Cows and Culinary Geniuses: How Cruise Ship Dining Has Evolved

carnival cruise lido buffet dining food
Cruise ship dining has changed dramatically since leisure cruising first began. - Photo by Carnival Cruise Line

Food can transport you through the past, into the present and off to the future. A smell, a taste, a specific texture; our society is obsessed with food. It’s partly why the Food Network exists today. But the dining scene on cruise ships has not always been as spacious, relaxed, fresh, and delicious as it is today. Here’s a glimpse into the world of dining as it was on the ocean liners of the mid-1800s all the way to the cruise ships of the present.

Cruise Ship Dining in the Past

cunard carinthia ocean liner cruise dining

Cunard Line's RMS Carinthia - Photo by Sam Saunders/Flickr

1840: Fresh milk becomes available on board.

A cow boarded Cunard’s Britannia as a way to supply passengers on the 14-day transatlantic voyage with fresh milk.


1844: Leisure cruising begins.

Passengers boarded the first-ever leisure-purpose cruise with P&O Cruises (just a small ocean liner then) and sailed to the Mediterranean.


Late 1800s: Passengers supply their own food.

Ships began carrying passengers to the U.S. in their “steerage” class, and the passengers were responsible for supplying their own food.


Early 20th Century: Dress codes start.

Mauritania and Lusitania, both owned by the Cunard Line of England, started the tradition of dressing up for dinner and advertised the romance of the voyage.


1910s: Cruise lines start focusing on passenger comfort.

The White Star Line (which owned the Titanic) was the first line to shift from focusing on speed to focusing on the space and the comfort of passengers. The sinking of the Titanic on its maiden voyage in 1912 devastated the line.

cunard queen mary cruise dining evolution

A dining room aboard Cunard's Queen Mary  - Photo by Florian/Flickr

Early to mid 20th Century: Artwork debuts on menus.

Meals were the highlight of the day during the early years of cruising, and special attention was spent on the artwork of the menus. Ships often commissioned artists to create original menu covers for each meal served throughout the voyage. Oftentimes the covers were lithographed on shore, while the chef’s daily selections were printed on presses on the ship. It was common to have the people sitting at your table sign your menu at the farewell dinner and to then take the menu home as a souvenir.


1920 – 1940: Cruising amps up the “sexy” factor.

The years between 1920 and 1940 were considered the most glamorous years for transatlantic passenger ships. These ships catered to the rich and famous, shown on newsreels to the general public as enjoying the luxurious settings. American tourists interested in visiting Europe replaced immigrant passengers. Advertisements promoted the fashion of ocean travel, featuring the elegant food and onboard activities.


1930s: Booze cruising begins.

Prohibition, combined with the Great Depression of the 1930s, helped usher in the weekend “booze cruise.” It was basically a cruise to nowhere where the ship had to sail outside of the three-mile territorial limit where (at that time) American law no longer applied. Cunard’s Berengaria was one of the first ships to sail up and down the coast of Nova Scotia while passengers drank to their hearts’ content. At a cost of $50 (equivalent to $650 today), these “booze cruises” earned her the nickname “Bargain Area.”


Where Cruise Ship Dining is Today

Cruise ship dining has certainly evolved. Modern-day cruisers have endless options to choose from, and everything — including activities on and off the ship — revolves around food. Here are a few cruise-industry firsts and noteworthy mentions about present-day cruise ships.


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Chef Nobu Matsuhisa - Photo by Crystal Cruises

1. Celebrity Chef PartnershipCrystal Cruises started the shift from mass-produced meals to gourmet cooking with their celebrity partnership with Master Chef Nobu Matsuhisa in 2003. From there, cruise lines — both luxury and mass market — began partnering with leading chefs and restaurateurs.


