Over the years, this has been the frequent dining plight of the cruise-ship passenger.
Galleys were only big enough to feed the masses in two waves. Dining rooms were configured for maximal use of space, which meant tables of eight in one large hall. As a matter of necessity, strangers were thrown together randomly at a given table and expected to make do with one another's company for the duration of the voyage.
But all that has changed in recent years. On ships today - particularly the newer ones - the trend is toward flexibility of dining times, variety of cuisine and premium dining in intimate restaurant settings, for which a per-person surcharge is customarily assessed.
As inveterate foodies have further fueled demand for culinary diversions, the cruise lines have responded with cooking demonstrations, wine tastings, chef's dinners, specialty buffets and shore excursions that call at vineyards, markets and acclaimed restaurants.
Of course, cruise vacations have always had a strong emphasis on food consumption, but now the shipboard experience is prizing quality over
"Food is playing a larger part in everybody's life these days, and not just on vacation," said Andrew Poulton, director of strategic marketing for Radisson Seven Seas. "People are dining out more, spending more. They're becoming more adventurous in what they try. You look back 20 years ago, how many sushi places and Thai restaurants were there? Now they're everywhere. People are more interested in exotic cuisine. ...
"It really has become a very important part of our daily lives, and has always been a huge part of the cruise experience. What we're doing on the ships reflects what's happening on land."
Rai Caluori, senior vice president of fleet operations for Princess, added: "Expectation has changed. It speaks to the cruise vacationer who wants more flexibility - particularly the younger guests. There's an extrapolation that what they get on shore they can get on ship."
Norwegian Cruise Line is credited with pioneering the trend in 2000 with its launch of Freestyle Cruising. With a sweeping stroke, it did away with the large dining room, the two dinner seatings, the assigned tablemates and the nightly dress code.
"The original ships in the cruise industry couldn't accommodate people in any other way," said NCL executive vice president Andy Stuart, "and they had convinced others in the cruise industry that this was the only way to do it."
No more. As others have rushed to mimic NCL's model, dining space has been carved up into multiple restaurant-type venues. Smaller galleys have been built here and there, particularly on the newer ships. And now just about every cruise line's brochures trumpet the opportunity "to dine when, where and with whom you please."
An Alaska cruise last fall on Princess Cruises' year-old Sapphire Princess was emblematic of the new wave.
There was a traditional dining room for those passengers who prefer the experience of a fixed seating time, the same waiter every night and the prospect of making new friends at the table (this demographic skews sharply to the older travelers, according to several industry executives).
But if passengers so desired, they could opt for Anytime Dining. This meant popping into any of four smaller restaurants at a time of your convenience. Each served the same menu as the main dining room, but with an additional theme entree. The selections were unchanged throughout the cruise: fajitas in the Santa Fe restaurant, a center-cut pork chop in Savoy, a savory osso buco Milanese in Vivaldi, and a fabulous dish of scallops, shrimp, vegetables and Chinese noodles in Pacific Moon.
Still further, there were two premium restaurants on board, for which per-person surcharges were assessed - Trattoria Sabatini ($20), which is available on 10 of the 14 ships in the Princess fleet, and Sterling Steakhouse ($15), which is on 11 ships.
Our experience at Sabatini was fantastic - so much so that we returned for more of the same on another night of the cruise. It had the decor and ambience of a friendly neighborhood restaurant, with plenty of tables for two, and set itself apart from a typical cruise dining experience right from the start.
Manager Nicola Fascella explained that when Italians have friends over for dinner, they typically bring out a little bit of everything that's in the kitchen, and the diners pick and choose what they'd like. He and the Sapphire's maitre d', Silvio Zampieri, are attempting to duplicate the experience here.
They certainly delivered. Guests are handed a menu that lists eight antipasto items. But don't agonize over the selection; waiters come to each table with great platters of everything, so you can have a little of this or a little more of that.
What a glorious parade it was, all served up by an exceptionally attentive staff.
In the first wave: lean prosciutto with melon balls, porcini mushrooms marinated in olive oil and tarragon, silvery anchovies, shrimp and marinated artichokes in white truffle oil, carpaccio and arugula with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, grilled zucchini and sun-dried tomatoes.
Then came the next wave: potato pancakes with a sprinkling of sevruga caviar, fried brie cheese with a black-olive tapenade, steamed black mussels in a marinara sauce, deviled crab cakes with a salmon roe rouille.
Now it was time for the third of six courses. Salad, anyone? (We passed.)
The pasta course was all three pastas on the menu: pillowy gnocchi with interiors of smoked fontina cheese, cannelloni tubes stuffed with ground sirloin and eggplant, and spaghetti topped with scallops, clams, calamari and a tomato sauce.
