Skip to main content

I take over 10 cruises a year as a cruise reporter. I always book a specialty restaurant — even though it costs extra money


Within the past year, I've set sail on 10 cruises, venturing to the Mexican Riveria, Western Mediterranean, Bahamas, Caribbean, and Alaska. When I first began working as a full-time cruise writer, I'd try and save money whenever possible. Now, I've learned a few experiences are always worth the extra cost, namely specialty dining.

Just six months into 2024, I've eaten at seven specialty restaurants on four ships, including Le Voyage on Celebrity Ascent, The Point Steakhouse on Carnival Conquest, Tuscan Grille on Celebrity Reflection, and Wonderland on Quantum of the Seas—and I'm eating at three more on my second cruise on Celebrity Ascent next month. 

(Lobster Risotto at Le Voyage on Celebrity Ascent / February 2024)

While you won't go hungry sticking to the complimentary dining options, specialty restaurants offer an elevated culinary experience. From dishes prepared with higher-quality ingredients to intimate settings, specialty restaurants showcase the best dining onboard a cruise ship. 

Before I started splurging on specialty restaurants, I'd often regret not trying at least one venue. While on my 7-night Carnival Celebration cruise, I heard multiple passengers rave about the teppanyaki restaurant. When I tried to make a last-minute reservation, I discovered it was fully booked for the remainder of the sailing. At that moment, I vowed to research the specialty restaurants on my future cruises and make reservations in advance.

(Truffle Burrata at Jamie's Italian on Quantum of the Seas / May 2024)

With four more cruises booked in 2024, I've already begun planning my specialty meals—including the Sun Princess-exclusive Umai Teppanykai—though some sailings don't depart until October and November. 

There are times when I won't pay for a specialty restaurant, though. Sailing on Carnival Elation, for example, there were only two choices: the $100 per person Chef's Table or to-go sushi from Bonsai Sushi Express. With just five nights onboard, I decided against either, knowing I would be cruising on Celebrity Reflection a few weeks later. 

(Filet mignon and lobster tail from the Point Steakhouse on Carnival Conquest / January 2024)

Most of the time, however, I never leave a specialty meal disappointed or thinking it was a waste of money. 

As a frequent cruiser, I find the Main Dining Room options repetitive

(Wedge Salad from the Opus dining room on Celebrity Reflection / April 2024)

In 2023, I went on six Royal Caribbean cruises. By October, I was desperate to try new dishes. While the quality of Royal Caribbean's Main Dining Room is acceptable, I was bored with the same options, from the first night's Southern Fried Chicken to Italian night's Classic Tiramisu. It was a welcomed change when my finacée and I went to Izumi Teppanyaki for an entertaining and delicious dining experience. 

Similarly, having sailed on four Carnival cruises within five months, I found the Main Dining Room's menus lackluster when my Carnival Elation sailing approached. On the first night, I was disappointed to see the same menu, featuring the Sezcheun Shrimp and 12-Hour Braised Short Rib I'd tried on previous sailings. 

(BBQ Pork Spareribs from the Monet dining room on Carnival Conquest / January 2024)

The second night was no different. Between the Chicken Parmesan (which isn't served with pasta, by the way!), BBQ Pork Spareribs, Linguine and Clams, and Roasted Artichoke and Potato "Cheesecake," I was stuck choosing between the same dishes I had already tried. 

While cruise ship dining rooms are meant to provide guests with a more formal dining experience compared to the onboard buffet, they are also designed to cater to a wide range of tastes and preferences. Sometimes, the menu will have a cohesive theme; however, I've found lines like MSC Cruises and Carnival to include a diverse selection with a variety of cuisines. 

Skipping the Main Dining Room on nights when the menu doesn't interest me helps keep the dining experience exciting

(Kaito Teppanyaki on MSC Seashore / June 2023)

Being in my mid-20s with more fun money than in college, I enjoy customizing my cruise to include specialty dining when I'm not too keen on the Main Dining Room's menu. Though vacation calories certainly don't count, I'd rather enjoy premium steaks, fresh seafood, and handmade pasta over standard offerings in the dining room. 

Sometimes, the overall ambiance makes the experience more worthwhile than the cuisine. When my dad and I sailed on Quantum of the Seas, for instance, he thought the food at Wonderland was good, but the whimsical decor and imaginative presentation were the real highlights. Similarly, plenty of Teppanyaki restaurants at home serve food of a similar quality; however, the experience is more fun when you're on a moving vessel in the ocean. 

