This is part one of a series on new trends in cruise ship dining.
Is the cruise ship dining room passé?
It certainly seemed so at a recent Royal Caribbean event that gave travel agents an advance look at the line’s new “Dynamic Dining” concept. The preview included a mockup of an Alice in Wonderland-themed restaurant, replete with weirdly shaped chairs, clocks at odd angles and a dessert that crackled like Pop Rocks.
Gamut of choices
Royal Caribbean will roll out Dynamic Dining on the 4,180-passenger Quantum of the Seas when it launches in November. The ship will have 18 eateries, some complimentary and others for-a-fee, some casual (including a hot dog food truck) and others formal, and some with celebrity chefs at the helm.
Not one of the ship’s eating choices will be a main dining room. Nor will there be an option for assigned dining. Passengers will decide every night where to eat, or make reservations in advance.
More changes on the way
Several years after Norwegian Cruise Line launched "Freestyle Cruising" – and nearly every other cruise line followed with its own version of flexible dining – cruise lines are once again rethinking their approach to food service.
"We haven't seen all the changes yet to come," said Rudi Sodamin, Holland America Line's consulting master chef, and a cruise industry insider for nearly 27 years. "Dining is a race without a finish line."
Sodamin, who was with Royal Caribbean when the Voyager-class ships debuted, said he sees the Quantum dining move more as a "marketing issue than kitchen issue," noting that from a functional standpoint it's not much different than dividing the main dining room into spaces on three levels.
"The idea is to try to repackage the dining room," Sodamin said.
Meeting passenger demands
Every cruise line is taking a hard look at dining changes to meet the demands of today's cruise passengers, he added.
For Holland America Line, the result has been more focus on menus associated with the cruising regions and on celebrity chefs, some of whom visit the ships.
"Diners now want to have an adventure. They want to be associated with a chef, to know him, what he's doing, to meet him on a ship," Sodamin said. "I think that's what we're going to see more of."
That cruise customers have become more demanding about what they are served on cruise ships is something everyone seems to agree on.
"Food is so subjective. Some people don't like the banquet-style dining you get in the main dining room. This is a movement towards choice," said Chuck Flagg of The Flagg Agency, a Cruise Holidays franchise in Canton, Ga.
The industry is moving away from mass market catering to realms still being explored, Sodamin said.
One challenge is that given more dining choices – such as more extensive buffets and for-a-fee fine dining – passengers aren't necessarily flocking to main dining rooms these days.
"Traditional restaurants may go away simply because few people want to go," said Sodamin. "A seating environment that's full is nice, but half-full is no atmosphere."
Oceania targets foodies
Perhaps no line has embraced the foodie trend more aggressively or successfully in recent years than Oceania Cruises. With complimentary specialty restaurants, classic main dining rooms and lavish buffets, the upscale five-ship line has been targeting a foodie crowd.
It's working. "We are anxious to eat. We prepared for this," gushed one passenger boarding a recent Caribbean sailing.
Oceania is well prepared for such clientele, including at the casual indoor/outdoor dinner buffet – where passengers can sample first-rate sushi, grilled lobster and lamb chops every night.
"The super stars used to be the captains. Now the super stars are the chefs," said Franco Semeraro, senior vice president of hotel operations for Oceania parent Prestige Cruise Holdings.
Variety in casual dining has been the focus at Carnival Cruise Lines. The line’s biggest hit is its complimentary burger stand, Guy’s Burger Joint, developed with chef and TV personality Guy Fieri. Passengers order up more than 1,200 big handcrafted burgers per day, per ship. The line has also gotten rave reviews for its a la carte Bonsai Sushi restaurants on several ships.
Perhaps mindful of Carnival's burger success, Holland America Line announced last week it is rebranding the Terrace Grill on all its ships as the "Dive-In at the Terrace Grill." The updated menu will feature signature gourmet burgers, hot dogs and fries.
Princess Cruises also enhanced casual food offerings with its latest ships, Royal Princess and the soon-to-debut Regal Princess.
On both Princess ships, passengers can dive into delicious complimentary pizza at the expanded Alfredo's, grab a Panini or sweet treat at the International Café or pay for a scoop at the gelato shop, or sushi and oysters at the seafood bar. New for-a-fee dinner options include Crab Shack and Fondues.
Norwegian's latest ships, Norwegian Breakaway and Norwegian Getaway, each feature more than 20 dining options, including popular, and pricy, seafood restaurants helmed by celebrity New York chef and Bravo TV's "Chopped" judge Geoffrey Zakarian.
As for Quantum's new dining scheme, "If change works, everyone jumps on the bandwagon," Sodamin said.
"Quantum will be an interesting experiment," said Flagg.
Next: Selling clients on food.