Worth It? Everything to Know About Specialty Dining on a Cruise

Not sure what to expect when it comes to specialty dining on a cruise? That’s understandable. After all, these restaurants operate a little differently than others on the ship. Fortunately, we can walk you through any major questions you have, including if they are worth booking or not.

Gone are the days when all food on the cruise was free. Now, many spots — like Giovanni’s on Royal Caribbean — are known as “specialty restaurants” and charge an extra fee to eat there.

From exactly what specialty dining is on your cruise to reservations to saving money on these meals, we have you covered below…

What Is Specialty Dining on a Cruise?

First things first, what exactly is meant by “specialty dining”? Well, it used to be that you bought your cruise, paid the fare, and then you ate what you wanted on the ship. Over the years, cruise lines have continued to add more restaurants. Now with many more options, many of these restaurants now specialize in a specific type of cuisine (Italian, Mexican, steak, Asian, etc.) and charge a fee for you to eat there.

So you can dine in the dining room or buffet for no extra charge, or pay extra to eat in one of these restaurants.

Why Would I Want to Pay for Food When the Dining Room/Buffet Is Free?

Wondering why you’d pay for a specialty restaurant? It’s simply a better experience given the smaller scale. Food seems better prepared and made to order, along with dining in a more intimate setting.

Of course, it begs the question of why would you pay extra for a meal when you can just eat for no charge at a number of places around the ship? This includes the main dining room and the buffet.

The appeal of a specialty restaurant is several fold. Our favorite reason to dine there is that it’s our opinion that the food is simply better. Consider that the main dining room seats hundreds, if not more than one thousand people at once. Feeding that many people at once is a challenge, and it’s no surprise that there may be some reduction when it comes to quality. That’s not to say the food is bad, but we find it to be hit and miss.

Specialty restaurants serve far fewer people at once, and we think that improves the overall quality of dining. So instead of the crew in the kitchen pumping out literally hundreds of a certain kind of dish, your meal will have significantly more care taken to prepare it.

As well, we think there is an advantage when it comes to atmosphere. Instead of a massive dining hall or crowded buffet, the specialty restaurants are much smaller and more intimate. That makes them great for a “date night” or special occasion. It’s just like dining at a restaurant on land instead of sharing a room with hundreds of others.

How Does Pricing Work?

If you go to a restaurant on land, you’ll open up a menu and see the prices listed. Your bill will depend on what you order. Some specialty restaurants on cruise ships work the same way. However, most of them work on a flat-fee basis.

For example, say you go to the steakhouse on the ship. There, you’ll see a cover charge of, say, $49 per person. Then when you open the menu, you won’t see prices listed. Instead, you just order an appetizer, main dish, and a dessert, and it’s all covered under the charge. There’s no worry about seeing a huge bill at the end of your meal. You’ll know exactly what you’re going to pay.

How Much Do Restaurants Cost on the Ship?

The price you pay for specialty restaurants on the ship can vary widely based on where you want to eat. Some cruise lines like Royal Caribbean have low-end burger spots like Johnny Rockets where you can eat for a fee of around $10. Then there are places like hibachi grills or steakhouses that can be in the $40-50 per person range. Sometimes there are even exclusive seatings with head chefs and multi-course meals that can run upwards of $100 per person.

In other words, it’s not simple to say exactly what you’ll pay. It will be different based on the restaurant and cruise line you sail. As a rule of thumb, however, we’d suggest budgeting $30-60 per person for an evening meal.

Is Gratuity Included?

Head to a bar and get a drink and you’ll pay the menu price, plus an extra gratuity charge (typically around 18%). The same can apply to specialty dining, but you’ll want to read the fine print.

On some cruises, gratuity will be added to the cover charge. So a $40 meal will have an additional charge. At 18%, that would mean the $40 bill would actually be $47.20 all told.

