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This is Chapter 4 of the free online guide “Cruising with Special Diets”.

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Chapter 4

Main Dining Room

While your ship will no doubt offer countless venues for food and drink, for most people the ship’s main dining room will be the “default” venue for dinner, and likely one of the main events of your evening. So let’s make sure it is enjoyable as well, even with your special diet.

Breakfasts and lunches are also available in the main dining room, but usually handled quite differently than dinners. I’ll talk about those at the end of this chapter, but for now the focus is just on dinner.

Fixed vs. Open Seating

As I alluded to earlier, there are two styles of seating in the main dining room. Fixed seating is the traditional cruise line model where there are two sittings for dinner, early and late, which start at specific times. You will be assigned to a particular seating (you’d have indicated your preference when you booked your cruise) and will dine with the same group of people at an assigned table the entire sailing.

In open seating, you arrive at the dining room anytime between designated hours, make a request for the size of table you’d like to be seated at (pending availability), and will be seated, possibly along with other groups, either immediately or after a short wait. Each night, you can go at a different time, will likely have different table mates (unless you all arrive together as a single group) and be seated at a different table.

(Breakfast and lunch are different, e.g. always open seating, and menu choices may vary less day-to-day. Again, I’ll discuss those shortly, but for now… it’s dinner time.)

On some lines, particularly the smaller, usually higher-end lines, only open seating for dinner may be available. On others, only fixed seating for dinner may be available. Some may offer a choice of either, where typically one floor of a two story dining room will accommodate fixed seating, and one open seating.

As I recommended when talking about planning your cruise, if you do have the choice between fixed and open seating, do your best to convince your party that they should choose fixed seating.

The advantage of fixed seating is that each night you’ll go to the main dining room and be at the same table. You’ll have the same wait staff, who work the same small group of tables each night. These include your waiter, who will take your order and do the other sorts of things that waiters do, and an assistant, who, well, assists. A group of waiters in the same section will be supervised by the same person, called a head waiter, assistant Maître d’, or some other such title. For the wine and bar fans, there will also be a wine steward or sommelier you’ll become familiar with.

With fixed seating, you only have one set of dining room staff who you need to explain your special needs to, compared with the prospect of potentially having to explain them to a new set of staff each dinner. I don’t know about you, but the prospect of having to do that each and every night would probably make me lose my appetite after a while. And with any luck, the Maître d’ who you talked to when you first got onboard will have already communicated (warned) the waiter about your needs, possibly shortening your explanation further.

As long as your goal is food safety, and minimizing inconvenience, fixed dining with the same staff is going to be a clear winner. If, on the other hand, you’d like to treat your dinner as a daily exposure exercise to help you learn how to control your frustration, please feel free to have to explain yourself every day to someone different.

Okay, admittedly if your needs aren’t very complicated (e.g. “vegetarian please”) this won’t be too onerous. And if you’re in that boat (sorry), please spare a thought for those of us with less conventional dietary needs.

Making Open Seating Work

But what if you only have open seating available?

Simple, make it as much like fixed seating as humanly possible. If all you have available is open seating, you’re likely on a smaller ship, on a deluxe or luxury line with a smaller dining room, and a better staff:guest ratio.

Here’s why that makes a difference. Less passengers means a smaller dining room, and a smaller number of waiters. It also means that people like the Maître d’ and hostess will get to know you and your special needs.

What you want to do is, possibly with the help of the Maître d’, ask on the first night to have a waiter who they feel will deal with your special diet well. Or, alternatively, just let them seat you at any table the first night, and if the waiter running your table doesn’t do a great job, ask to sit somewhere else the next night.

After you’ve settled on a waiter, just ask to be seated in their section when you first enter the dining room each night thereafter. Sure, you might have to wait a little bit, but with people coming and going at different times, it likely won’t be that long. Plus, there will be a bar/lounge in the foyer of the dining room if you need to pass the time.

After the first couple of days, the dining room staff working that section will know you as well as if they were taking care of you in a fixed seating environment. You won’t have to endlessly repeat your dietary story from the beginning, and special extras (e.g. gluten free bread, olive oil and balsamic vinegar for people who can’t eat wheat and dairy) will just magically appear without you needing to ask.

There may be some nights where you can’t get the same waiter, because you’re unable to wait, are dining with others on a schedule, etc. But overall, the more you can deal with the same (good) staff, the happier you’ll be.

