Food served in the main dining room of cruise ships is usually such high quality that there's little need to venture into the speciality restaurants -- so what's the draw? For people on long cruises, speciality restaurants offer a welcome change of scene and meal variety. The classier venues also offer passengers the chance to celebrate a special occasion, enjoy favourite cuisines, or appreciate a formal dining experience with exceptional service. Pull up a chair and discover some of the best cruise ship specialty dining for Australians.
1. Carnival Cruise Line's Nouveau Restaurant
Choose from 17 gourmet appetisers, entrees, soups and salads, including classic dishes such as surf and turf (beef and lobster), lamb chops, grilled fish and vegetarian options, and an array of tempting desserts to create a satisfying four course meal.
The restaurant also has its own bar for pre- and post-dinner drinks, and a grand entrance via the lifts or a dramatic see-through glass staircase. On sea days Nouveau offers a lazy afternoon of great food and service at the Long Lunch at Sea.
2. Celebrity Cruises' Murano
Celebrity Cruises states the key principles of its "modern luxury" dictum are built around matching and exceeding the aspirations of guests. This includes offering an innovative fleet, personalised service, and distinctive, exquisitely presented cuisine. So it is with Celebrity Solstice, home to one of the line's most stylish for-a-fee restaurants. Murano is like a fine old mink coat -- opulent, dignified and warm -- with food that is delicious and assembled by an accomplished brigade of chefs.
Murano's distinction is its blend of classic and modern continental cuisine, with many dishes prepared tableside. The wild forest mushroom cappuccino with creme fraiche and fine herbs is sophisticated, as is the dover-sole Veronique with green grapes and beurre noisette. Valrhona cocoa cake with caramel and white coffee ice cream provides a sweet finish as does the warm farewell from the ever-attentive staff.
3. P&O Cruises' Salt Grill
From the professional welcome to the top-quality steaks (some of the best you will find on the high seas) and premium dishes such as lobster tail, Salt Grill more than justifies the extra spend. A menu that is on-trend without trying too hard and friendly, accommodating staff has made this restaurant a crowd-pleaser on P&O Australia's ships.
Fresh produce is the star at this casually elegant Mod-Oz restaurant, with meats and fish served every which way, from battered to steamed to grilled, with teriyaki wok-fried vegetables and coconut sambal. Don't miss the restaurant's most iconic dish -- liquorice parfait with lime syrup -- for dessert.
4. Holland America's Le Cirque
HAL's Pinnacle Grill steakhouse serves up An Evening at Le Cirque once on every seven-night voyage. This exclusive dinner gives cruisers from around the world the chance to experience Sirio Maccioni's legendary New York restaurant, from the food right down to the table decorations and place settings. Not surprisingly, this dining experience tends to book out fast.
The menu follows a traditional structure, offering a choice of between two and five dishes for each course, broken down into appetiser, soup, main course and dessert. Starters include lobster salad, wild burgundy escargot or chilled yogurt with melon soup. For the main course, diners can enjoy inventive dishes such as sea bass with peaches, capers, bourbon vanilla and chicken oysters or a classic chateaubriand. Desserts favour the traditional, with choices such as chocolate souffle, creme brulee or strawberry pavlova. An Evening at Le Cirque is offered on every Holland America ship sailing in Australia.
5. Royal Caribbean's Chops Grille
Chops Grille is renowned for its club-like ambiance and is one of the most popular restaurants across the Royal Caribbean International fleet. This signature eatery is available on all Australia-based ships. With earth-toned leather-backed chairs, curtains in hues of crimson, claret and gold and light wood furnishings, this classic American steakhouse is as sophisticated as it is snug.
Grade-A premium cuts of steak and fresh seafood are well to the fore on the unpretentious menus. Popular choices include Dungeness crab and shrimp cake with remoulade sauce, 340g New York strip steak served with a variety of sauces and sides such as rock-salt-baked Idaho potato or truffled corn. The most indulgent dessert is chocolate mud pie, a calorie-laden delight that is ideal to share.
6. Azamara's Aqualina
Aqualina is available on Azamara and serves up inventive Italian cuisine in airy and elegant surrounds. Specialty dining at this restaurant is complimentary for suite guests; others pay a US$25 per-person cover charge for a four course meal.
