One of the things that I’ve always found unappealing about the cruise ship experience is the formal dining room scene. I don’t like the idea of being forced to eat at a certain time or at a certain table. For a solo traveler, there’s the additional anxiety of wondering whether your tablemates will be friendly and welcoming. . . or not. (And I’ve certainly heard some horror stories on the “not” front.) So one of the things that appeals to me the most about Norwegian Cruise Lines is its Freestyle Dining concept. No more schedules, no more assigned tables, no more formality. You dine when and where you want and dress up or down as you want.
During the not-quite-48 hours that I was hosted by Norwegian Cruise Line aboard the Epic last weekend, I tried to eat at as many different restaurants as I could, but I barely scratched the surface. I was able to peek into Le Bistro, the French restaurant; it was beautiful, but I wasn’t sure I’d feel comfortable there as a solo diner. I never even got a glimpse of La Cucina (the Italian restaurant), Cagney’s Steakhouse, or Moderno Churrascaria, so I can’t report on them. I walked past Wasabi Sushi Bar and the Atrium Cafe several times (lots of counter seating at both of these places). Because my cruise was a preview trip for media and travel agents, all of the costs for the extra fee restaurants were waived for this sailing. I tried not to let that influence my choices but instead went to the restaurants I would have gone to had I been paying for it.
One of the questions I received about dining aboard Epic was: Which restaurants are included, and which have an extra fee? I’ve actually already written a blog post about that from a few months ago, which you can find here. I was also asked about the room service, and unfortunately, it wasn’t open during the preview weekend cruise, so I can’t tell you about that. So which restaurants was I able to try, and how solo-friendly were they?
Every ship has a buffet, and Epic’s is the Garden Cafe, located on Deck 15. If you’ve read any of my articles about dining solo in Las Vegas, you’ll know I’m a big fan of buffets for solo diners. There’s no awkward wait time between when you sit down and order your food, and when it arrives. The Garden Cafe is a lovely space that seats up to 728 people. There was a decent selection of food choices in the usual categories (salads, sandwich fixings, and hot dishes), at stations around the room rather than one long buffet line (meaning the flow of people through the stations was efficient). I was impressed with the creativity of some of the dishes (such as the scalloped tilapia and the broccoli mornay), and I enjoyed everything I sampled. You can get food prepared to order at the action stations, and I saw two self-serve, soft ice cream machines. The dessert selection wasn’t extensive but looked quite tempting. I’m not sure how seating works in the buffet, because it was a beautiful, sunny day, and I chose to bring my plate outside to the outdoor cafe (the Great Outdoors). While I ate, I listened to live music from the deck band and enjoyed the slight breeze blowing off the water.
Friday night dinner was Cirque Dreams and Dinner, Epic’s dinner show, which begins at 8:30 and lasts about two hours. One of the questions I received from a reader prior to my trip was about cost and seating for this show. Premium seating costs $20, and standard seating (meaning you may have an impaired sight line for the show) costs $15. Because it is a show, and they can only seat so many people, solos are seated with other guests. My table mates were friendly and interesting and we got along pretty well. This show has a pre-set menu to facilitate speedy delivery of meals to everyone in the audience. I have no problem with that, but the menu lacked a vegetarian option (we had a choice of filet mignon or chicken florentine) and the salad was served with shrimp in it, which could pose a problem for people with seafood allergies. I have since communicated with NCL’s PR department about this and was assured that they will be offering a vegetarian option at this dinner show in the future. If you have any dietary restrictions or food allergies, you should let your travel agent know and/or mention those restrictions when you’re booking reservations at the NCL website, so the chefs can accommodate your needs.
Overall, I cannot recommend this dinner show. Don’t let the big top setting fool you: This show is not like Cirque du Soleil. Some acrobatics are involved, but not nearly enough, and if you have one of the standard seats, you might not be able to see it anyway. The majority of the show consists of a sort of vaudeville schtick that was supposed to be funny, but wasn’t. Several people got up and left after the entrees had been served, but before the show was done (including everyone at my table). But in all fairness, I’ve read other reviews that raved about how great it was. So clearly, it’s a matter of personal taste. I’d be much more willing to return to this show if they got rid of the so-called humor and focused on the acrobatics, but for now, my opinion is that there are far better dining and entertainment options aboard the ship than this one.
