It seems that Royal Caribbean have hopped onto the cruising bandwagon that Norwegian Cruise Lines initiated back in 2000 with the Freestyle Dining option and have said a fond farewell to the traditional dining that their cruisers have been used to until now.
Whilst the concept of Dynamic Dining isn’t fleet-wide (yet), it is something that both the Quantum-class ships,and the Oasis of the Seas are currently launching, with hope for it to spread to Allure of the Seas (likely during her stint in dry docks in spring 2015) and possibly beyond in time.
Both of these cruising giants are offering a dining experience that provides the utmost in flexibility and control.
Whilst going ‘freestyle’ with food isn’t for everyone – and some will mourn the loss of the grand Opus Main Dining Room on Oasis of the Seas, it’s testament to the tides are turning; after all, it’s the 21st century and Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line are two fleets that are notorious (in a good way – not in an Al Capone way!) for driving their fleets and cruising concepts forward.
You just have to look at the new Quantum of the Seas with its hi-tech bells and whistles to see that (robot bartenders, anyone?)!
Royal Caribbean‘s Dynamic Dining and Norwegian Cruise Line’s Freestyle Dining are two of the big contenders in the cruising world of unconventional dining experiences, with their traditional dining of old being removed to make way for this innovative way of filling cruisers’ tummies but which one will win this food fight?
At www.CRUISE.co.uk we’ve taken a look at the two, to see who comes out on top?
Be warned, it may make you hungry…Pass (don’t throw!) the cake…
The Bare Bones
As the pioneers of Freestyle Cruising, having offered the experience since 2000 (and fleet-wide in 2001), Norwegian Cruise Line are the head chefs (not the knackered old dinner ladies) when it comes to flexible dining and freestyle cruising. They know what they’re doing and they know how to do it well. On-board their ships freestyle dining enables passengers to choose what they would like to eat, where, and when. Whether you’re after a table for two or a bigger one so that you and some cruise mates can dine together, the freestyle dining option will ensure that your preferences, and your taste-buds are well and truly satisfied every mealtime. Whether you want an early dinner before you sample the nightlife or you want to stuff your face after the show has ended, there’ll be a table with your name on it.
On Norwegian Cruise Line ships, there are still at least two Main Dining Rooms, depending on the ship you’re sailing on – this is something that is lacking on Royal Caribbean, whose Main Dining Room is nowhere to be seen when Dynamic Dining is on board. Instead, the three floors that it once occupied have interiors that are decorated to suit the complimentary restaurants that are housed in its place; for example, the Quantum and Oasis will have The American Icon Grille, Silk and The Grande. However, the Dynamic Dining concept is very similar to the Freestyle idea, giving people the chance to control their dining preferences depending on their mood.
So, if you feel like the kids need a treat or you would like something a little more formal, the flexible dining means that you can have your cake, and eat it too.
It can be really annoying to be limited to something that you don’t necessarily want – and no-one wants to be annoyed on a cruise holiday. Traditional dining restricts your options and this one-size-fits-all approach to cruise ship dining is what Freestyle and Dynamic Dining are trying to quash.
Both concepts aim to allow passengers to tantalise their tastebuds with food from a cuisine that appeals, at whatever time they wish to eat it. Whether it’s a dinner in one of the complimentary restaurants, or a treat in one of the speciality ones, there’s no need to cut the stint in the pool short, or cancel that spa treatment!
Winner: Norwegian Cruise Line’s Freestyle – They’re the pioneers, so it’s only fair for them to win over new kids on the block. After all, if you’re going to try this unconventional dining concept, where better to try it than onboard one of the original Freestyle cruises?
Variety is the Spice of Life
On Quantum of the Seas, there are a belly-busting eighteen restaurants available – some complimentary, some carry a fee – which span a range of cuisines from around the world. From contemporary Asian in Silk and exotic Japanese in Izumi, to classic Italian in Jamie’s Italian (only available on Anthem) and the comfort food of the USA in the American Icon Grille, the culinary offerings which are part of RCI’s Dynamic Dining venture are impressively diverse and they really do offer a foodie trip around the globe. The great thing about most of the restaurants being the same on all of her ships means that, once Dynamic Dining does spread further fleet-wide, you won’t get confused trying to fathom which ones are on the liner you have booked.
We do love the easy life, after all!
