Dining on Crystal Mahler is a true foodie experience and one that is definitely a cut above its competitors. Meals here aim for Michelin-quality -- and largely succeed.
Tables in both the Waterside and the Bistro are primarily set up for two or four; with the exception of larger families, there is no large group dining. Passengers can eat whenever they want within a window of time at Waterside and for breakfast and lunch in the Bistro (dinner at the latter is supposed to require a reservation, although it's never very busy).
The included wines onboard are mostly regional, heavy on German and Austria, as well as Crystal's own brand of California wines. You can order from the complimentary list at any venue, and there's a sommelier onboard. Local and craft beers are also represented. There's also a premium wine list that has some heavy hitters (at hefty price tags), including a 4,500-euro bottle of 1994 Chateau Petrus; a 2000 Chateau Latour First Growth for 3,100 euro and a range of other high-end Bordeaux, Burgundy and Super Tuscan wines. If you'd like to sample some premium wines without buying a bottle, check out the extra-fee tasting menu at the Vintage Room; it's pricy, at 290 euro, but with big names such as Dom Perignon, it should be.
* May require additional fees
Waterside (Deck 2): The Waterside is Crystal Mahler's main dining room, but it's more like a restaurant you'd find on land than at sea. The secret is partially due to Waterside's setup: Unlike other river cruise ships, where a large buffet station anchors the dining room, the "market" on Crystal Mahler is set off in its own partitioned space. The galley, too, is closed off in the middle of the room, as opposed to the end, which makes the service seem more natural and restaurant-like. The decor too, is attractive, with heavy plush teal chairs (which all conveniently have handles so the staff can pull them out for you easily) and burnt orange velvet-covered banquettes.
Vegetarian items are marked on the menu, and there's at least one entree available at every meal (usually a pasta). A gluten-free bread corner is also marked at breakfast and lunch. In general, if you have food allergies or a restricted diet, it's recommended that you talk to the reservation agent when you book and again when you board.
Breakfast is served each morning, though times change depending on where the ship is docked and when shore excursions begin. Buffet items might include fruit, pastries, smoked fish, yogurt or muesli, while hot stations serve up eggs, pancakes, French toast and other goodies. Passengers can order eggs, any style, a la minute. You can't order off a menu at either breakfast or lunch, but waiters are eager to help you with plates, bringing them back to your table so you don't have to worry about spilling. Lunch offers a salad bar each day, though toppings and cold salads vary. The Market offers an array of hot dishes too. There's always a soup and a carving station, with options like pumpkin soup with pesto garnish, roasted thyme chicken or lamb. Pasta is also made, fresh to order. Sides might include Brussels sprouts with bacon, cauliflower puree or cumin-spiked quinoa. Vegetarian and vegan options are available, but tend to fall into the pasta and veggie category.
Dinner is where the Waterside shines. It's open seating, and passengers can come in to eat at any time they like; there's never a "rush" to get seated. Service is personable, and the pacing of the meal feels neither rushed nor slow. Each evening's menu includes the executive chef's recommendation, with a starter, soup, two entrees and dessert option. The menu will also have supplementary dining choices, which include appetizers, salads and pastas. The nightly menu also has a main course that's influenced by local cuisine, presented in a modern way. (An example would be Dutch fish and chips, served with a light tempura batter and with a dollop of whipped peas). There's always a "traditional main fare" option as well, for those looking for a simpler choice. This might include grilled filet or broiled salmon, for example. Almost everything we ate at Waterside (save a seafood pasta dish that was a little bland) was outstanding.
Bistro Mahler (Deck 3): Crystal Mahler has put its alternative restaurant, the casual Bistro Mahler, at the top of the atrium stairs instead of the front or rear of the ship, as you might find on other lines. At first, we thought the placement odd, but it grew on us as the cruise went on. The windows make it a delightful casual place to dine, and the food and service was as good as what you'd find downstairs in Waterside.
Nibbles are available almost all day long at Bistro Mahler. Late risers can grab breakfast here after meal service ends in the Waterside, and while you can serve yourself from the continental options spread out on the venue's buffet, you also can order eggs a la minute from the waiters working at the coffee bar (this is where you'd go to get a Benedict). Lunch features a small casual dining menu with options such as Caesar salad with a choice of proteins, a to-die-for burger and crisp fries, and a flatbread, among others. A vast selection of coffee and tea is served here all day, along with creamy hot chocolate. In the afternoon, Bistro Mahler offers cheese, soft pretzels, fruit, cured meats and fish, bread and pastries. You'll also find a small noodle bar, where you can add hot water to prepackaged noodles along with soy sauce for a hot soup.
At dinner, Bistro Mahler is a delicious (and rarely visited, it seemed) alternative to Waterside. The menu is the same every night, offering starters such as fondue, beef tartare and marinated vegetables. Mains include roasted jumbo shrimp, herb-marinated beef medallions and pulled-pork sliders, while desserts include seasonal fruit, bananas Foster and ice cream. It's an eclectic menu that doesn't necessarily make sense from a theme point of view, but everything we had, we loved.
The Vintage Room (Deck 3); 80 euros for lunch, 290 euros for dinner: Wine lovers won't want to miss this experience, which mimics the type of Michelin experience that you'd find on land. You either book the room as a group of 10, or you tell the front desk that you'd like to be matched with other couples. On our cruise, we ate with a lively group of foodie travelers, almost all of whom had cruised Crystal before. The eight-course meal starts out with vintage Dom Perignon, and liberal pours of the wines continues from there. Standouts at our meal include a green asparagus mousse, paired with a 2012 Gruner Veltliner from Schloss Gobelsburg; a 2015 Corton Charlemagne Grand Cru Cote du Beaune matched with Dover sole in a saffron beurre blanc sauce; and a 2013 California cabernet from Shafer paired with Almo beef from the Austrian hillside. While the rest of the pairings were more on the average side, we enjoyed the experience and camaraderie -- the service in the Vintage Room was exceptional -- and most of our fellow diners felt the dinner was worth the steep price tag. Lunch is a scaled down version of dinner.
The Pantry (Deck 2): The pantry is located across from Crystal Bach's reception desk. Here, you'll find a self-service coffee machine along with hot water for tea, soft drinks and bottled water. Grab-and-go pastries and cookies are available 24/7.
Room Service: You can get room service all day. A full breakfast service is available from 7. to 9:30 a.m., and can be ordered via your butler or by filling out a door hanger and leaving it on your knob the night before. A continental breakfast, serving cold selections, is available between 6 and 10 a.m. At other times, the menu features items such as Caesar salad, club sandwich, burger and vegetable lasagna, along with desserts such as creme brulee and brownies. We ordered a burger one night at midnight and it came within 15 minutes.