Interestingly, there may be times when even sitting nearby your usual section can pay off. On one cruise, we ended up seated a couple of times in the section next to our usual service team, who were truly wonderful. In this other section, the assistant waiter wasn’t the most attuned to special needs, and it was pretty clear the rest of the staff were very familiar with his shortcomings in this and other areas. A few times, one of our regular waiters saw this hapless assistant waiter heading for our table with something wrong, ran over and practically body-checked him away from us to correct his mistake.

Picking your Meals

The general routine for your meals in the main dining room is that you’ll order the day before for the next night, so that the culinary staff can better make any special preparations or accommodations you require. Obviously, that won’t work very well for the first night.

On the first night, use the regular menu as a guide. They may also have separate menus for e.g. vegetarian or “heart healthy” options, or those items may be included in the regular menu. Pick a few items, and discuss with your waiter which would be okay, or could be easily modified, to suit your particular dietary needs. Usually things like omitting sauces, cooking vegetables in olive oil or steaming them rather than cooking in butter, etc. can be done without much difficulty by the culinary team. Mix-and-match, so that if another entrée has a side dish that would better suit your needs, ask about combining the two. You get the idea.

Make sure you’re communicating your needs clearly, your waiter understands exactly what you need and the consequences of mistakes, and ask lots of questions if needed. Encourage your waiter to check with the chef if there is any doubt.

Your meal might end up a bit more boring than you’d like, especially on that first night, but that’s okay. I’m pretty much resigned to the first night of any cruise being a plain piece of baked salmon, steamed vegetables, and plain white rice.

On subsequent nights, you’ll make your decisions the night before, rather than when you show up for dinner that day. Typically, your waiter or sometimes a Maître d’ will bring you tomorrow’s menus at the conclusion of your meal. You can look them over while having your coffee or dessert, and they’ll come back to take your order for the next night, answering any questions or offering suggestions.

The exact routine will vary from cruise line to cruise line; on one of our cruises for example, the next day’s menus were left in our stateroom in the early evening, and we could write our requests on them and return them to the dining room by the end of breakfast next day.

The main difference between the first night and all the other nights when you preorder, is that you (and the culinary staff) can be a bit more creative with your substitutions or other alterations, given they’ll have time to prepare ahead of time, fetch needed ingredients, etc.

If nothing on the menu for a given night will work (or looks appetizing) ask for something else entirely, perhaps something you enjoyed from a previous night, or something entirely different you’ve never seen on any menu. You may be pleasantly surprised the extent most chefs can and will go to accommodate your wishes.

Like the dining room staff, the culinary team behind the scenes will also get to know you and your particular needs, although to them you may be just known as “the celiac at table 63” vs “Mr. So-and-so”.

As with other meals and venues, there are a lot of other things you can do to improve your experience, which will be discussed further in the chapter entitled “Working with Staff”.

Breakfast and Lunch

While most people have their dinner in the main dining room most nights, for breakfast and lunch, the buffet is generally the most popular venue. Most ships do also offer breakfast and lunch service in the main dining room as an alternative.

The main dining room lunch menus, like the dinner menus, vary day-to-day. When bringing you the next night’s dinner menu, you’ll be offered the dining room lunch menu as well (or you can ask for it). Again, you can preorder, specifying either restrictions or desired substitutions.

Even if dinner is fixed seating, the main dining room lunch won’t be, so you’ll generally be assigned to a table with different people (and a different waiter) when you show up. Just notify the waiter that you’ve preordered your meal the day before, and they should be able to handle things appropriately. Of course, you may also get a completely blank look, at which point one or more of the suggestions in the “Working with Staff” chapter will come in handy…

Breakfast in the main dining room tends to use the same menu every day, so you won’t have to worry about preordering. Just be sure to communicate your needs to your waiter, and they’ll take things back to the culinary staff to prepare. Breakfast is generally a simpler meal to prepare in any case, and many people are creatures of habit and will have the same thing day after day.

Bonus tip: without getting into a lengthy discussion about the quality of cruise line coffee, if you’re the type of person who might prefer an espresso or latte, you can usually obtain one with your meal in the main dining room, often without the extra charge you would incur at the designated (and often crowded) café.

Breakfast and lunch in the main dining room may not be for everyone, particularly those who are always bouncing between events, a copy of the day’s schedule tucked into their pocket. But if you have a bit more time and want to enjoy a leisurely sit-down meal during the day, it’s hard to beat.

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