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Specialty of the House

A look at cruise ship specialty
restaurants.

by Richard H. Wagner
   Specialty restaurants have become standard equipment on modern cruise
ships.  Also called “extra-tariff restaurants” or “alternative restaurants,” a
specialty restaurant typically offers a dining experience that is beyond that
of the ship’s regular dining room.  There is also typically an additional
charge or cover charge for the experience.  In this article, I look at why
cruise ships have such restaurants and then at six specialty restaurants that
I have tried and liked recently.

   Specialty restaurants are not a new idea.  The original Queen Mary of
1936 had a very popular specialty restaurant called the Verandah Grill.  
There was also a restaurant of the same name on the Queen Elizabeth of
1940.  When QE2 entered service in 1969, she carried the idea forward
with the Grill Room where first class passengers could dine for a cover
charge of 75 cents per person.  However, the concept did not work for late
1960s passengers and when additional staterooms were added to QE2, the
room was converted into one of the ship’s regular restaurants and was
renamed the Princess Grill. Over time, spurred to a large extent by the
advent of Norwegian Cruise Line’s Freestyle dining, which requires having
multiple dining venues, the pendulum has swung back and specialty
restaurants are popular once more.
   Why would a passenger pay extra to dine in a specialty restaurant when
he or she has already paid in the price of the cruise for a perfectly good, if
not excellent, meal in the ship’s regular dining room?  First, the specialty
restaurants typically offer luxury experiences with top quality service and
gourmet cooking.  Therefore, some passengers dine in the specialty
restaurants to celebrate a special occasion or to make one night of the
cruise particularly memorable.  Others use the specialty restaurants for
variety.  Still others come for the epicurean experience.  Second, the
amount charged by the specialty restaurant is usually much less than that
charged for a similar dining experience ashore.
   For the cruise lines, there are two main reasons for having specialty
restaurants.  First, it is an attraction that encourages people to book a
cruise upon that ship.  It gives guests more options for how to spend their
vacation time.  Moreover, in today’s vacation industry, a ship that does not
have a specialty restaurant is at a competitive disadvantage.  “It is
something that you need to do because it is expected in this day and age,”
comments Tony Becker, Passenger Services Director on Emerald Princess.
“You don’t go to a land-based hotel and have one main dining area.  They
have a few different restaurants.  [Cruise ships] are floating hotels.  Cruise
ships are now expected to have these alternative or other choice
restaurants.”
   Second, the specialty restaurants produce revenue.  The primary source
of revenue is not the cover charge for the restaurant.  That fee essentially
just offsets the extra cost involved in having the restaurant.  Rather, the
revenue comes from the extras such as the bottle of wine or after dinner
drinks that the guests typically purchase.  Also, there is the revenue that
guests who decided to come on the ship because of the dining options
spend on shore excursions, the spa and in the ship’s shops.
   In addition, there are other less quantifiable benefits to having a
specialty restaurant.  “It gives our culinary team a chance to express
themselves and be creative.  It opens up a plethora of ideas and creativity
and gives our staff an opportunity to provide a different kind of service,”
points out Becker.