Whilst Norwegian Cruise Line have offered their Freestyle Dining system for many more years, trumping Royal Caribbean in the experience stakes (or even their experience in steaks), their selection of restaurants which are part of the concept is far less streamlined fleet-wide (for example, the Norwegian Epic has 16 restaurants including Taste in the MDR but the Breakaway has Savor and The Manhattan Room, too). The restaurants onboard the varying ships differ substantially, which means more research on your part if you care about what dining venues are available to you or have a real favourite.
For those who like their cruises varied however, the element of surprise could be a good thing. Plus the astounding variety still exists, with culinary treats from global cuisines, including French (Le Bistro), Asian (Shanghai’s Noodle Bar and Teppanyaki), Italian (La Cucina) and the trusty classic flavours of a meaty steakhouse (Cagney’s). We like ours rare!
Winner: Royal Caribbean‘s Dynamic. The thing we love about the Dynamic Dining concept is the streamlined nature of it. Whilst it has only been launched on-board the Quantum of the Seas so far – with plans for the Anthem and the Allure next year too – it is also live onboard the Oasis in the new year and the restaurant list is pretty much the same across all Dynamic Dining ships, so you know what to expect, whoever you’re sailing on.
Food Flexible Food
When it comes to dining, how much more flexible can you get than being able to pick and choose what and where, you want to eat every night?
You’ll be choosing your own plate next! With Freestyle and Dynamic dining, gone are the days when you had to be ready for a certain time every evening (and we all know how hard that can be, especially with kids in tow or elaborate formal wear to grapple with!), to head down to the main dining room for dinner, to sit with the same table mates (that you may or may not like) and be served by the same waiter (which, most of the time, is a pleasant thing but they do say that a change is as good as a rest!).
Both Freestyle and Dynamic Dining offer the ultimate in flexibility. With no schedule to follow, you don’t have to worry about being there for a particular sitting because there isn’t one. You don’t have to worry about hundreds of passengers trying to be served at the same time because a more staggered approach means a smoother service. You can turn up without a booking and be offered a table (or a waiting time if it’s full) or you can book in advance if you don’t want to risk it and even if a restaurant is fully booked when you want to eat, there are plenty of other mouth-watering venues to choose from anyway. Plus, Norwegian Cruise Line offer a pager system if you want to pop your name down and head off for a cheeky cocktail whilst you’re waiting!
Plus, it’s not just dinner service that’s flexible. With 24-hour eateries, poolside snacks and of course, around the clock room service for when you fancy a duvet day, the options are as flexible as a very bendy contortionist. Whether it’s a gourmet salad and cocktail in Royal’s Two70 lounge or a massive burger that you’re dying to sink your teeth into in the middle of the night on-board an NCL ship, from either room service or one of the 24-hour eateries such as O-Sheehan’s, there’ll be something to tempt every cruiser that loves to eat – and, let’s face it, all cruisers love to eat!
Winner: It has to be a draw. NCL may be the pioneers, and RCI may be the new kids on the waves when it comes to flexible dining but flexibility is paramount to both lines. From a la carte to a la PJ’s, both NCL and RCI will ensure that whatever you need, at whatever time, you’ll get it. OK, so maybe not caviar and champagne at 3am but you get the point we’re making.
Stars in the Kitchens
We all love a celebrity chef; someone we have seen on the TV or who owns a top notch restaurant in the middle of London or somewhere equally fancy. So, when they venture on-board a cruise to launch one of their eateries at sea it gets many a mouth watering.
Royal Caribbean seem to have this part of the food experience all wrapped up like chilli in a burrito because as part of their Dynamic Dining you’ll find a number of celebrity chefs and household names to write home about. For example, the new Quantum of the Seas has speciality restaurant, Jamie’s Italian, from the Naked Chef himself, Jamie Oliver (although we’re yet to see him naked?), as well as James Beard award-winning restaurateur, Michael Schwartz, who has put his name to the first American gastropub at sea, Michael’s Genuine Pub, where simple ingredients are served in a warm and friendly atmosphere. Be sure to try his hoppingly good classic Home Brew, while you’re there! Let’s not forget his existing partnership with RCI, at the helm of the 150 Central Park restaurant, which, even if you choose the six course menu at $115 (when you’ve factored in the wine paired menu and the cover charge), is great value compared with his Miami restaurant – The Cypress Room – which can cost $155 for a wine paired menu (nor do you get the leafy park-at-sea surroundings!).
