The hot tip is to book early for Angelo's and Dragon Lady because these two restaurants were originally planned to have surcharges. Passengers can make same-day reservations only for both restaurants; visit the Monkey Bar from 8 am on the day or call from your cabin phone. Everybody is allowed up to two bookings in each venue per cruise.
Waterfront Restaurant (Deck 7): The main dining room on Aria (and sister Eden) is unrecognisable from P&O's other ships. Waterfront is light and open plan, with household-style furnishings such as lamps and vases of dried flowers to make you feel at home. Seating incorporates different-sized tables and semi-circular booths in beige, brown and burnt gold. The venue is busy and wait staff strain to keep up, so it's just as well it's a nice place to linger. An a la carte menu is available for breakfast, lunch and dinner, with a mix of classic and innovative cuisine, plus kids' menus.
The breakfast selection is split into two sides -- nine sweet and 12 savoury dishes. Original items not usually seen in cafés, let alone cruise ships, include grilled coconut bread with mascarpone cheese and roasted cashew nuts; a charcuterie plate with liver pate; ham hock and homemade baked bean casserole; and poached eggs topped with lemon yoghurt.
Lunch and dinner are combined on one menu, consisting of seven starters, four mains, nine vegetable sides, five desserts and a share platter (changing daily) that can be prepared for any group size. The offerings are contemporary and varied enough to cater for most tastes. Available everyday are 'all-time favourites' listed separately as beef burger, rump steak, pork belly, pizza, chicken wings and chips.
Unfortunately the service was abysmally slow on the morning we tried Waterfront. Our breakfast took an hour, and it was a simple cold plate that didn't even need to be cooked. Fellow diners also waited a long time for the wrong dish to eventually appear. We're hoping staffing levels, or organisation in the galley, have significantly increased by now.
Waterfront is open from 7 am to 9 am for breakfast (7.30 am to 9:30 am on sea days), noon to 2 pm for lunch, and 5 pm to 9 pm for dinner. An express lunch is offered on embarkation day from noon to 1.30 pm. The seating system is open so bookings are not required, but for people who like to eat dinner before going to the early show in the theatre, 5 pm reservations are available.
The Pantry (Deck 11): The Pantry takes the place of the traditional cruise ship buffet. P&O wants it to be like a cafe but it feels more like an upmarket food court. That's not necessarily a bad thing, it's just the way it's designed with a row of outlets, the food behind glass counters and crew serving it up to a queue of customers. Better hygiene is no doubt part of the motivation.
The ambience is brightened up by the floor-to-ceiling windows with ocean views that let in lots of natural light. Then there's the colourful decor, bordering on hipster, with its blackboards, striped wallpaper, shelves full of plants and empty vases, and a retro noticeboard listing the bar drinks. Luckily, the red and yellow seating doesn't make it look too much like a McDonald's.
The eight outlets, which also have their own designs, are Mexicana (tacos), Hook's (fish and chips), Curry House (Indian), Stix (Asian), Fat Cow (for meat lovers), Kettle & Bun (sandwiches, soups and salads), McGregor's Garden (salad bar) and Sugar Bar (desserts).
In the mornings, breakfast items are served at each outlet, such as congee and fried noodles at Stix; fresh fruit and yoghurt at Macgregor's Garden; hot English breakfast at Hook's; a breakfast carving, poached eggs and muffins at Fat Cow; pancakes, French toast, fresh and stewed fruit at the Curry House; and pastries at the Sugar Bar, as well as the usual bacon, toast and cereal spread out over the outlets.
There is a separate queue for each outlet, so you still have to line up, but we never waited more than five minutes to be served. In truth, we probably gravitated toward whichever station had the shortest queue, as there was always tomorrow to try something else.
The food quality is good, hot and tasty; even the bread is freshly baked onboard every day -- but this is not five-star fine dining, so keep your expectations reasonable. We were pleased with everything we tried from all outlets. Portions aren't tightly controlled; if you want a bigger serving or three different curries on one plate, just ask. Of course, you can go back to any of the outlets as many times as you like.
Seating is often an issue in a venue of this size on a ship with 2,000 people who want to be seated immediately, around the same time of day. We had to do a lap to find a table at breakfast, but at lunch our party of six had no problems.
According to P&O, The Pantry has "marginally more" seats than the former buffets of its other ships because there are new high tables running along the windows. There are other long benches along the main thoroughfare, also with stools, which may be difficult for some of the elderly or small kids to climb onto, but we liked them for a quick bite.
Families and groups can choose from a variety of regular tables with chairs or padded-back banquettes, which can accommodate one to eight people; the high/long tables have enough stools to seat 20 people.
Open from 6 am for the earlybirds, full breakfast service runs from 6.30 to 10.30 am. The Pantry reopens for lunch service from 11.30 am to 3 pm, closes in the late afternoon and serves dinner from 5.30 pm to 9 pm. Kettle & Bun is the exception, remaining open from 11 am until 9.30 pm. On sea days, the other outlets close half an hour earlier, at 2.30 pm after lunch.
Dragon Lady (Deck 8): Originally a surcharge was planned for this new-to-P&O specialty restaurant but it is free of charge (for now).
Presenting our favourite decor and cuisine on the ship, this pan-Asian dark den of delights oozes sexiness and mystery. The main room is all black leather and blue lighting, reminiscent of an uber-cool cocktail bar in Sydney or New York. There's a row of tables and a row of booths, with padded seats for two or four. Better for groups, the back section has cushions on a raised floor and sunken tables with plenty of space for your legs to fit underneath. Don't be put off at first sight: you're not sitting cross-legged on the wooden floor -- your legs are comfortably positioned, just like sitting on a chair.