Begin with paper-thin beef carpaccio or lobster ravioli with a crabmeat cream sauce, followed by radicchio salad topped with pine nuts and finely crumbled blue cheese or a bowl of sweet green pea soup. Mains include forest mushroom or prawn risotto or sauteed veal scaloppine. Leave some room for Italian desserts such as tiramisu.
7. Cunard's Verandah Restaurant
The first Verandah Restaurant (or Verandah Grill as it was previously known) opened 80 years ago on Queen Mary. Once exclusively reserved for first class passengers and frequented by famous names including Winston Churchill, Elizabeth Taylor and Fred Astaire, the new incarnation of this restaurant is available to all Cunard passengers for a modest fee.
Open for lunch and dinner, the restaurant offers a three course French-inspired menu created by Cunard's global culinary ambassador, Michelin-starred Jean-Marie Zimmermann. Specialities include torchon de foie gras de Canard mi-cuit a la poire, nougat brulee; Grenadin de boeuf poele aux morilles, legumes primeurs a la truffe, pomme soufflees, jus reduit au Madere; and hot vanilla souffle Infused with Edmond Briottet Peach Liqueur. If you are confused about what that all means -- ask the waiters, they will explain!
8. Norwegian Cruise Lines's Le Bistro
Take a trip to Paris without the jetlag at Le Bistro, the most elegant restaurant on Norwegian Jewel. Traditional French fare and white-gloved service with a sense of theatre make this a special night out.
Start with a classic dish such as warm goat's cheese salad or onion soup gratin for entree followed by bouillabaisse or coq au vin for mains, ideally served with a drop of something French from the wine list. Desserts such as warm apple tarte tartin round things out nicely.
Romantic and intimate, Le Bistro is the ideal restaurant to enjoy 'date night' without the kids.
9. Silversea's Le Champagne
Billed as the only wine restaurant by Relais & Châteaux at sea, Silversea's Le Champagne offers a six-course set menu paired with wines from around the globe. Tables are extremely limited for this exclusive AU$40 per head dining experience, which is offered on Silver Shadow and Silver Whisper in Australia, so book well in advance (ideally before you get onboard using the online cruise planner).
Not surprisingly given the name, the menu at Le Champagne is decidedly French, with a focus on ingredients such as foie gras, caviar, duck and lobster. If you are unsure what to order, take note of the amuse bouche platter, which features a little bit of everything that is on the menu. Wine pairings are available at an additional charge. If you would prefer to avoid paying extra, your waiter will happily bring you a complimentary beverage from The Restaurant next door. Le Champagne is ideal for foodies who enjoy formal, attentive service and a long, leisurely dining experience.
10. Princess Cruises' Sabatini's
Sabatini's, the hallmark Tuscan-inspired specialty restaurant on Golden Princess, offers a taste of la dolce vita in an elegant room with a wine tower displaying vintages that would delight any oenologist. During afternoons at sea wine connoisseurs can revel in "Super Tuscan Tastings" of the acclaimed vintages Sassicaia, Tignanello and Masseto.
Featuring northern Italian and Mediterranean specialities, many of them lighter than traditional dishes from the area, Sabatini's menu is like a horn of plenty. Over a complimentary glass of Prosecco, diners on cruises from Southampton can choose favourites such as burrata alla panna con carpaccio di pomodori, spaghetti allo scoglio, branzino al forno con zucchini and semi-freddo al cioccolato bianco soffice e limoncello.
11. Oceania Cruises' Red Ginger
Master Chef Jacques Pepin, personal chef to three French heads of state, is at the helm of Oceania's superior dining but we're most fond of the Asian-fusion Red Ginger. The Feng Shui-inspired decor, including glowing Buddha heads on each table, sets the stage for a memorable meal.
Red Ginger offers contemporary interpretations of Asian classics, such as claypot caramelised chicken and miso-glazed seabass. Extensive tea, wine, sake and dessert menus add to the experience. Best of all, it's complimentary. Reservations are not required but are strongly recommended, as the venue tends to fill up quickly.