Cruise Cuisine: Specialty Restaurants Worth the Splurge

Carnival Magic's La Cucina del Capitano. Photo by Carnival Cruise Lines
By Lisa Cheng

Specialty restaurants aboard cruise ships have become an industry standard -- and a tempting alternative to buffets. Top-quality meats, candle-lit settings, and fine china are nice, but are these alternative dining options worth the additional cover charges?

We compared shipboard culinary options to their land-based counterparts, and came up with a solid answer: At sea, you can enjoy some of the best dining experiences for less. Here are 10 specialty restaurants that you won't want to miss.

Photo Caption: Carnival Magic's La Cucina del Capitano
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Qsine, Celebrity Cruises. Photo by Celebrity Cruises
Cruise Ships: On Celebrity Cruises' Millennium, Infinity, and Summit ships as well as the Solstice-class Eclipse, Silhouette, and the soon-to-be-launched Reflection

What You Can Sample: Tapas, including Indian, Mediterranean, and Asian cuisine: baby back rib spring rolls, Black Angus sirloin tacos, meatballs three ways (Kobe with cheddar and marinara sauce, veal with mushrooms and marsala, turkey with cranberry and sage gravy), and lobster and escargot fritters

The Experience: Aroma, presentation, texture, taste -- Qsine was designed to engage the senses. An interactive experience from the get-go (touch your order on the iPad menu), the restaurant puts "culinary tour guides" at your disposal, who advise on the "palate pleasers" and portions. Expect whimsy (the dessert menu comes in the form of an unfolding cube), surprise (that crunch in the sushi rolls isn't tempura, it's … Doritos) and plenty of DIY (mash your own guacamole, frost your own cupcakes).

How Much: $40 per person for unlimited tapas

Why It's Worth the Splurge: Dinner for two at a classic tapas restaurant ranges anywhere from $60-$125 (or $30-$62.50 per person, depending on the size of your appetite), but you won't find Qsine's unique twists to small plates elsewhere.

Photo Caption: Qsine, Celebrity Cruises
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Adults-only dining at Remy, Disney Dream's premier restaurant. Photo by Disney Cruise Line/Todd Anderson
Cruise Ships: Disney Cruise Line's Disney Dream and Disney Fantasy

What You Can Sample: An eight- or nine-course meal may include langoustines with apple and ginger; cod with red beans, girolle mushrooms, and a chili sauce; Kurobuta pork with a corn ragout; and veal tenderloin with a tomato jam

The Experience: You'll feel as if you've stepped out of a scene of Ratatouille (sans toque-topped rodent) in an Art Nouveau hall with burgundy and gold accents. Before seating, the house sommelier will whisk you to the glass-walled wine vault for a tasting; upon exit, ladies get the gift of a rose while all guests receive a box of chocolates, a fitting ending for a journey in haute gastronomy.

How Much: $75 per person for an eight- or nine-course meal; $99 with French wine pairings

Why It's Worth the Splurge: A six-course meal in the co-chef's two-star Michelin restaurant would cost $210 per person -- that's $135 more

Photo Caption: Adults-only dining at Remy, Disney Dream's premier restaurant
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Elegant dining at Pinnacle Grill aboard Holland America Line features Bvlgari china. Photo by Holland America Line
Cruise Ships: Fleetwide on Holland America Line

What You Can Sample: A four-course meal of Dungeness crab cakes, lobster macaroni and cheese, beef tenderloin with mushrooms and Cognac, and a Grand Marnier chocolate volcano

The Experience: A classic steakhouse with a white-jacketed staff, this intimate, elegant venue is where cruisers go to escape the buffet lines. Décor varies by ship (we love MS Oosterdam's lighted mural of Dutch Masters, sculpted-glass lighting, and cast aluminum chairs), but you'll find classy details, such as the Riedel stemware and Bvlgari china, on every ship.

How Much: $25 per person for dinner

Why It's Worth the Splurge: A comparable four-course dinner at a restaurant on shore would cost around $75 per person -- or $50 more.

Photo Caption: Elegant dining at Pinnacle Grill aboard Holland America Line features Bvlgari china.
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The chef at work at Seishin, aboard Silver Spirit. Photo by Silversea Cruises
Cruise Ship: Silversea's Silver Spirit

What You Can Sample: An eight-course tasting menu including an amuse-bouche of caviar sorbet followed by assorted sushi, black cod sashimi, a carpaccio of king scallops, a spider crab roll, saku tuna with a soy dressing and caper confit, tempura with a chili sauce and pickles, teppanyaki-style Wagyu beef (a house specialty), and a green tea sorbet

The Experience: Japanese for "Spirit," Seishin captures the essence of five Asian countries (China, Thailand, Vietnam, India, Japan). A chef's station makes the centerpiece, where a master toque rolls sushi and slices fresh catches, right before your eyes.

How Much: $30 per person for dinner, including house beverages

Why It's Worth the Splurge: A similar seven-course meal in a fine Japanese restaurant in New York City would cost about $90 per person -- that's $60 more (and one course less).

Photo Caption: The chef at work at Seishin, aboard Silver Spirit
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150 Central Park on Royal Caribbean International. Photo by Royal Caribbean International
Cruise Ships: Royal Caribbean International's Oasis-class ships

What You Can Taste: A six-course tasting menu of jumbo lump crab salad with pink peppercorn vinaigrette; homemade organic ricotta with warm baby vegetables, orange and basil; pan-roasted scallops with fregola risotto, preserved lemon and chorizo oil; an heirloom tomato soup with a short-rib grilled sandwich; a Wagyu New York Strip au poivre with Swiss chard and a Gruyère tartelette; and a chocolate caramel tart with sour cherry chutney

The Experience: This restaurant has all the sophistication -- minus the snobbery. Done up in nature-inspired browns and greens (in a vaguely Art Nouveau style), the room is lined with tables set with Limoges china and crystal glasses. The menus center on the seasons.

