A century ago steerage-class passengers were served hot soup and stew during voyages, while those in first class were treated to lavish multi-course meals. Nowhere was this contrast more pronounced than aboard the flagships of renowned shipping companies such as Cunard Line, Compagnie Generale Transatlantique, Hamburg America Line and Holland America Line.
In the palatial first class dining salon onboard White Star Line's ill-fated Titanic, diners paid a handsome supplement for the a la carte Cafe Parisien. Forty years later, the Verandah Grills aboard Cunard's Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth found favour with the well-to-do. So the concept of alternative restaurants at sea hasn't been conceived solely for 21st century cruisers.
Food served in the main dining room is now of such quality and variety that for many cruisers there's little need to venture into the speciality restaurants -- so what's the draw? Speciality restaurants offer a change for those on longer cruises, and are also an opportunity to sample your favourite cuisine or celebrate a special occasion. But perhaps most importantly -- they often offer passengers the opportunity to eat Michelin Star quality cuisine at very reasonable prices.
The concept of a renowned chef acting as a culinary consultant to a cruise line began in 1989 when Celebrity Cruises joined forces with Michel Roux. This has evolved throughout the cruise industry and British-based ships now boast a host of well-known culinary names including Marco Pierre White, Atul Kochhar, James Martin, U.S. celebrity chef Curtis Stone (on Princess Cruises) and even Jamie Oliver, who operates a number of Jamie's Italians onboard Royal Caribbean's newest mega-ships.
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1. Verandah Restaurant
The Verandah Grills on the former Atlantic "Queens" are recreated aboard Cunard's Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria. Situated on Deck Two, adjacent to the - Grand Lobby, these prepossessing rooms offer a tasteful evocation of this legendary cruise line's peerless traditions.
Open for lunch and dinner, the menus boast numerous individually-priced a la carte choices; there's also a degustation menu and an exclusive wine-pairing menu. The French influenced cuisine is created by Cunard's Global Culinary Ambassador, Michelin-starred Jean-Marie Zimmermann, and amounts to culinary perfection.
Specialities include Torchon de Foie Gras de Canard Mi-Cuit a la Poire, Nougat Brulee; Grenadin de Boeuf Poele aux Morilles, Legumes Primeurs a la Truffe, Pomme Soufflees, Jus Reduit au Madere; and Hot Vanilla Souffle Infused with Edmond Briottet Peach Liquer (and if you are confused about what that all means - ask the waiters, they will explain!)
Michelin-starred chef Atul Kochhar's Sindhu offers a fusion of modern British and Indian cuisine, and is so popular that it has been rolled out across the entire P&O Cruises' fleet.
Kochhar's aim has been to debunk the myth that Indian cuisine is endless variations of chicken tikka masala; his philosophy is to infuse familiar ingredients with Indian spices and incorporate different textures and flavours.
Showcasing dishes from his acclaimed Benares restaurant in London, diners can enjoy Roasted Chicken Tikka with Celery and Appleslaw Salad with Chlorophyll Emulsion, Trio of Duck -- Stir Fried, Curry and Duck Pulao, Lavender Scented Yoghurt Cake with Strawberry Coulis and Yoghurt Foam.
3. The Glass House
The Glass House is an informal restaurant and wine bar created by TV wine guru Olly Smith, which again can be found across the P&O Cruises fleet. The wine list globetrots around the world and includes wine flights, for the undecided.
The menu is simple; divided into set-price small plates which can be enjoyed tapas-style, such as chorizo, pork belly and butter bean cassoulet, hot oak smoked salmon fishcakes with hollandaise and broccoli sauce, warm quail Scotch egg with horseradish and mustard dip. Large plates feature prime steaks of grain-fed English beef aged on the bone for a minimum of 21 days. There are also daily specials, such as north Atlantic cod fillet in cider batter and hand-made chips.
Celebrity Cruises' boasts that the key principles of its "modern luxury" dictum are built around matching and exceeding the aspirations of guests. This includes offering an innovative fleet, personalised service, and distinctive and exquisitely presented cuisine. So it is with Celebrity Eclipse, which sails on a variety of summer-long itineraries from Southampton.
One of the ship's signature restaurants where a surcharge is applicable, Murano is like a fine old mink coat -- opulent, dignified and warm. The food is delicious and is assembled brilliantly by an accomplished brigade of chefs.
Murano's distinction is its blend of classic and modern continental cuisine, with many dishes prepared tableside. The Wild Forest Mushroom Cappuccino with Creme Fraiche and Fine Herbs is to die for, as is the Dover Sole Veronique with Green Grapes and Beurre Noisette, not forgetting the delicious Valrhona Cocoa Cake with Caramel and White Coffee Ice Cream.
The three-deck high atrium aboard Princess Cruises' Royal Princess is a hub of dining and entertainment. On the lowest level, guests can head to Sabatini's, the hallmark Tuscan-inspired specialty restaurant, for a taste of la dolce vita.
This elegant room has a centrepiece wine tower displaying vintages that would delight the most discerning oenologist. During afternoons at sea wine connoisseurs can revel in "Super Tuscan Tastings" of the acclaimed vintages Sassicaia, Tignanello and Masseto.
Featuring northern Italian and Mediterranean specialities, many of them lighter than traditional dishes from the area, Sabatini's menu is like a horn of plenty. Over a complimentary glass of Prosecco, diners on cruises from Southampton can choose favourites such as Burrata alla Panna con Carpaccio di Pomodori, Spaghetti allo Scoglio, Branzino al Forno con Zucchini and Semi-Fredo al Cioccolato Bianco Soffice e Limoncello.
6. Chops Grille
Chops Grille is renowned for its club-like ambiance and is one of the most popular restaurants across the Royal Caribbean International fleet. This signature eatery is available on the two U.K. based ships -- Independence of the Seas and Navigator of the Seas.
With earth-toned leather-backed chairs, curtains in hues of crimson, claret and gold and light wood furnishings, this classic American steakhouse is as sophisticated as it is snug.
Grade-A premium cuts of steak and fresh seafood are well to the fore on the unpretentious menus. Popular choices include Dungeness crab and shrimp cake with remoulade sauce, 12oz New York strip steak served with a variety of sauces and sides such as rock salt baked Idaho potato or crimini mushrooms and leeks. The most indulgent and calorie-laden dessert is chocolate mud pie.
7. Epicurean Restaurant
P&O Cruises' flagship -- Britannia -- introduced this restaurant when the ship launched in 2015. But despite being the main speciality restaurant onboard, it does not have any celebrity chef name attached to it -- it is all the concept of the line's executive chefs.
The concept behind the restaurant is serving up classic British dishes and re-interpreting them for today's modern palates. Dishes include: Double Gloucester Old Spot pork fillet, loin of wild boar, butter-poached lobster tail and a duo of duck specialities.
The experience is similar to that of a top London restaurant with a name chef attached -- that is except for the price tag.
Playful, unexpected and food-wise hit and miss, QSine onboard Celebrity Eclipse, is one of those restaurants you'll either love or hate. iPads replace menus; traditional dishes are reinvented and the décor is eclectic.
Upside-down lamps and chairs, funky art on the walls and swirly carpets on the floor create an Alice in Wonderland feel to this, the hippest of cruise ship restaurants.
It's an interesting blend of tapas-style tastes with gourmet interpretations of ethnic comfort food. The menu includes Kobe beef sliders, sushi lollipops, lobster fritters, "chintinis" (Chinese melange served in martini glasses), "disco" shrimp (poached tiger shrimp) and, for dessert, beignets, cupcakes and cheesecake bites. Cost is $45.