a few years ago Royal Caribbean's new Quantum of the Seas became the first big cruise ship to scrap its main dining room entirely, offering 18 smaller alternatives instead. Some smaller luxury ships such as Silversea's Silver Muse, which launched in early 2017, have followed suit.
The trend towards more informality and personalised experiences has been seen across the travel world over the last few years, but has been particularly noticeable on cruise ships as cruise passengers have become younger, more adventurous and more multi-generational. Such shipboard holidaymakers are increasingly in the mood to choose their own dining style and food rather than head to a one-taste-fits-all main dining room or alternative buffet restaurant.
In short, cruise passengers are looking for on-board dining experiences that reflect their habits on land, namely less fussiness, more ethnic cuisines and a convivial environment. They're no longer as keen to frock up, hold stilted conversations with strangers and mind their table etiquette. The result? Cruise companies are responding with pizzerias, pubs, bistros, grill bars, bakeries and cafes, Mexican and Asian eateries, and shared-plate restaurants.
MEAT AND GREET
Barbecue venues are increasingly common on cruise ships as an informal counterpart to more traditional shipboard grills. Crystal Cruises, for example, has created new dining venue Churrascaria, which takes over its buffet venue in the evenings. Guests start off with caipirinhas and Brazilian-inspired tapas, then indulge in help-yourself salads and sides while waiters serve Brazilian barbecued meats.
Norwegian Bliss, which launched in April 2018, has new dining venue Q, a Texas smokehouse with live entertainment and finger-licking food such as beef ribs, brisket, green fried tomatoes and pecan pie. And when Saga Cruises launches new ship Spirit of Discovery in mid-2019, its two-in-one Verandah and Grill will have an open kitchen and informal dining both inside and on deck. The cruise line has promised "unfussy" dining ship wide.
Meanwhile, the Lawn Club Grill on Celebrity Silhouette and Celebrity Reflection sees passengers kick back outdoors on garden furniture on a deck that features real grass. They get advice from chefs on barbecuing techniques and assist with the grilling before tucking into bratwurst, strip steak or meat skewers accompanied by flights of beers.
THE BURGERS ARE BETTER
We're also seeing the rise and rise of the burger bar and the ship's pub where, although the ambience is informal, the menu often goes beyond traditional burger fare. In just the last few years, pubs have become a fixture of big ships from Carnival, Norwegian, Princess and Royal Caribbean. The latter's Michael's Genuine Pub on Quantum-class vessels might be the best, with the menu, devised by celebrity US restaurateur Michael Schwartz, featuring the likes of pork sliders, Scotch eggs, peanut-butter pie and burgers that Aussies will be pleased to know contain beetroot. The food is accompanied by craft beers or flights of bourbon whiskey.
American TV chef Guy Fieri gives his name to Guy's Hamburger Joint on Carnival ships, where you can indulge in the likes of "The Ringer" burger with onion rings, melted cheese and barbecue sauce made with bourbon and brown sugar. On Sydney-based Carnival Spirit you can order a "Boomerang Burger" with beetroot relish and bacon.
The burger has come out of the closet on luxury ships too, with celebrity chefs getting involved in their creation. Thomas Keller's signature beef-and-pork Napa burger on Seabourn ships, for example, has aged cheddar and is served rather rare. Burger ingredients are increasingly upmarket. Viking Cruises offers a burger with blue cheese and rocket, and a vegetarian version with roasted red capsicum, red-onion marmalade and guacamole.
INFORMAL BUT FANCY
The trend towards dining informality certainly doesn't mean the food is downmarket. Even when celebrity chefs are involved, shipboard restaurants feature more relaxed decor and food often designed to be shared. Examples are SHARE, Curtis Stone's restaurant on Princess Cruises ships, or Jamie's Italian on Royal Caribbean ships. The latter dispenses with tablecloths, features Jamie Oliver's casual eats, and has shared planks loaded with prosciutto, salami, mozzarella and pickles.
On luxury ships, venues can offer a relaxed dining experience too, even if you'll still find gleaming wine glasses, tablecloths and plush seating. Silver Note, which now appears on three Silversea ships, is a good example. Its refined, intimate space recalls an upmarket jazz club and features live music. Passengers can nibble their way through elegant tapas-style, Peruvian-fusion small plates such as seared lamb with risotto and buttered lobster tail.
Manfredi's specialty restaurant on Viking ships is happily relaxed, but still produces possibly the best Italian food at sea, such as osso bucco, a magnificent Florentine steak and capellini pasta with zucchini-wrapped prawns. Unlike some specialty restaurants it's not uptight, but has the feel of a neighbourhood trattoria.
The final good news about informal dining on cruise ships has been the appearance of more ethnic eateries. Expect sushi bars, Spanish tapas joints, Italian pizzerias and Mexican diners. Norwegian's new concept Food Republic is for the undecided, offering sampler dishes from global cuisines, such as beef anticuchos (marinated Peruvian meat skewers), Japanese ramen noodles, pad Thai and spicy Korean chicken wings.
Viking's snack venue Mamsen's features Norwegian food such as open sandwiches, split-pea soup and hot waffles with berries and caramelised Norwegian goat's cheese. And Silver Muse's Kaiseki is a sushi and sashimi venue at lunchtimes and at night a teppanyaki grill, where you can prop yourself at the counter and chat to the chef as he cooks Maine lobster, black cod with miso glaze, and wagyu beef teriyaki. Top food without the tuxedos, and a whole lot of fun.
CRUISING'S BEST POSH (BUT INFORMAL) NOSH
WAVES GRILL, OCEANIA CRUISES
Most cruise ships have their poolside burger bar, but this one (open lunchtime and afternoons) is a cut above the rest, with a menu featuring surf-and-turf sandwiches with lobster medallions and Angus filet mignon, burgers stuffed with wagyu beef, and paninis with mozzarella and vine-ripened tomatoes. In the mornings, the venue serves freshly squeezed fruit juices and smoothies. See oceaniacruises.com
SILK KITCHEN, CRYSTAL CRUISES
This new concept for Crystal is interesting on several counts. Many ships have an Asian restaurant, but this one sets itself apart with its informality, very contemporary (and un-Asian) decor, retractable glass ceiling and its dining style. It focuses on Chinese comfort foods, and guests can help themselves from a buffet selection of dim sum and noodles as well as make a la carte choices. See crystalcruises.com
THE GRILL, SILVERSEA
Tables are set up on the pool deck of Silversea's smart ships for this laid-back experience. There are no tablecloths, the menu is limited and you cook your choice of meat and fish yourself on hot lava stones, with bibs to guard against splatter. The steaks and pork chops are top quality. Balmy sea breezes, reflections of lights in the swimming pool and a canopy of stars are an added bonus. See silversea.com
WINTERGARDEN, VIKING CRUISES
The indoor-outdoor, very stylish Wintergarden, with its striking ceiling of pale Scandinavian wood, is the place to be at 4pm on Viking's ocean ships for platefuls of finger sandwiches, scones, pastries and macarons served by ever-friendly waiters. The great tea selection runs the expected gamut but also includes interesting alternatives such as mango white and gunpowder teas. See vikingcruises.com.au
THE COLONNADE, SEABOURN
This indoor-outdoor buffet venue is one of the best at sea, especially for its selections of seafood (crab cakes, king salmon, clam chowder, jumbo shrimps), as well as cheese and desserts. You can supplement your browsing with made-to-order choices. In the evenings, it turns into a table-service restaurant with bistro-style offerings, often regionally themed and designed for sharing. See seabourn.com
The writer has travelled courtesy of numerous cruise companies.