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 – every evening a near religious gastronomic experience.
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.
Coming soon – Articles on maxing other aspects of the cruise experience; best activities, entertainment, staterooms, shore excursions, etc.