Everything to Know About Eating in the Main Dining Room on a Cruise

Cruises are well known for food. Meals and snacks are everywhere, from the buffet to “grab and go” restaurants, to specialty dining spots that cost a little extra to eat.

But perhaps no spot on the ship is as famous in cruising as the main dining room. It’s where the majority of passengers will eat their dinner, it’s included in your cruise fare, and offers a fine-dining experience complete with white tablecloths and multi-course meals.

If you’ve never eaten in the dining room, it can be a bit intimidating, and you likely have a lot of questions. After all, how many of us eat at fancy restaurants on a day-to-day basis?

That’s why we’ve tackled some of the biggest questions to explain exactly what you can expect when you eat in the main dining room on your cruise.

General Overview of Main Dining

Dining room on Norwegian
The main dining room — such as this one on Norwegian Encore — is where most people eat dinner while on the ship. On modern ships, hundreds will be eating at any given time.

Before we get to the specific questions surrounding eating in the dining room, it’s important to have a general overview of what to expect.

Each night, the cruise line will have dinner served in the main dining room(s) on the ship. Depending on your cruise line and your specific cruise, you’ll be assigned a dining room and/or a time to eat. (Some cruise lines let you whenever and wherever you want, others assign a room and a meal time.)

You’ll line up and be checked in and then shown to your table. Here you’ll have the night’s menu presented, and you’ll order your meal. What’s offered will vary from night to night, but does include staples like steak, chicken, along with some more specialized dishes that rotate each evening.

In short, eating in the dining room is designed to be a full meal experience — not just a spot to grab a quick bite. It serves as a nice cap on the day before you head out to enjoy the evening around the ship.

What Time Is Dinner Served?

So the most important question — what time is dinner?! The dining room is open in the evening, usually from 5:30 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. So no matter when you like to eat in the evening, it should be open.

If you have flexible or “anytime” dining, then you simply head to eat whenever you feel like it during that time. Like to eat early? Show up right when the doors open. Don’t like to eat until later? That’s perfectly fine.

If you have an assigned mealtime, then you will eat at the same time each night. There is typically an “early” seating (say 5:30-6:00) and a “late” seating (7:30-8:00).

I Have an Assigned Time… Can I Eat Earlier or Later?

If you have an assigned dining time, you can still eat whenever you like. Assigned times, however, ensure you’ll have the same waitstaff who gets to know your likes and dislikes.

When you’re given an assigned mealtime, it can feel a little intimidating. What if I’m having fun by the pool and don’t want to eat dinner yet? Or what if I’m hungry early but my mealtime isn’t until later in the evening?

In any case, don’t worry. The assigned mealtimes are there to give you a consistent experience with the same dining staff and give the dining staff an easier time in spreading out crowds. But they aren’t a law.

If you are hungry at any time when dinner is served, then just head to the dining room. They will do their best to seat you even if it’s not when you have reserved a seat. Just keep in mind it might take a few minutes to find available space if it’s at a busy time.

Are You Seated Next to Strangers in the Dining Room?

You’ll likely make lots of new friends on your cruise, but it’s another thing completely to be forced to sit at the same table each night with people you don’t know in the dining room.

In our decade of cruising across major lines, we’ve never sat at a table in the dining room with people other than who is in our party. That includes sailing solo and when sailing with others. Instead, just like a traditional restaurant, we’ve always been seated on our own.

We have been brought to a table to sit with others, but simply let the staff know that we preferred to sit with our own party. If you do come across a situation where you’re about to be seated with strangers in the dining room, just let the staff know you’d like to sit on your own and they will arrange it.

How Long Does It Take to Eat?

Meal in a cruise dining room
Eating your meal in the dining room is not a quick ordeal. Meals can last well over an hour.

To be sure, dining is an experience in the main dining room. The staff isn’t trying to rush you in and out to “turn over” tables for the next customer. Instead, it’s a more leisurely way to eat.

We’d estimate that having a full three-course meal (appetizer, main dish, dessert) will take at least an hour for most people, up to an hour and a half. We’ve eaten solo during slower times in the dining room and been done in about 45 minutes.

Put simply, there’s a lot of time waiting to order and then waiting on food. It’s meant to be a relaxing, slowed-down dining experience.

If you’re in a rush, then there are faster places to eat on the ship, including the buffet. You can also let your waiter know and they can speed up service.

What’s Served in the Main Dining Room?

So what’s to eat? Each day the menu changes, so it’s a little hard to answer what exactly will be there on any given night. However, there are usually “staples” and then a rotating set of other dishes that will change.

As for staples, they includes basic chicken and steak dishes, alongside things like Caesar salads and soups

Here’s a sample menu from a recent Royal Caribbean cruise. It will give you a good idea of what you can expect any given night in the dining room:

Main dining room menu
The menu typically features a set list of options plus other dishes that rotate throughout the cruise.

