Shay Spence/Instagram; Royal Caribbean
When it comes to cruise cuisine, preconceived notions are abound. People associate food on the big ships with one of two extremes: formal white tablecloth dining rooms where you’re served Chicken Cordon Bleu and Baked Alaska by the same waiter, at the same table, at the same time every night—or the buffet.
For many long-time cruisers, these traditions are a comforting routine and part of the appeal. As cruising demographics evolve, though, so too have the dining options—and this is particularly true on Royal Caribbean’s Symphony of the Seas.
With a maximum capacity of 6,680 passengers, Symphony holds the title of the largest cruise ship in the entire world. And while accommodating that many people may sound like a logistical nightmare, this ship has come prepared, not only in terms of space—there is a serene outdoor replica of Central Park in the middle of the ship, for example—but also with regard to restaurants.
Though Symphony does boast a grandiose main dining room and a massive buffet, there are 20 different dining establishments in total, many of which are included in your vacation package.
Doing the math, even if you’re on a week-long cruise, it can be nearly impossible to hit every restaurant on board (unless you stayed on the ship at every port, and even then it would be a challenge.) So how does you know where to allocate your time and, in certain cases, money?
Funny you should ask. In a feat of perhaps superhuman strength, I ate at every restaurant on Symphony during my 7-day sailing, and am here to give you the highlight reel of where to go.
I’ll start with the restaurants that are an additional expense, because if you’re going to spend that extra money, it better be worth it.
Chops Grille is Royal Caribbean’s flagship steakhouse, and it has a prime location on Symphony attached to the Central Park area, so I highly recommend dining here and requesting a table on the patio. The menu is fairly standard steakhouse fare, all very well executed, but be sure to order the crispy goat cheese salad to start (it comes with a breaded disc of goat cheese on top) and save room for the three-layer red velvet cake for dessert, which is absolutely perfect. They also make a fantastic espresso martini, if you’re into that sort of thing.
Also in the Central Park area is Jamie’s Italian, one of the few remaining locations of acclaimed chef Jamie Oliver‘s chain. Here’s your chance to go carb crazy, with 12 different pastas on the menu (my personal favorite was the simple penne pomodoro with herb breadcrumbs.) The true highlight of the meal, though, was the yeasty pull-apart garlic rolls. This is one of the few specialty dining restaurants that is open for lunch, so plan a daytime meal for the same menu at a slightly lower price.
For some truly unique cruise cuisine, there’s Wonderland, an Alice in Wonderland-inspired restaurant that overlooks the ship’s Boardwalk. The dishes here are very reliant on molecular gastronomy techniques, so be warned that picky eaters might be a little spooked by the presentation.
But if you’re open to adventure, I recommend giving it a shot, if only to try “The World”—a truly magical dessert that consists of a chocolate sphere that gets doused in peanut butter ganache to expose salted caramel ice cream and chocolate mousse. See the mesmerizing video below.
My favorite restaurant on board, though, was Izumi, which provides a hibachi and sushi experience. Is it absolutely groundbreaking, or much different than a trip to Benihana? Perhaps not, but the chefs here are true performers (see those egg juggling skills in my video below!), and in my mind it gives you everything that you could want out of a cruise ship meal: kitschy fun, performance art, passenger comradery…oh, and great food. The ultra-garlicky fried rice still lingers.
If you’ve got a sweet tooth and the excitement of free soft serve has worn off, stop by Sugar Beach, an ice cream shop on the Boardwalk that specializes in over-the-top, Instagrammable frozen treats.
Finally, there is no shortage of places to grab a drink on Symphony, but there are two on-board cocktail experiences that cannot be missed. The first is the Bionic Bar, where you order on iPads and watch literal robots make your drink right in front of you. It’s fascinating despite feeling like the beginning of an apocalyptic Will Smith movie. The second is the Rising Tide Bar, which I referred to only as the “upsies-downsies bar” because it actually moves up and down between two floors on the ship. A wild ride!
When it comes to the restaurants that are included in your vacation package, there is less at stake, but time and appetites are still limited resources when you’re on vacation.
Now, I’m going to show some bias here: I’m not a huge buffet person. For those who are, though, the Windjammer is the main buffet on board, and be warned: It’s massive! While they do have some interesting choices—an avocado bar, for example—a more serene buffet option, I found, was the Solarium Bistro. It’s decidedly less crowded and full of gorgeous natural light (being under a solarium and all), plus it had plenty of good food options.
If I were to go back, though, I would eat every breakfast and lunch at El Loco Fresh. The breakfast consists of freshly-cooked, runny-yolk eggs which you can pile on tostadas and finish with all kinds of salsas and toppings. I can’t stress enough my belief that this is the best free dining breakfast option on board.
There’s also Coastal Kitchen, which is exclusive to guests who are staying in suites. They serve breakfast, lunch and dinner and the menu changes regularly. The ambiance is pleasant and it’s definitely something you’ll want to take advantage of if you’re splurging on a fancier room. Also, they serve the most adorable little Baked Alaska (below).
Other included dining options are The Dog House, which serves classic and specialty hot dogs right on the boardwalk, and Sorrento’s, a pizza spot that’s open until 3 a.m. and really comes in handy at that time of night.
I hope I’ve given you all the tools you need to make good choices on your upcoming Symphony voyage, or perhaps even inspired you to plan one. And if your itinerary involves a stop at Royal Caribbean’s Coco Cay, be sure to check out our list of cant-miss activities on the private island.
Shay Spence/Instagram; Royal Caribbean