O’Sheehans Bar and Grill is the Epic’s 24/7 restaurant aboard ship. This restaurant is a good choice for the solo diner. In addition to the actual bar, there are many bartop seats around a railing overlooking the two-story LCD screen in the Atrium (down on Deck 5). From here, you can watch concerts (we saw Beyonce and Janet Jackson) and major sporting events like the World Cup, or simply gaze upon relaxing images such as the Bellagio fountain show or a random beach view. As you might expect, O’Sheehan’s is decorated as a traditional Irish Pub, with lots of polished wood, and plenty of games including a three-lane bowling alley, darts, pool, and air hockey. The menu is extensive, with beers from around the world and lots of comfort food. I ventured into the Pub for breakfast at nine a.m. Saturday, when there were plenty of empty tables. Service was very slow (it took them 20 minutes to even take my breakfast order), but friendly.
I ordered the English breakfast. It came with bacon and (spicy) sausage links, grilled tomato and sauted button mushrooms, eggs, a small cup of baked beans, and three small hash brown patties (that tasted a lot like McDonalds). For a unique breakfast I would not have expected aboard a cruise ship, this one gets a thumbs up from me.
The two main dining rooms aboard the ship are the Manhattan Room and Taste. I ate at both and would do so again, giving a slight edge to Taste because of the large number of two-top tables and the fact that they make a great iced coffee. I asked the hostess how solo diners are normally seated, and she told me they are given the choice of sitting by themselves or with another party. I chose to dine alone at a two-top. The seats are very comfortable, with thick padding and red upholstery. The windows have colorful stained glass shutters that can be opened for a sea view or closed. The center of the restaurant is open and people up on Deck 6 can look over the railing at you while you dine. I had a caesar salad and very sushi-like, spicy spring rolls. I didn’t care for the spring rolls, but that’s the way it goes sometimes. Overall, I liked the vibe here and would make it a regular stop if I were on an Epic sailing.
I had breakfast on Sunday at the Manhattan Room which has floor-to-ceiling windows for a terrific view. I wish I had skipped Cirque Dreams and Dinner for dinner in the Manhattan Room. The performers from Legends in Concert perform here in a cabaret-style show, and I overheard some other passengers raving about how good they were. From the brief glimpse I got of them at the Christening Ceremony, I’m inclined to believe those reviews. Like Taste, the hostess here asked if I wanted to be seated alone or with others. I chose to dine alone. To show you how large this room is, the tables were numbered, and even the waiter couldn’t find the table he was supposed to seat me at, so he finally sat me at a table for six. That might have been awkward had the restaurant been busy. Breakfast was buffet style (except for hot items like eggs, if you wanted them, which I did not). There was plenty of fresh fruit, sandwich meats, a small selection of pastries, cereal, and milk. It was perfectly fine for breakfast.
The other two restaurants I experienced were Shanghai’s and Teppenyaki. Shanghais has a noodle bar where you can sit and watch the chefs cook (which I did), or, if you prefer, they also have a large number of two-tops. At the bar, the menu is a checklist at your place setting. You check off the boxes next to the items you want, and place the paper in a holder at your place setting so the waitress can see it. I had dumplings and Singapore noodles and decided not to ask for regular silverware, because I really wanted to remember how to eat with chopsticks. I’m no expert, but I did get the food in my mouth (the dumplings were much easier than the noodles). I could have tried chatting with others at the counter here, but I was feeling queasy. (I thought I was just experiencing low blood sugar; I hadn’t figured out yet that I was seasick.)
Both restaurants are slightly loud–Shanghai’s because it is open to passers-by and Teppenyaki because of the sizzling grills and clanging of knives and spatulas by four chefs in the same room. I’d recommend both restaurants, which provide very different experiences and very good food. If you’ve never been to a teppenyaki restaurant before, here’s how it works: A group of people are seated around a hibachi as the chef takes their orders and cooks the meals in front of them. I liked Teppenyaki. If you’re starting to feel a little lonely during your solo cruise, give this a try. It makes for a much more social dining experience. Best case scenario: You’ll have friendly and interesting tablemates with whom you can chat. Worst case scenario, your fellow diners aren’t friendly, but since the focus is on the “show” the chef puts on, you shouldn’t feel too awkward. It was a fun experience.
And that was it for my adventures in solo dining aboard Norwegian Epic. I have no horror stories to report, and was able to be as social or anti-social as I was inclined to be at any given time. I think there are plenty of options for solo diners aboard this ship. Probably more than I was able to experience.
Did I answer all your Epic dining questions? If not, feel free to post below, and I’ll answer if I can.