(Crispy Spicy Tuna Roll from Izumi Sushi on Symphony of the Seas / February 2023)

Some ships have casual specialty restaurants, which is nice after returning from a busy day in port. Royal Caribbean's Playmakers Sports Bar & Arcade is a favorite. 

The à la carte menu features standard American bar fare, such as wings, burgers, nachos, jalapeño poppers, crispy onion rings, and skillet cookies. The attached arcade is a great spot to unwind, too. And the best part? Reservations aren't required (or even accepted!)

Read more: 10 things you didn't know about cruise ship kitchens and food

The intimate setting is a nice break from the loud dining room

(Main Dining Room onboard Symphony of the Seas / January 2023)

Many of today's new builds have multi-story dining rooms capable of seating hundreds of passengers. In short: they're noisy venues.

If you appreciate a more relaxed atmosphere, you may find the Main Dining Room overwhelming. In addition to the sheer number of guests, family-friendly lines—like Royal Caribbean and Carnival—often incorporate entertainment into the dining experience. 


From choreographed dances to live musical performances, crew member parades, and more, these enhancements aim to transform dinner into a memorable event for all guests. 

If you appreciate a more relaxed atmosphere, you may find the Main Dining Room overwhelming. Specialty venues allow for a quieter, more peaceful meal away from the crowds elsewhere on the ship. 

Read more: 8 reasons to avoid the main dining room on a cruise ship

The quality of food in the dining room can vary widely, with some dishes lacking the freshness and flavor one might expect from a truly upscale dining experience

(Grilled chicken breast from the Imagination dining room on Carnival Elation / March 2024)

Standard cruise ship fare rarely blows me away. For the price of the sailing, however, I find it adequate. If I wanted to pay to eat at Michelin-star restaurants, I wouldn't be on a Carnival cruise! Though I never expect 5-star cuisine, even in the specialty restaurants, the dishes are far more consistent than in the Main Dining Room. Plus, many feature menus curated by renowned chefs, from Daniel Boulud to Rudi Sodamin and Jamie Oliver.  

From cold entrées to basic ingredients, dining in specialty venues ensures an upgraded experience. In Quantum of the Seas' dining room, for example, the Wedge Salad wasn't anything special. The dressing was runny and lacked the tangy, sharp blue cheese taste that one would expect; however, when ordered in Chops Grille, it was loaded with chunks of creamy blue cheese. 

(Jumbo Shrimp Cocktail from Chops Grille on Quantum of the Seas / May 2024)

Even the presentation of something as simple as the Jumbo Shrimp Cocktail was impressive, served in a chalice-like glass compared to the standard silver bowls in the dining room. 

While the dining rooms try their hardest to provide a great dining experience to passengers, constantly serving high-quality meals in a venue tending to hundreds of guests simultaneously can be a challenge. Specialty restaurants, on the other hand, can focus on delivering exceptional quality care and service due to the intimate environment. 

Read more: Top 10 Cruise Dining Mistakes

While I'm not sold on the concept of unlimited specialty dining, splurging on at least one meal during my cruises is an expense I think is worth it

(Bonsai Sushi on Carnival Vista / November 2023)

On my upcoming Greek Isles cruise on Celebrity Ascent, I couldn't bring myself to pay $500 for the unlimited dining package, especially since we're in port 4 out of the 6 full days of the sailing. Instead, my finacée and I thought the 3-night package was a better deal, which cost just $183 per person. Had we decided to go for the unlimited package, we would have spent another $1,000 on dining. 

Similarly, though Icon of the Seas has six new specialty venues onboard, we aren't sold on the price. Between the brand-new AquaDome Market and the fast-casual eatery in Thrill Island, we do not see the need to spend the extra money—unless there's a great pre-cruise sale. Right now, Royal Caribbean is advertising the unlimited dining package for $430 per person, which is still a bit steep for us considering the complimentary options. 

(Roasted Beet & Carrot Salad from Le Voyage on Celebrity Ascent / February 2024)

Perhaps one day I'll splurge on an unlimited dining package. Until then, however, I'll continue to selectively choose my specialty dining expenses for a fraction of the cost. 

Loading Comments