2. Specialty Restaurant at Sea - Norwegian Cruise Line was the first contemporary cruise line to open a specialty restaurant. The Palm Tree restaurant opened in May or June of 1988 on Norwegian Seaward. Klaus Lugmaier, the regional vice president of fleet hotel operations for Norwegian, was the head waiter and part of the opening team at the time. He tells us that the restaurant served mostly French cuisine with some American favorites such as Caesar salad, steak, and lobster. Some of the most popular dishes were duck a l’orange, cream of morel soup, and for dessert, zabaglione, flambés, and specialty coffees.


3. Committed to Serving Sustainable Food - Un-Cruise Adventures not only purchases local food and supplies in the ports they visit when possible, but they also only serve sustainable seafood, made possible by their partnership with Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program. While they are the first cruise line to partner with the program, more than 1,000 other companies across the U.S., such as Blue Apron and Whole Foods Market, also partner with it.


4. Unique Cooking Classes at Sea - Holland America Line teamed up with the most popular how-to-cook show on TV, America’s Test Kitchen, to bring the show and cooking workshops to sea. In a space that replicates the set of the television show, HAL chefs trained by America’s Test Kitchen culinary experts give cooking demonstrations and hands-on workshops that combine foolproof, accessible recipes and cooking techniques that are rooted in the rigorous testing and science-based approach of America’s Test Kitchen. Demo courses and workshops began aboard ms Westerdam on October 18 for the ship’s Mexico season and were rolled out fleetwide by June 2017.  

P&O Cruises and MSC Cruises both offer cooking classes for kids on select ships.


5. Largest Specialty Restaurant at Sea - Regent Seven Seas Cruises announced in October 2016 that it would be transforming the signature restaurant Compass Rose into the largest specialty restaurant at sea, seating 400+ guests. The restaurant will have two menus to choose from. One will be fully customizable from the type of protein, preparation and side dishes, and the second menu will feature the nightly specials created by the executive chef.

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Compass Rose, the largest specialty restaurant at sea  - Photo by Regent Seven Seas Cruises

6. Shore Excursions Based on Local Food - There are many city food tours being offered throughout the world, but lines like Scenic River Cruises go above and beyond the food tour and offer “shopping with the chef” on most European itineraries. In this excursion, guests accompany the ship’s chef to the local farmers market to taste regional specialties and shop for ingredients for dinner or lunch on board. For example, on the Enchanting Rhone sailing, guests who sign up for this excursion will go with the chef to the farmer’s market/food hall in Avignon to shop for and taste baked goods, cheeses, olives, and other French delicacies.

On Oceania Cruises you can sign up for a full-day Culinary Discovery Tour, where you’ll join your chef at a local market to shop for products to use at an in-port cooking class.


7. Specialty Diets - Nearly all cruise lines can accommodate specialty diets, but some cruise lines really take it to the next level. Holland America Line introduced vegetarian-only menus for lunch and dinner in the main dining room in 2012. In addition to those menus, additional vegetarian options were added to the Lido buffet for lunch. These additions mean guests have 52 vegetarian options to choose from, which is the largest vegetarian selection at sea.

MSC Cruises has taken covering specialty diets to another level by not only offering gluten-free meals at dinner but also offering a full gluten-free service when dining in the main dining room. It also includes a gluten-free boxed lunch to take on excursions.


8. Buffet Turns Into a Smorgasbord - Flashback to the early 1980s on Carnival ships and the only thing you’ll see at the Lido buffet is picnic food like hot dogs, hamburgers (not Guy Fieri’s), French fries, and dessert. And it was only open for lunch. Now the buffet is never-ending as cruise lines, including Carnival, have adopted the approach that more is better. They began keeping the buffet open for longer hours and stocking it with everything from fresh fruit and yogurt to decadent desserts, pastas, protein, sandwiches, pizza, crab legs, Chinese food, and Indian food…the list goes on. Plus, most mainstream cruise lines also have a soft-serve ice cream machine that is open 24 hours a day.


Join the discussion

What do you think of the dining on present-day cruises?


Posted by randc

Love the food.

Posted by randc

Always enjoy the selection of the food.

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