Also added to the Royal Caribbean Hall of Fame is Devin Alexander, a media personality who is the chef for TV’s The Biggest Loser. Her message is simple: You don’t have to deprive yourself of good food. Which is always an appealing motto, especially when there are scrumptious menus in front of you shouting EAT ME – although as her focus is on healthy eating, we’re not sure she’s giving you permission to line up the desserts for a sugar-marathon! Finally, they’ve have an exciting new fee-for restaurant, Wonderland, which is the brainchild of Cornelius Gallagher who, as well as having an awesome name, has been the Director of Culinary Operations for RCI for 25 years. You could say that he’s the head head chef for RCI – and you’ll discover why if you follow him down the rabbit hole!
Apart from Iron Chef Geoffrey Zakarian’s venture – Ocean Blue – which can be found onboard some of NCL’s fleet, including the Breakaway, celebrity chefs are somewhat lacking onboard the NCL line. Perhaps NCL ships don’t need famous names to endorse their products, and rely on their in-house chefs’ unfaltering kitchen skills instead, but having a famous face or two behind the restaurants is undeniably exciting – especially if you’re getting a taste of their cuisine for free or far less than you’d pay on dry land, which is something that RCI have well and truly honed in on.
Winner: Royal Caribbean. At the moment, Royal have blitzed their Dynamic concept when it comes to famous faces. We love a good celebrity restaurant and whether it’s a gourmet gastropub or a plate of rustic Italian fare, they have it covered.
In the words of Jamie Oliver, that’s just pukka!Paid-For and Fee-For
We all love knowing that, even if all else fails, on an all-inclusive cruise, we will be well fed. The number of complimentary dining options which are part of the Freestyle and Dynamic dining programmes mean that passengers will have plenty of choice of food, without having to shell out any extra money if they don’t want to. However, if you do want to treat yourself to a special dining experience, at a fraction of what you may pay on dry land, the option to put your hand in your pocket is there.
On a Freestyle Norwegian Cruise Line holiday there are at least seven different complimentary options which will satisfy a grumbling stomach, including the fare in the Main Dining Room’s (such as Taste and Savor, with their contemporary and traditional flavours, and The Manhattan Room with its chic, global flavours and Art Deco interior) as well as the buffet options, grills, cafes and sports bars. Their specialty restaurants vary between ships but to give you a taster, you can enjoy a meal for as little as a $15 cover charge per person for the Italian offerings such as La Cucina. Other venues, including Wasabi and Shanghai’s Noodle Bar, ask a cover charge but their menu is a la carte, too. Altogether, there are around ten specialty venues available on an a Norwegian Cruise Line cruise, including a pizza delivery service for $5 – perfect if you’re peckish and could murder a slice of pepperoni at 2am in the morning!
Both Quantum and Oasis have five complimentary restaurants, including Silk, The Grande, American Icon Grille, Chic and Coastal Kitchen (for suite guests only). These restaurants provide diners with a choice of cuisine, without having to pay anything extra. Sprinkled on top of these you have plenty of smaller cafés and bars if you’re after a quick bite, such as the Promenade Café, The Café @ Two70 and the Globe and Atlas Pub. Fee-for restaurants, from celebrity chefs like home-grown talent Jamie Oliver, as well as Izumi, Johnny Rockets, Chops Grille and the sought-after Chef’s Table on the Quantum of the Seas give passengers a superb selection of venues, no matter what you feel like sitting down to – from hot dogs to haute cuisine. Charges range from a la carte prices to $40 cover charges and $115 six course gourmet feast (with wine pairing) at 150 Central Park.
Winner: Royal Caribbean International. It’s a tough call because both Freestyle and Dynamic Dining offer passengers such a great range of complimentary and specialty restaurants. NCL’s pizza delivery nearly swung it for us (it’s the simple things) but the top notch restaurants that RCI boast, including 150 Central Park, the Café @ Two70 and the wonderfully whimsical Wonderland pipped the pepperoni feasts to the post.Booking in Advance
Royal Caribbean already offer their Cruise Planner for passengers to check in online but with Quantum, they have massively improved this feature so that passengers can reserve tables at their favourite restaurants before they embark on their cruise, too. This is well worth getting to grips with, especially as the restaurants will likely prove to be incredibly popular as the Dynamic Dining concept settles in and people get used to the idea of flexible dining. After all, what’s the point in eating the same thing every night when you don’t have to?