The attentive Asian waitresses in Oriental costumes are an authentic touch, transporting your mind to Hong Kong or Shanghai, far removed from a cruise. Folded up like origami, the menu melds Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese, Indonesian, Indian and Singaporean specialties. Dishes are served banquet-style so the idea is to order several to share.
Diners are welcomed with pear, ginger and orange juice shooters and crispy kumara, beetroot and parsnip chips. Out next are the shareable meals such as duck samosas, butterfish curry and soft shell crab with chilli glaze. Save room for the seductive desserts: salted 70 percent dark chocolate cake with sesame seed ice cream, a whisky and wasabi souffle, and cute jars of apple caramel milkshakes with watermelon granita.
Dragon Lady is open for dinner, bookings are essential and should be made before 8 am to beat the rush.
Angelo's (Deck 8): Another new venue for P&O, this Italian restaurant is elegant and a little more formal than Dragon Lady. Cream leather chairs and white tablecloths tell you to behave yourself. The menu is divided into five traditional sections: antipasti (appetisers), primi (first course), secondi (second course), contorni (side dishes), dolci e formaggi (sweets and cheese). Crispy breadsticks, pumpkin arancini balls, soups and dips precede perfectly cooked pastas, then melt-in-the-mouth meats such as eight-hour braised veal osso bucco and slow-cooked pork neck. Fish dishes include roasted sardines from Fremantle, finished with desserts such as tiramisu or cannoli cones. Angelo's is open for dinner and you can only book on the day, so it is highly recommended to make a reservation by 8 am.
With the surcharges dropped for two of the specialty restaurants (Angelo's and Dragon Lady), this leaves the unusual situation where you only have to pay for the most decadent and most basic venues. At one extreme are a celebrity chef restaurant and a 14-seat extravaganza, and at the other end are tea, coffee, ice cream, hot dogs and burgers.
Reservations for Salt Grill and the Chef's Table can be booked on embarkation day.
Blue Room (Deck 8); a la carte: From early morning, this lounge is used as a place to catch up for coffee, tea, giant cookies and biscotti -- all for an extra fee. As the name Blue Room suggests, royal blue couches with cushions dominate the space with bursts of gold in the carpet, and mirrors and brass instruments on display. By night, the Blue Room turns into a live music venue.
Salt Grill by Luke Mangan (Deck 8); $20 to $49: Salt Grill has a glowing reputation from its success on other P&O ships, so the surcharges are justified; the equivalent feast on land would probably cost triple. The top two favourites -- crab omelette and licorice parfait with lime syrup -- are still there. You'll also find top-quality steaks, lamb chops, fish, and other seafood such as lobster tail and scallops, with lighter salads, soups and tapas.
Created by celebrity chef Luke Mangan, this signature restaurant is open for dinner daily ($49) and on select sea days for lunch ($39 per person) and high tea ($20). Fresh oysters and sashimi cost an additional $2 each. Reservations are essential, preferably as soon as you board to avoid missing out.
Chef's Table (Deck 8); $95: This exclusive experience is held in a small, gorgeous dining room for a maximum 14 people. Hosted by Aria's executive chef, the evening begins with cocktails and canapes, followed by a behind-the-scenes tour of the galley (kitchen). Once seated, diners are guided through each course of the set menu and its matching wines. Chef's Table is offered every evening and takes three to four hours. On the first day, head straight to the Monkey Bar to book your special occasion.
The Grill (Deck 11); prices from $3: Located near the pool is a kiosk catering for post-swim hunger-busting when you don't want to change out of your swimmers and line up at The Pantry, or during the times when other dining venues are closed. Burgers (pulled pork or beef), wraps, pies, nachos, chips and gourmet hot dogs cost $3 each; pizza costs $9. Prawns in a bucket cost $15. An all-day brekkie (bacon and egg roll or chorizo and egg wrap) is also available for $3. This hole-in-the-wall is perfect for an easy snack on lazy days by the pool.
New Zealand Natural Ice Cream (Deck 11); prices from $3: One black mark for this family-friendly ship is the lack of free ice cream, which you won't find at The Pantry or via a poolside self-serve machine. Instead you have to pay $5 for a scoop of New Zealand Natural Ice Cream (plus a few more dollars for two or three scoops). Tucked in the back corner of the pool deck, the cute parlour also sells thickshakes, iced coffee, specialty coffees and teas, and even a few liqueur coffees with cream.
Room Service: Food, soft drinks and bottled water are available 24 hours, while beer, wine and Champagne can be delivered to your cabin from 10 am to 11 pm. Each item is priced individually.
Breakfast must be ordered the night before, with a specified time for delivery. While breakfast is free everywhere else on the ship, you have to pay for it if you use room service. Prices range from $3 each for toast, croissants, pastries, tea, coffee, hot chocolate and juice, $5 each for cereal, yoghurt and platters of cheese, fruit or meat, and $10 for a hot cooked breakfast. A $10 breakfast set includes one drink, bakery item, cereal, yoghurt and platter; a $15 set includes a drink, bakery item and hot breakfast item.
Light meals, priced at less than $10 per plate, can also be delivered to your cabin. The menu includes sandwiches (roast beef, tuna or chicken), toasted three-cheese panini, an Aussie outback burger, pasta, pizza, lasagna, steak and mushroom pie, wedges, nachos, soups and salads. Desserts include citrus cheesecake, chocolate fudge slice, cheese plate, and sliced seasonal fruit. Cheaper snacks include packets of potato chips, peanuts and cashews for $3 to $5.