Cruise History

Historical: The genesis of the cruise ship specialty restaurant

Specialty dining venues are ubiquitous across the cruise industry, every single mainstream cruise line features at least one aboard all their ships, but how did this concept come about?

Le Bistro French specialty restaurant aboard Norwegian Jade

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Since passenger shipping first came about, even in the days of sail when a ship could take several weeks to cross the Atlantic, the price of a ticket included accommodation, transport and food. In most cases that food was rudimentary at best, but it was still inclusive.

This has continued for the past several centuries, all cruise ships provide food as part of the voyage. Some cruise lines, such as Easy Cruise, briefly experimented with selling a ‘bare bones’ budget ticket that included only accommodation, with all food and beverages charged as extra, but it was an experiment that failed.

Cruise passengers are just too accustomed to eating for free during their cruise, indeed the on-board cuisine as much as the destination is part of the defining characteristics of a cruise holiday.

The grand ocean liners of the 20th century, as with so many other aspects of the modern cruise experience, were the first to pioneer the specialty dining experience. Hamburg America Line, the centuries-old predecessor to the modern-day Hapag-Lloyd Cruises, was the first line to focus on specialty dining, according to Curbed.

In the 1910s, during the reign of liners like RMS Aquitania, RMS Mauretania, RMS Olympic and Hamburg America’s  SS Imperator and SS Vaterland a la carte restaurants where items were billed on top of the voyage ticket became popular. These a la carte restaurants were usually an aft-facing Veranda Café, where the décor would be intended to mimic a winter garden or seaside restaurant.

When RMS Titanic was launched, for example, the Veranda Café (the location where Rose and Cal argue over lunch in the film) was designed to evoke a South of France open-air restaurant, according to a New York Times report prior to the ship’s launch.

RMS Olympic’s added-charge Verandah Cafe

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“The decorations and general arrangement will carry out the idea of the open air cafés of Southern Europe,” says The New York Times. “The café will be roofed with exposed rafters entwined with vines, while the sides will be latticed to make the illusion of café at the seaside as complete as possible.”

The purpose of these restaurants was to make extra money for the shipping line, and during this period, as the 1910s gave way to the roaring 20s, it was a concept that worked.

They were a way for first-class passengers to exhibit their wealth by ordering extravagant meals and for this reason restaurants quickly showed up on the ships of other lines, from White Star Line to the French Line.

The former liner RMS Queen Mary

The trend continued into the 1930s. Even the 1936-launched RMS Queen Mary and the original 1940-launched RMS Queen Elizabeth featured a Verandah Grill, which was extra-charge and hugely popular according to Beyond Ships. Cunard Line to tried to emulate its success aboard QE2 in the 1970s. There was a Grill Room where first class passengers could dine for a cover charge of 75 cents per person, but it was later converted into the Princess Grill, a regular dining room.

Specialty dining options then took a back seat to the traditional two-seating dining times in the main dining room, and the breakfast and lunch buffet on the pool deck as the cruise industry emerged as a modern iteration of the age of the ocean liner.

It wasn’t until the turn of the century that the specialty dining experience bounced back with a bang. It was precipitated by Norwegian Cruise Line, which forever changed the game when they introduced freestyle dining on May 28th, 2000 aboard Norwegian Sky. Freestyle dining allowed passengers to eat where they liked, when they liked, and with whomever they liked.

Norwegian Cruise Line brought the specialty dining concept back to life at the turn of the century with Norwegian Sky

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Norwegian’s freestyle dining evolved into its industry-first freestyle cruising concept. “Freestyle Cruising offers guests the freedom and flexibility to create their ideal vacation experience, with no fixed dining times, relaxed attire, several distinct dining options, relaxed disembarkation and more lounges, bars, theatres and other entertainment and activity options,” the cruise line says.

It was a trend that took the cruise industry by storm. Every other major cruise line has emulated it to some extent, which required more dining rooms, more bars and more eateries, from high-end restaurants to grills and cafes.

Specialty restaurants are now on every cruise ship, and while in the Edwardian period they let First Class passengers make a show of their wealth, nowadays they serve a multitude of purposes for both passengers and the cruise line.

For passengers, specialty dining options provide variety on a longer voyage or a way to celebrate a special occasion, and it provides top-notch cuisine and service at a price point that is typically much lower than the equivalent experience at a hotel on land.

For the cruise line, its one of the many ways in which they can make a new ship stand out from the rest, and it gives passengers a reason to cruise with a particular line over others. Norwegian Cruise Line regulars for example are passionately loyal to Cagney’s Steakhouse, Carnival Cruise Line passengers love the Seafood Shack and Royal Caribbean has ushered in a new evolution of the concept by bringing land-based brands to sea, such as Jamie’s Italian and Johnny Rockets.

Most of all, it’s a secondary source of revenue for the line, just like the bars, drinks packages, and added-cost entertainment options.

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