Norwegian Cruise Line also give passengers the chance to book ahead, enabling them to reserve a table from ninety to just two days before sailing. However, they also have flat screen, interactive TV’s situated in high-traffic areas, which show each restaurant’s availability, with indicator bars that show whether the restaurants are full, filling up or empty. The screens also show estimated wait times and, if a venue is full, you can take a pager which will alert you when your table is ready, no matter where you on the ship.
How handy is that!
On the Breakaway, you can also make reservations from the screens – something that will be spread across the rest of the fleet by 2015.
Winner: Norwegian Cruise Line. Not only can you reserve a table in one of the many restaurants before you step foot on deck but you can also see the waiting times on screens if you haven’t, which is a really useful tool for people who are a little more disorganized or just like to chance things and see what they feel like on the day. Plus, watching the bars as restaurants gradually fill can quickly focus the mind as to what it is that you fancy eating that night – after all, no one wants to be stuck in the serve-yourself buffet line when they could be fine dining!Little Pickers
When it comes to families, both N.C.L and R.C.I have got it covered as two of the most kid-friendly mega-fleets and this doesn’t change in the dining rooms. Norwegian Cruise Line’s family-friendly specialty dining allows children under the age of three to eat for free, with kids aged between four and twelve being able to choose from a complimentary kids menu. However, the restaurants also allow them to choose something from the specialty kids menu for half the price. So, if your little ones have a palate to rival a French gastronome and would like to taste something that isn’t the norm, they can and the cost means that you won’t feel like you’re wasting lots of cash if they don’t clear their plates.
Some of Royal Caribbean‘s Dynamic Dining menus provide options for kids too, such as the Pan-Asian Silk complimentary restaurant, which has a specific menu for adventurous youngsters, who can stuff their faces with delicious morsels of Asian fare before heading back to play some foosball in the SeaPlex area.
Winner: Norwegian Cruise Line. It seems that, whilst both liners offer menus for children, NCL also think about the parents’ purses a little more. They understand that children may or may not be willing to try new flavours and sometimes might just want something simple to eat rather than be that little bit adventurous. Their various complimentary and specialty menus ensure that no matter how fussy your youngster is and no matter how desperate they are to leave the table and play with their cruise-mates, you can be safe in the knowledge that they’ve eaten something – even if it was chicken nuggets and chips!Interactive Eats
Royal Caribbean‘s Quantum of the Seas may have some groundbreaking shows to complement the innovative Dynamic Dining setup with a pre or post dinner spectacle but when it comes to interactive dining, Norwegian Cruise Line take the biscuit. Some of NCL’s specialty dining options ensure guests can be entertained whilst they dine, giving them a whole new experience to enjoy. For example, you could take part in an interactive murder mystery show – Presumed Murder – where you can figure out the culprit at the same time as chowing down on a killer menu or you can enjoy a magical dinner at the same time as being wowed with Illusionarium.
Winner: Norwegian Cruise Line. How cool is it to dine while working out ‘whodunit’?
How cool is it to be able to watch an illusion show at the same time as tucking into something equally magical?
How cool is it to be able to catch a show at the same time as eating your meal, rather than rushing around to eat first (and probably give yourself indigestion by doing so?).
Answer: As cool as your pre or post dinner frozen margarita in Shaker’s Cocktail Bar! Whilst the RCI Quantum does boast the Two70 lounge, which does provide gourmet lunches and snacks, Norwegian Cruise Line definitely win hands down in the interactive dining stakes.Overall Winner
Picking out an overall winner when both Norwegian and Royal Caribbean are experts in freestyle food options is like trying to choose between Indian and Chinese on a Friday night. Sure, NCL have been storming ahead with Freestyle Dining for many years and know exactly what their clientele want, but Royal Caribbean’s Dynamic Dining looks set to marvel and break new gourmet ground. Whilst flexible dining certainly isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, it looks set to stay and with all of the choice and variety available, even the fussiest eaters can be kept full and happy – after all, the way to a cruiser’s heart is definitely through their stomach!
We have to have our cake and eat it with this one and declare it a draw because Freestyle Dining is as dynamic as Dynamic Dining is freestyle!