Ruby Princess and Emerald Princess

   On Princess Cruises’ Super-Grand class ships (Crown Princess, Emerald
Princess, Ruby Princess and since her last refit Caribbean Princess), the
specialty restaurants are Sabatini’s and the Crown Grill.  
“Both have full galleys, separate manning with specially trained chefs and
waiters as well.   Generally, you will find the best up there - - although I
would say that all the crew is the best here on the ship,” explains Dirk
Brand, Passenger Services Director on Ruby Princess.  “They are specially
trained for offering different dishes.  [For example,] in the Crown Grill, we
have live lobster which requires some special serving skills as well as
cooking skills.  They are specially trained and they are very good,
experienced people up there. Our top people are in Sabatini’s and the
Crown Grill.  [Those restaurants] are our top brand and we want to make
sure that the guests get top notch service there.”
   “It is all top quality, what they purchase for the ship.  But, [in the
specialty restaurants] you have top meats. You have live lobster and
additional items available there.  It is prime brands, prime items and
additional items that we do not offer in every outlet.”
   Still, what really distinguishes the specialty restaurants from other dining
venues is that each item is cooked ala minute for the guest that ordered that
item.  As a result, it receives more individualized attention and arrives at
the table promptly after it is prepared.
   Back when Princess had just started, it chartered a ship with an Italian
restaurant staff.  Subsequently, the line merged with the Italian cruise line
Sitmar and thus Princess has a long Italian connection, particularly in the
restaurant department.  Thus, it is only appropriate that its ships should
feature a specialty restaurant named after a 200 year old Florentine
establishment.
   On Crown Princess, Emerald Princess and Ruby Princess, Sabatini’s is
located high on the after part of the ship with an open air balcony looking
over the ship’s stern.  The room is visually impressive, done in the style of
an Italian villa with murals of the Italian countryside.  “Sabatini’s is a
whole visual entertainment event.  It is a celebration of dining,” notes Brand.
The menu features sophisticated Italian cuisine. (
See menu)  One begins
with a sampler of antipasta, then soup or salad.  This is followed by a pasta
dish.  Somewhere along the line a personal pizza appears.  Then, there is
the main course and of course, dessert.  One does not leave feeling hungry.
Sabatini’s is open to all guests for dinner for which there is a $20 cover
charge.  However, for guests staying in the ship’s suites, it is also open for
breakfast free-of-charge. In the morning, the room is full of natural light and
has a quiet tranquility.  The menu features selections found nowhere else
onboard and everything is prepared individually.  “You have extraordinary
outstanding service, the location, the food, the privacy, the view - - it is
nice outside on the balcony there - - just spectacular,” comments Brand.
   The Crown Grill is styled after a New York steakhouse.  It debuted on
Crown Princess and is a more sophisticated venue than the Sterling
Steakhouses on earlier Princess ships.  Amongst other things, the Crown
Grill offers seafood as well as beef and has a greater variety of appetizers,
side dishes, and desserts than the Sterling.  “Crown Grill offers different
items like the live lobster and other features that you don’t find in every
dining room and every cruise line.”
   The main courses on the menu are divided into seafood, chops and
steaks. (
See menu)  I had the filet mignon, which was deliciously tender.  
The potatoes and vegetables were served family style, making it possible
to sample several of the offerings.  The Red-skin mashed potatoes and the
creamed spinach were particularly memorable.

Queen Mary 2     
           
   The specialty restaurant on Cunard’s Queen Mary 2, is the Todd English
Restaurant.  The restaurant bears the name of the Boston-based celebrity
chef and restaurateur, who has established a sizeable number of award
winning venues in Boston, New York, Washington and other cities.  He is
also the author of several cookbooks and often appears on American
television.
   Obviously, Mr. English is not in the kitchen during each voyage of
QM2.  However, as QM2 Executive Chef Klaus Kremer explained, English
is not just involved in name only.  English and/or chefs that work for him,
“make two visits [to QM2] in a year.  Two of my chefs work with him.  
They go through the recipes and the standards are still kept.”
   The role of the specialty restaurant on QM2 is not to give the guests a
dining experience that is superior in quality to that which they can
experience in the ship’s main dining rooms.  The Queens Grill and Princess
Grill restaurants are five-star quality venues and the large Britannia
Restaurant is also a premium experience.  Accordingly, the role of the
Todd English Restaurant is to present a different dining experience.
   The difference is achieved through the use of Mr. English’s recipes.  
They involve the use of spices and preparations that are different from what
most guests routinely encounter.  “He serves a Mediterranean cuisine,”
says Kremer.  “It is cooked without the olive oil but still it is a little
heavier than we might be used to.  It is a Mediterranean but heavy cuisine.”
(
See menu)
   Because the dishes are different, the reaction to “Todd English is up to
each individual.”  However, considering the popularity of English’s
restaurants, cookbooks and television shows, they do please most people’s
palettes.  A particular favorite is the Chocolate Fallen Cake.  As the name
implies, this is a rich chocolate confection served with vanilla ice cream
and raspberry sauce.           
   The restaurant is located aft on Eight Deck.  It is an attractive, light
colored room with contemporary style furniture.  There is a bar area on the
starboard side with a view overlooking the sea.  The windows in the main
dining area look out over the open decks and swimming pool.
   The Todd English Restaurant is open each night for dinner ($30) and for
lunch on most sea days ($20).     
 