How Much: $40 per person for dinner

Why It's Worth the Splurge: A steak au poivre alone at one of Chef Michael Schwartz's land-based restaurants costs $36, while small to extra large dishes range from $8-$52. You could expect to spend at least $80 per person for a similarly portioned meal -- double 150 Central Park's cover charge.

Photo Caption: 150 Central Park on Royal Caribbean International
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Creme Brulee at Aqualina, the restaurant aboard Azamara Journey. Photo by Azamara Cruises
Cruise Ships: Azamara Club Cruises (Azamara Journey and Azamara Quest)

What You Can Sample: A goat cheese soufflé, saffron-scented bouillabaisse, and a heaping platter of seafood: grilled scallops, calamari, tiger ship and lobster. For dessert: a chocolate fondue with fresh fruit and brownies

The Experience: This wood-paneled dining venue has fluted columns and a soothing palette of white and blue. From the panoramic windows scroll the ever-changing seascape -- the perfect backdrop for an intimate dinner for two.

How Much: $25 per person covers a four-course meal, including house wines

Why It's Worth the Splurge: In a popular Mediterranean restaurant in New York City, a four-course meal on par with Aqualina costs $80 per person (with wine pairings) -- that's $55 more.

Photo Caption: Crème Brûlée at Aqualina, a specialty restaurant aboard Azamara Journey
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Crown Grill, Princess Cruises. Photo by Princess Cruises
Cruise Ships: Princess Cruises' Grand-class ships, with the exception of Diamond Princess and Sapphire Princess

What You Can Sample: Choice of an appetizer, soup and/or salad, a main course, and dessert -- this might include a carpaccio of pine nut-coated lamb loin with gooseberry chutney; a shrimp and pancetta bisque; a 22-ounce porterhouse steak and a corn casserole; and a caramel cheesecake parfait for dessert

The Experience: One of Princess's latest dining venues, the Crown Grill is more like a clubhouse than a chop house -- all dark woods, green marble, and sporting paintings. The ambience is subdued except for the scene-stealing open kitchen: chefs flame sirloins, sear salmon, and steam pots of mussels as chatter of the room never rises above the sounds of sizzling.

How Much: $25 per person for four courses (there's an additional fee for fresh lobster)

Why It's Worth the Splurge: A comparable four-course meal in a NYC land-based steak house would cost around $80 per person -- more than three times the cover charge at Crown Grill.

Photo Caption: Crown Grill, Princess Cruises
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Carnival Magic's La Cucina del Capitano. Photo by Carnival Cruise Lines
Cruise Ship: Carnival's Carnival Magic

What You Can Sample: Hearty Italian classics, like house arancini (fried risotto balls); linguine and meatballs; chicken parmigiana; tiramisu and cannoli

How Much: $12 per person for a family-style dinner

The Experience:
In a nod to Carnival's Italian heritage, this trattoria-style eatery is all about famiglia. Expect red-checkered tablecloths, traditional recipes, vintage family photos, and a waiter belting out "That's Amore!" and wheeling out barrels of the Chianti house pour.

Why It's Worth the Splurge: A similar Italian restaurant in New York City would cost around $90 for four courses shared between four people; savings would tally up to $38 for the entire meal.

Photo Caption: Carnival Magic's La Cucina del Capitano
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Moderno Churrascaria aboard Norwegian Cruise Line. Photo by Norwegian Cruise Line
Cruise Ships: Currently on Norwegian Cruise Line's Epic, Dawn, Jade, Sun, Gem, Jewel, Star and Pearl; eventually to be rolled out fleetwide

What You Can Sample: An unlimited choice of beef ribs, filet mignon, garlic center-cut sirloin, herb and garlic sausages, lamb chops, and bacon-wrapped chicken; sides of black beans, buttered rice, and Brazilian cheese bread; salad bar options such as hearts of palm, fresh asparagus, and ceviche

The Experience: A dimly-lit den with dark woods and plush chairs, this Brazilian steakhouse operates exactly in the same way as its shoreside counterparts. Flip your marker to the green side ("go") for a carnivore's Carnavale: waiters will swoosh by tableside with skewers of meat. The Moderno on the Epic has views of the Manhattan-inspired supper club, one deck below.

How Much: $20 per person includes all-you-can-eat skewered meat, side dishes, and salad

Why It's Worth the Splurge: A comparable meal in a New York City churrascaria costs $60 per person -- $40 more than the price at Moderno.

Photo Caption: Moderno Churrascaria aboard Norwegian Cruise Line
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L'Oasi is the specialty restaurant aboard MSC Magnifica, which will sail the Eastern Mediterranean and Northern Europe in 2013. Photo by MSC Cruises
Cruise Ship: MSC Cruises' MSC Magnifica

What You Can Sample: A three-course dinner of an octopus carpaccio with a potato brunoise, a pistachio-crusted rack of lamb, and a trio of dark, milk and white chocolate mousse

The Experience: This Mediterranean-inspired bistro treats guests to some of the most magnificent views on the (aptly named) Magnifica. Think of a shifting tableau of sea and shore on display at every table, courtesy of the floor-to-ceiling windows that span the room. Request a table that's fully aft: you'll get unobstructed views of the ship's wake, and the glimmering lights of faraway ships.

How Much: $20 per person for a three-course dinner

Why It's Worth the Splurge: A three-course meal at a NYC restaurant of equal caliber would come to $49 -- a savings of $29 per person.

Photo Caption: L'Oasi is a specialty restaurant aboard MSC Magnifica, which will sail the Eastern Mediterranean and Northern Europe in 2013
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