And here’s a list of the main entrees on a recent NCL cruise:

  • Grilled New York Strip Steak
  • Breaded Flounder Filet
  • Herb-Crusted Rotisserie Chicken
  • Shrimp Fettuccini Alfredo
  • Carved Whole-Roasted Pork Loin
  • 3-Cheese Baked Ziti
  • Beef Sirloin Medallions
  • Chicken Piccata
  • Grilled Atlantic Salmon
  • Sautéed Shrimp Scampi
  • Vegetable Burrito
  • Pork Spare Ribs

Is All the Food Free?

For the most part, there is no charge for eating in the dining room. But like many things in cruising, some charges have crept in.

So the vast majority of items on the menu are included. However, there may be some items on some lines that are an extra charge. These often include things like high-end steaks and lobster.

You don’t have to order these items, but if you want to splurge, it may be an option depending on the line you sail.

Can I Order More Than One Item?

With the way the menu is laid out, you’ll find starters, main dishes, and desserts (sometimes desserts are their own menu after the meal).

It’s logical to think that you get one of each included with your meal. The reality is that you can order what you want. Want to try a couple of appetizers? Feel free. One main entrée wasn’t enough? Order it again or try something different.

There is no rule that you are only allowed one item that we’ve ever seen, and we’ve personally ordered more than one.

Some charges for multiple entrees have crept in. If you aren’t sure, you can ask the waitstaff if there is a charge if you get more than one item.

Is the Food in the Main Dining Room Good?

Some items in the dining room — such as this bruschetta served on NCL — are amazing. We’ve found others to be hit or miss.

While we haven’t cruised and eaten in the dining room of every cruise line, we’ve been in enough to have a good idea of the food served.

In our opinion, the food’s taste and quality can be hit or miss. Some items are fantastic while others aren’t as good. Nothing has been bad, but it can definitely feel like because the staff is cooking for literally thousands of passengers a night, the food isn’t quite as good as it could be. In particular, we find lots of dishes lacking much flavor or spice. This may be to appeal to a broader audience.

For instance, when you order a dish, it normally comes with a couple of veggies as a side. Not only are these side portions relatively small, but they are usually not seasoned that much.

So the food isn’t bad at all, but in our opinion it could be better. We find the meals served in specialty restaurants to be tastier in general.

What’s the Dress Code for Dinner?

Ah, the dress code. Perhaps no issue causes more stress when it comes to eating dinner on a cruise. The good news is that it shouldn’t cause any strife. The dress code is not near as strict as you think it might be.

You’ll have two different nights to dress for — most nights are “casual” or “smart casual” while there will be one or two “formal” nights, depending on the length of your cruise.

Casual/Smart Casual: Most nights the dress suggestion for dinner is something casual. That doesn’t mean anything goes, but most clothing is perfectly fine. Want to wear shorts and a t-shirt to dinner? That will be fine. However, swimsuits aren’t allowed, and ballcaps may be asked to be removed as well. In other words, as long as it covers you up, then it won’t be an issue.

Formal Night(s): If the dress code for that evening is formal, then things get a little nicer, but don’t think you have to wear a tuxedo or an evening gown just to eat dinner (although some people do go this route). Here, you simply want to dress a little nicer to eat. In this case, shorts and t-shirts should be replaced with pants and a button-down shirt for men or pants/blouse/dress for women.

In short, you don’t have to go all out, but do try to dress it up a little. You can read more details about what to expect for formal night here.

Is Dinner the Only Meal Served?

Steak dinner on a cruise
In addition to dinner, the dining room also serves breakfast and sometimes lunch, depending on the ship’s schedule.

You’ll likely eat most of your dinner meals in the main dining room, but what many people don’t realize is that other meals are also served there too.

Depending on the day, you can likely eat breakfast and/or lunch in the dining room as well. What’s open will vary depending on if you are at sea or in port. If you are at sea and everyone is on the ship, then there will most likely be at least one of the dining rooms open for both breakfast and lunch.

On days in port, breakfast should be open, but lunch may not be served.

So why eat in the dining room instead of other spots for these meals? Well, compared to the buffet — where most breakfast and lunch meals are eaten — the main dining room offers food that’s fresher, made to order, and with better service and smaller crowds.

Do I Leave a Tip When Finished?

Head to a restaurant on land and when the meal is done, you sign a check with a tip, or you leave some cash on the table.

In the main dining room on a cruise, it works differently.

For one, the meal is included in your fare so there is no bill. Whenever you’re done eating, you simply stand up and walk out. (Trust us, it feels a little awkward the first time.)

As for tipping, remember that you pay a daily gratuity. This covers things like your cabin steward, but also the dining staff around the ship. So there’s no reason to leave a tip as you leave because the staff is covered in this charge.

Have more questions about the main dining room on a cruise? Let us know in the comments below.

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