Cruise Dining Room Tips, Tricks & Things You NEED to Know

Cruise Dining Room Tips, Tricks & Things You NEED to Know

I was recently helping my friends, Graham and Pete, who were looking to go on their first cruise and as I started explaining dining in the main dining room something struck me – just how different the main dining rooms are between cruise lines now, and how much more complex it’s become.

Whether you’re a first-time cruiser, thinking of changing cruise lines, or even trying a different ship, these tips I gave them are going to help you.

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Main Dining Room (MDR) Basics

Firstly, the main dining room food is included in the fare. And, while most people use it for dinner, it’s usually open for breakfast and at lunchtime, too.

Food Needs

I also recommended they focus on the main dining room for most meals because Pete has food allergies, and for people with food allergies, this is the best option, in my view. Firstly, because the main dining room kitchens have dedicated sections to prepare food for people with allergies or specific needs, like kosher food. The other is they can meet the maître d’, who will always be there to discuss Pete’s requirements and who will ensure his food allergies are addressed every time he dines.

Once they get up into the buffet it becomes more complicated because the food is more mixed. Even though they might have a gluten-free area, and so on, it seems more difficult to control.

I told Pete and Graham they need to let whichever line they choose know at the time of booking that they have a dietary issue and be clear about what it is.

By the way, if you are vegetarian, you don’t really need to let the cruise line know. They’re used to that and there’s always at least one item on the menu.

There’s more they need to get from the maître ‘d that I’ll touch on later. But before that there is a bigger issue to consider.

cruise dining tips and tricks

4 MDR Options

Graham and Pete are talking about going to Alaska, but they haven’t locked down on which cruise line. This threw up four main dining room differences that could affect the line they choose, or what they do once on board.

First, and the most common option, is where the cruise lines offer fixed dining and anytime dining.

For example, they were interested in Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth. They were offered first sitting at 5:45PM, a second sitting of 8:15 PM, and open seated dining from 5:45 to 9:00 PM. They didn’t know what that all meant, so here’s what I told them.

Fixed Dining

Fixed dining means they’d go for dinner at the same time every evening.

I explained there’s a couple of pros with that. They’d have the same table, same table companions and same waiters. They’d get to know them, and this would personalise their experience. For example, Graham loves spicy sauce with his food and it’s likely they would always have that on the table ready for him. As they’d also sit with the same people, they’d get to build friendships.

The cons are that those people may start to annoy them. They may find it regimented and frustrating having no flexibility.

Cruise Dining Room Tips, Tricks & Things You NEED to Know

Anytime Dining

If they went with anytime dining, I told them they while they can go at any time, they won’t have the same table and waiting staff each night.

The pros are flexibility and variety because they’d be sitting with different people. And it can flex with their plan day by day. On the downside, the waiters won’t get to know them so well, and they may also have to wait for a table.

Different cruise lines have different approaches. If they went with Holland America, they’d have to call a number or go to a desk to book their anytime dining option or go and queue. Most lines provide an App to book a time, or you join a virtual queue like when I was on P&O’s Britannia and Princess Cruises’ Majestic Princess.

If they did not want to book, I suggested either going when it opens, or go later, because it gets busy during the popular 6:30 to 7:30 slot.

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Rotational MDRs

As I looked at the lines they were thinking about, I had to warn them about another permutation.

On some cruise lines, they don’t have one main dining room, they require them to, or give them the option to, rotate around multiple main dining rooms.

I explained that on Celebrity Edge, for example, which they are interested in, they have four main dining rooms. These are Cosmopolitan, Tuscan, Cyprus, and Normandie, and they’d have to choose one to go to each night. However, if they went on Celebrity Silhouette, or other ships of that class, there was just one main dining room. So, even by ship it can differ within a line.

Cruise Dining Room Tips, Tricks & Things You NEED to Know

Grade-based MDR

The other thing I pointed out is there may be a range of Main Dining Rooms based on what cabin grade they were thinking of.

Cunard are the best known for this, with four main dining rooms based on cabin grade. Britannia, for Inside, Oceanview and Balcony cabins. Britannia Club, for highest balcony cabin grades. Princess Grill for mini suites, and Queens Grill for suites.

It’s becoming more common across many other cruise lines too. Celebrity, for example, have Luminae for their suites and Blu for their aqua spa cabins.

I also made the point that whatever they decided, they had to do one key thing.

cruise dining tips and tricks

Make a friend of the Maître ‘d

As well as the Maître D being key for managing Pete’s dietary issues, they could also make or break their trip.

They decide where Graham and Pete will be sitting and how many people will be on their table, and I stressed that although they should request their preferred table for two when booking, it was not guaranteed and up to the Maître ‘d.

So, getting to the maître d’ early on, as soon after boarding as they can, gives them a better chance of having a table for two.

The other point I made to them is if they don’t get a table for two and they’re sharing with people, do not grin and bear it if they’re not clicking, go and speak to the maître d’ and ask to change. There’s always chopping and changing on the first night. Do not feel bad. It happens all the time.

MDR Menu

Graham loves his food. He has a huge appetite, whereas Pete probably pecks like a little bird.

My point to them is when you get the menu, it’s going to imply a course-led meal. When they are in a normal restaurant, their natural inclination is obviously to have one of every course. Now, my point to them was there’s a couple of things to consider.

Firstly, the menu they get will be different to anything that they’re normally used to. In the dinner menu they will have a section that changes every day, it might be linked to the region they are sailing in, so dishes of the day, so to speak. But there will also be fixed items that are always available, like steak, chicken, or fish.

My point to them was not to focus on those fixed items. Always start by looking at the items that change, because they are only there for one day, but they always know they’ve got the fixed options as backup.

They can skip a course, there’s no rule that says they must have three courses.

They don’t want to be wasteful, but I told them they could order multiple items of every course. So, they could order perhaps a couple of starters to share or create a surf and turf as a main, whatever. They can also ask to have items to take away. Not many know that.

cruise dining tips and tricks

MDR Dress Codes

Something they were really worried about was dress codes. People worry about this all the time. A lot of lines have dress codes, so they need to think about this when they’re choosing the cruise line, and it varies a lot. For example, on Disney Cruises, even on formal nights I could wear shorts and t-shirt.

On Celebrity, they could wear jeans and a collared shirt, but on Cunard, on formal nights, they would have to wear a jacket and tie or a tuxedo before they could go to the main dining room on formal nights.

MDR Etiquette

The next thing I spoke to them about is some of the etiquette tips, some of the things that they need to do in the main dining room that are important.

Never ever talk about politics and religion when sharing a table. I’ve been on cruises during which this became a big problem. For example, one of the more controversial US presidents would always come up in conversation, and it would cause an absolute nightmare. Sometimes it would get a bit nasty because people had very differing views about it, and it hijacked the whole table. So, please, avoid that.

I also made the point to them of sharing with people and how important it is not to be late. Or if they’re not going to dinner, let people know, Usually, the waiters will wait until everyone who’s at an allocated table is there before they start taking orders. So, if they are late, the whole table is late.

Of course, good table manners are always important. One of the things I said to them is obviously with what I do, I like to take pictures and videos of the food, so I always check the people that I share with are comfortable with that.

Do you have any other tips around the main dining room that I’ve missed out?

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Gary Bembridge

I grew up in Zimbabwe, but I have been based in London since 1987. My travel life spans more than three decades and that includes more than 95 cruises. In 2005, I launched Tips for Travellers to make it easy and fun for people to discover, plan and enjoy incredible cruise vacations. And the rest, as they say, is history. I have the largest cruise vlogger channel currently on YouTube, with more than 3 million video views per month.

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