Carnival Splendor

   Despite the similarity in name, the Pinnacle Steakhouse on Carnival
Splendor is not a version of Holland America’s Pinnacle Grill specialty
restaurants.  Rather, it is the latest evolution of the supper clubs that
Carnival has been developing on its Spirit class and Conquest class ships.  
Like its predecessors, it is located high on the ship.  However, it is further
aft on Carnival Splendor than on previous Carnival ships.
   The décor of the restaurant is opulent but not over the top.  A recurring
theme is a stylized version of the top of an Ionic column.  In the center of
the room is a “mini-atrium” that looks down one deck.  On either side of
the room are windows that look out over the sea.  
   This is not just a specialty restaurant but a complete dining and
entertainment venue.  There is a bar area for before and after dinner drinks,
live music with a glass dance floor that is suspended over the two-story
atrium.
   Carnival aims for five star service in the Pinnacle.  To this end, the
waiter does not merely hand the guest a menu but rather explains the
various items.  Similarly, a sommelier appears to discuss which wines go
with the guest’s menu selections and with his or her own preferences in
wine.  The service was friendly, attentive but not intrusive.
   Not long after ordering, one of the chefs appeared with a small dish that
he had prepared.  This was not a dish on the menu but rather one of the chef
‘s own inspiration and was offered with his compliments.  Once again, the
item was explained, not merely presented.
   Inasmuch as the Pinnacle is a steakhouse, the menu features beef and
seafood. (
See menu).  The beef is dry aged, hand cut USDA prime.  I had
the crab cakes, followed by lobster bisque and than a 24 ounce Porterhouse
steak, which combines both the strip steak and the tenderloin.   Three
sauces are available and for variety’s sake, I took a sample of each.  The
beef was tender and tasteful and the sauces enhanced the flavor.  It was an
outstanding meal.

Celebrity Solstice

   Celebrity Solstice has nine alternative dining venues in addition to its
main restaurant.  Several of these are informal venues serving light fare.  
However, at least four qualify as full-fledged specialty restaurants.  “The
specialty restaurants on the other [Celebrity] ships were such a popular
offering, why would we only have the main restaurant and [a single]
specialty restaurant [on Solstice].  Why can’t there be four or five specialty
restaurants?” explains Dru Pavlov, Cruise Director on Solstice.
    “The big change in cruise ships is to have options,” elaborates Solstice’
s Hotel Director Simon Weir.  “We just tripled-up our options for guests.  
You can pick a different experience every night and never repeat.”
   We will now take a look at two of these experiences.  
   Murano is the most elegant of Solstice’s specialty restaurants.  It takes
its name from the popular specialty restaurant on Celebrity Century but is a
further evolution of the concept.  For example, the style of the décor is
similar - - traditional European elegance - - but Solstice carries it a step
further giving it a sumptuous feel.
    The food is a combination of French and Italian cuisines (
see menu).  
Guests can order from the Five Senses side of the menu, which pairs a
different wine with each of the five courses ($140).  Alternatively, there is
an ala carte menu.
   A standout item on the ala caret menu is the Five Spice Crusted Cervena
Venison Loin.  Contrasting flavors exude from the tender meat.  Along the
same lines, the Crepe Balon Rogue dessert, prepared at the table, has the
tartness of Balsamic vinegar contrasting with the sweetness of vanilla ice
cream.
   An entirely new venue is the Tuscan Grille.  The concept here is to
combine Italian cuisine with an American steakhouse.  Accordingly, the
menu offers an array of Italian dishes as well as an assortment of steaks.
(
See menu).
   Situated at the stern of the ship, the restaurant has excellent views
through floor to ceiling windows over the ship’s wake.  Guests sit in high-
backed, padded leather chairs at uncovered clack tables.  The décor has a
business-like boardroom feel tempered with a West Coast style. Indeed, the
arched entrance way was intended by the room’s designer Adam Tiphany to
evoke a Napa Valley wine barrel.
   Although sophisticated, the Tuscan Grille has a more informal
atmosphere than Murano.  The food is high quality and individually cooked
to order.  However, the dishes are more familiar and less adventurous than
in its sister restaurant.  Both venues are excellent, they are just different
experiences.
   In the final analysis, presenting a different experience is what having a
specialty restaurant is all about.  If Mr. Weir is correct that giving guests
options is vital for success in modern cruising, then a ship that is able to
present different dining experiences is on course to succeed.  
                        
Marjan Burazer prepares a dessert in the
Murano Specialty Restaurant on Celebrity
Solstice.




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The Princess Grill on Queen Elizabeth
2 began life as a specialty restaurant.
Above:  The Murano Specialty
Restaurant.
The Tuscan Grille.
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Sabatini's
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Cruise ship feature article - - Cruise ship specialty restaurants