To this point, this might sound like rank gluttony, but again, the portions were tasting-size. Think of it as a feast by inches.
The main event was lobster tail, brushed with champagne butter and sprinkled with paprika, salt and pepper - nothing to overwhelm the succulent taste and texture of the seafood. It was cut from the shell, tableside, by our waiter.
Dessert was a blur: tiramisu and panna cotta with caramel sauce, I seem to recall. And, finally, the lily was gilded aptly with a couple of fingers of limoncello.
On another night, at Sterling Steakhouse, beef was found to be of superior quality - with such prodigious cuts as a 22-ounce porterhouse, a 14-ounce rib-eye and a 10-ounce filet.
Compared to Sabatini, however, its service was spotty and the setting uninspired. The ship cordons off a dining area that doubles as buffet seating during the day, so instead of dark woods and a clubby feel, you get festive upholstery and glaring lighting. About the only concession to the theme was Rat Pack music playing on the sound system. (Caluori says the Crown Princess, which launches this summer, will have a dedicated steakhouse, with leather booths, a faux fireplace, wine cabinets and the like.)
Neither did the decor in the other restaurants particularly reflect the themes of Vivaldi, Santa Fe, Savoy and Pacific Moon. What they did have was a lot of banquette seating, so as to accommodate parties of two without requiring oceans of square footage. As in Parisian cafes, it's remarkable how those several inches of space between the tables serve as a welcome barrier of privacy.
Each day at lunchtime, a succession of tasty delights was also presented at a specialty buffet on deck. There was sushi one day, fresh-catch barbecue another, a taste of Alaska (salmon and halibut in every imaginable form) the next ... and, of course, one day's spread devoted entirely to chocolate.
Similar culinary variety can be found elsewhere on the water.
w=12 l=16Learn by doing
A number of cruise lines are offering cooking demonstrations and workshops for passengers, often led by guest chefs or cookbook authors who make the sailings much like naturalists and history professors in the more conventional enrichment programs.
Holland America offers such a program in conjunction with Food & Wine magazine; Radisson Seven Seas has contracted with Le Cordon Bleu cooking school; and Silversea has an arrangement with Relais & Chateau. Often, shore trips are part of the program - stops at Caribbean restaurants (Celebrity), for example, or visits to French markets and vineyards (Radisson Seven Seas, Silversea).
Some of the undertakings are downright lavish. Crystal offers the Vintage Room, at which wine and champagne makers select premier wines for a dinner gathering of 14-15 people, and the chef builds a menu around the choices. "This is really for connoisseurs," said spokeswoman Mimi Weisband, adding that the dinners are priced at $150-200 per person depending on the wine selections.
w=12 l=16Celebrity sightings
Securing the name of a famed chef is quite a coup for a cruise line.
Leading the way is Cunard, which got Boston's Todd English to lend his name and stylings to a premium restaurant on the Queen Mary 2. Priced at $30 per person for dinner, it is superb, set in a plush, intimate setting overlooking the stern. We were delighted with Maine crab cakes as a starter and inventively prepared main courses - roasted lamb rack with black olive jus, and grilled beef tenderloin over toasted garlic spinach (with a decadent Roquefort cream sauce that held ham, peas and carmelized onions).
Crystal presents the gourmet Italian cuisine of Piero Selvaggio, who has gained acclaim for his Valentino restaurants in Santa Monica and Las Vegas; Seabourn has a similar arrangement with Charlie Palmer; Celebrity works with Michel Roux.
Even budget line Carnival is getting in on the act. It hired Michelin three-star chef Georges Blanc to design its menu, and also sent its chefs to his restaurant in Vonnas, France, for two-week tutorials.
w=12 l=16Spice of life
Variety is all the rage where dining venues are concerned. The Norwegian Jewel, for example, has 10 distinctly different restaurants, including a French bistro, Japanese teppanyaki house, tapas bar, steakhouse, sushi bar and Italian kitchen. "We wanted to put 10 restaurants on our ships and let people go to a different one every night of the cruise," said NCL's Stuart, noting that, typically, three of those restaurants might have a surcharge.
On the Queen Mary 2, the choices included, in addition to Todd English's place, a marvelous 12-course tasting menu at the Asian-theme Lotus, the Carvery, the Italian-theme La Piazza and the Chef's Galley, which permits a select number of guests to sit at tables in a room overlooking the kitchen, and to observe and interact with the chef as a wine-paired dinner is created for them.
Eric Noland, (818) 713-3681
NEXT IN THE SERIES:
Neighborhood restaurants in Las Vegas, launched by former proteges of celebrity chefs, March 5