Splurging on a cruise ship's specialty meals

Beverly Shun manages the steak house Chef's Art on the new Carnival Dream. She says some passengers come every night, and can get a $70-$80 dinner there for $30.

Every new cruise ship is equipped with at least one specialty restaurant. For a fee, these alternative evening dining rooms serve anything from top-tier steaks or sushi to an elegant presentation of regional fare.

But are they worth the price?

The basic answer is: yes, at least most of them. Cruise lines generally don't make a profit from your trip to the specialty restaurants. Chances are you'll get more than your money's worth, and a dinner for two can be a romantic occasion.

Still, when your vacation budget is tight, there's no need to lay out an extra $10 to $30 per person for dinner when food is so plentiful and free elsewhere on the ship. Cruise lines say that fees charged in specialty restaurants are primarily to control the crowds - to restrain, for instance, half the ship from heading to the steak house every night. On most ships, you can order a steak in the main dining rooms without a fee.

The value and style of specialty restaurants vary by cruise line.

Carnival, the largest cruise line in the world, never has put much emphasis on alternative restaurants, while Norwegian is building the Epic, scheduled to sail in May, around restaurant choices.

Carnival says that its passengers like the line's tradition of singing waiters and main-dining-room antics, and that most passengers are not interested in dressing up and sitting through a long, lazy evening meal of two hours or more. Carnival has concentrated on improving its main dining menus, which are relatively simple, with a quality among the best afloat.

Over the last decade, new Carnival ships have offered one specialty restaurant - a supper club with a dance floor and live music at $30 per person. But the music often turned out too loud, the dance floor was empty, and tables went begging. So in December, Carnival quietly turned all of its supper clubs into steak houses, moving the music out, covering the dance floor, and reducing formality - a jacket is recommended but not required for men.

"Specialty restaurants are a tough sell, especially if food downstairs is very good," says Beverly Shun, manager of the reservations-only steak house Chef's Art, which seats 120 on the top deck of the new Carnival Dream. "I do have some passengers who come every night. You get a $70 to $80 dinner for $30."

My dinner on the Carnival Dream last month was well worth an extra $30: escargot on a bed of brioche; Caesar salad mixed tableside; two double lamb chops with roast potatoes and mushrooms, and a side of creamed spinach; Bailey's Irish Cream ice cream. I drank half a bottle of Sebastiani cabernet sauvignon ($35), which I finished the next night at dinner downstairs in the main Crimson dining room.

One night in the Crimson, I ate a filet mignon - at no extra charge - that was the equal of a steak-house steak.

That probably would not happen on a Royal Caribbean ship, where passengers may order a quality steak in the main dining room, but at a cost of $14.95, because the steak comes from the ship's specialty restaurant, Chops Grille. The fee for a full meal at Chops Grille is $25, but, then, most restaurants with an additional "e" in the name charge extra.

Royal Caribbean ships are not noted for their main dining room fare, but they are praised for their Portofino specialty restaurant, where the $20 fee is a small price to pay for a six-course Italian meal that ends with tiramisu. Royal Caribbean has added other restaurants to its new Oasis of the Seas, but I haven't gotten to them yet.

Among the mass-marketed ships, Norwegian is king of the specialty restaurants, offering the most alternative eating places and times.

Norwegian ships have nearly a dozen restaurants, from a steak house to a French bistro, from Italian to Asian fusion. Some are included in the cruise fare. Others cost $10 to $30 per person. If you think you might try at least one or two of the restaurants, budget an extra $50 or so, per person, during a seven-night cruise.

On the Norwegian Gem, I found the steak-house experience to be similar to eating a steak in the main dining room. Better to save your fee money for Asian, French or Teppanyaki.

On the premium lines - specifically, Celebrity, Holland America, and Princess - many passengers spend at least one night in the higher-rated restaurants, such as Tamarind ($15) on Holland America's Eurodam and Sabatini's ($20), the signature restaurant on Princess ships. Celebrity has built its reputation on food in the main dining rooms and in specialty restaurants such as Murano, Silk Harvest, the Tuscan Grille ($25-$35), and Blu (for spa passengers) on the new Solstice class ships. Budget at least $100 per person for eating on these ships.

The luxury vessels all sport specialty restaurants, some with fees and some without. Most expensive is the $200 multicourse degustation menu, with wine, on Silversea Cruises, though those cruisers, who are paying $400 per person per day, or more, probably are not too worried about their food budget.

On the Horizon

On March 14, the semiannual Cruise Section will include

the Battle of the Behemoths, 200 homes for sale on a ship, and nine mistakes a cruiser can avoid.

David Molyneaux is editor of TheTravelMavens.com.