There is a certain sense of pampering, pomp and circumstance that comes with eating in the main dining room on a cruise ship. An army of waiters and assistant waiters bustle about. Menus feature five or more courses and you can order as much as you like.
Cuisine is typically continental, with some international dishes and regional specialties (based on where you are cruising) along with fussy eater options such as plain grilled chicken breast, a vegetarian selection and other "healthy" choices.
Here are some of the best dishes to order in a cruise ship dining room...
Shrimp cocktail: This special occasion favorite is served with three to five plump shrimp – sometimes dramatically displayed in a cocktail glass, depending on the ship. Be sure to dip them in the traditional red cocktail sauce.
Soup: Maybe it's just that warmth tastes great at sea, or maybe it's that cruise ship chefs pay extra attention to soups, but they tend to be one of the most delicious menu items. Holland America Line is so proud of its traditional Dutch pea soup it's even served outdoors as a warm-me-up on glacier-viewing days in Alaska.
Signature Chef Dishes: If the cruise line's top chef, the ship's executive chef or a guest celebrity chef has his or her name next to an item on the menu then a lot of thought likely went into the creation of the dish.
Escargot: A cruise vacation is a great time to try something new. With a hefty dose of garlic, snails are actually quite delicious. Plus ordering this dish is a chance to impress your tablemates with your adventuresome culinary tastes.
Lobster: Chefs tend to take extra care with pricey ingredients. Lobster is a prime example, whether ordered on its own or as Surf & Turf. One caveat: If you are a Maine lobster fan, ask if that's what you're getting. You may find the ship subs Caribbean lobster, which is not as sweet.
Slow-cooked meats: Serving thousands of passengers, most cruise ship dining rooms are not well equipped for a la minute cooking. Save the request for a rare steak for the ship's specialty steakhouse. Instead go with the prime rib, a stewed meat dish such as veal saltimbocca, turkey dinner or roasted chicken.
Indian curries: If you're a fan of Indian cuisine and it's on the menu, definitely go for it. If it's not, try making a special request. Chances are your ship has Indian chefs onboard preparing authentic curries for the crew, and you can get in on the action. Carnival does a particularly good job with curries.
Fresh-made pasta: If your ship has Italian chefs, it's probably a safe bet to assume skill and fresh ingredients are involved in making such dishes as Spaghetti Carbonara and lasagna. Pasta is one of the best menu choices on Princess Cruises, Costa Cruises and MSC Cruises, among others.
Regional specials: Go with the crab legs and wild salmon (even if flash-frozen) in Alaska, the conch fritters in the Caribbean and the boeuf bourguignon or coq au vin in France. The chefs know you want to get a good taste of the cruising region.
Baked goods: It's vacation, go ahead and indulge! Desserts are prepared daily on cruise ships, and even if pre-prepared dough is sometimes used they are all freshly baked. If a soufflé is featured, that's often the best choice. Baked Alaska will be elaborately presented, but don't feel you have to order it if you're not a fan.
By Fran Golden, Special for USA TODAY
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