Other cruise lines will have the total cover charge include the gratuity charge. In that case, the $40 charge will be all you pay in total. There will be a line for an additional tip on the bill, but you aren’t obligated to pay more if you don’t want to.

Are Drinks Included in the Cost of Dinner?

Unfortunately, drinks are not included in the price you pay to dine. Your charge covers only the food (and possibly gratuity). Basic drinks like water and tea will be free of charge. Cocktails, beer, soda, and others will be charged at the normal menu price.

If you have a drink package, you will be able to use it in the specialty restaurant just like you would at any bar.

Do I Need to Make a Reservation?

The type of extra-charge restaurant varies. Some are open seating where you simply walk up, order, and pay — such as Emeril’s Bistro on Carnival. Typically, however, the sit-down eateries require a reservation and have flat fee to dine.

One pain about eating at specialty restaurants is that they can fill up quickly. It’s customary to need a reservation in order to eat at most spots if they are sit-down restaurants. Often, this is something you’ll need to make even before you board or at least well before the day you want to dine.

We’ve found that reservations can fill up quickly, so as soon as you know you want to eat somewhere, make the call or go online to book a spot.

That said, there are some extra fee spots that are more casual. In this case, you can simply walk up, order, and grab a seat. For those, you don’t need to reserve ahead of time.

Can I Eat Without a Reservation?

Say there is a spot you want to eat but you find all the reservations are filled. In that case, you might be out of luck, but there is still a shot you could eat. We’d suggest heading down to the restaurant either early in the evening or later when it’s closer to closing. You can let the host know you don’t have a reservation and ask if there might still be any space available.

It definitely doesn’t work every time, but there have been instances where we’ve been able to dine despite not having a reservation for that night.

What’s the Dress Code?

Not sure what to wear? It can be a little confusing for specialty restaurants. Some will specify a certain dress code but others leave it up to you. In general, you can use some common sense to know what to wear.

Booked for a meal at the inexpensive burger spot? Then you can assume it will be casual. Dining at the fancy steakhouse? Sure, you’ll want to dress up a little bit.

No matter what though, remember that it’s a cruise. Unless you wear something completely out of line (like a tank top and flip flops to a high-end restaurant), it’s likely to be just fine. Simply wear what you would wear to the main dining room and you’ll be ok.

Is There a Way to Eat at Specialty Restaurants for Less Money?

Want to try a restaurant but aren’t sure about spending the money? There are a couple of ways to save.

First, cruise lines often offer discounts for booking packages ahead of time. There may be a discount for a restaurant compared to the onboard price. Or there may be a multi-meal package that provides several meals in specialty restaurants at a discount to what they would cost individually.

Second, cruise lines sometimes offer lunch dining at a restaurant for a cheaper price than it costs for dinner. So you can go and get the same meal, but for considerably less than if you were to eat in the evening.

Are Specialty Restaurants Worth It?

We think specialty restaurants are worth it a couple of times on a one-week cruise to break up eating the same spots over and over. More than that, and you’re missing out on the value of the included food that you’ve already paid for in your cruise fare.

There’s no doubt that having to pay more to eat at certain restaurants… after you’ve already paid hundreds or thousands for your cruise fare… can rub some passengers the wrong way.

Even so, specialty restaurants are now a fact of life on most cruise ships. You don’t have to eat there, but if you want the most options, then you’ll have to pay up.

The good news is that for a 7-day cruise, we’ve found it well worth it to eat at these restaurants 1-3 times. As mentioned above, we think the food in the main dining room can be hit or miss given the mass production of meals. As well, eating the buffet meal after meal quickly grows old.

So while we don’t love having to pay more, the value of eating an individually prepared meal in a much smaller setting is worth it to us. We also like the ability to eat a certain style of food when we crave it versus hoping we find something on the dining room menu, which is more broad.

That said, eating most or every meal in a specialty restaurant would pile up some significant charges at the end of your cruise. Instead, we think using it as a special treat here and there gives you the best plan of eating well without paying a lot.

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