By Hank Schrader, USMA ’71. Europe Destination Specialist and Europe River Cruise Expert
There are several innovative changes to rivership cuisine, so here is a good update of the recent changes.
Before we start, here is a general overview. Riverboats have small galleys and little storage space. Each of the 8 lines described here uses a buffet for breakfast and lunch and a sit down meal for dinner—usually 3, 4 or more courses. Most have at least one or two special meals per cruise, with enhanced food offerings. Despite the claims of 5 or more dining spaces on some lines, some of these are just small buffet style venues, usually added to the main lounge area. There is just not space for large alternative dining spaces—two distinct dining spaces is about all the size limitations on riverships can accommodate.
Now, let’s examine food and beverage offerings of each of the 8 major river cruise lines that market to US customers and highlight the recent changes.
Cuisine has always been very important to AmaWaterways. There are 2 distinct restaurants on board each rivership. On their new longships, the main restaurant has been redesigned and they have two separated larger tables that can seat 8 in the front of the main dining room. These also serve as a wine storage area, so it’s like dining in a wine cellar. There is plenty of seating for all guests with varying sized tables. The main restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Breakfast and lunch are usually buffet style meals with an order off the menu option. For instance, the breakfast menu offers Eggs Benedict, an A+ steak & eggs option and pancakes or waffles. The food is exceptional—they make everything fresh and even bake all their breads and pastries on board. There is even complementary sparkling wine at breakfast along with fresh juices, as well as complimentary, unlimited wine and beer served at lunch and dinner. At lunch, they even serve 3 flavors of homemade ice cream. Dinner is a multi-course meal, served at your table and is locally inspired fare of the region you are sailing past. It is always paired with 2 great wines, usually from the region. I just can’t say enough about how good the food is, how visually stunning the food is plated, and how much I enjoy the evening meal.
The second restaurant is a specialty restaurant. It is called the Chef’s Table. This area has seating for 28 guests, is an included feature of the cruise fare. The special menu is prepared right in front of you. This unique menu is paired with carefully selected, fine wines. It is truly a great experience. AMA spends more than most other river cruise lines on the food and wines and it shows, especially in this unique dining venue. We always go during our cruises and always arrange for the groups we lead to dine together—it’s always a superb experience!
AmaWaterways is the only river cruise line inducted into the prestigious Chaine de Rotisseurs Culinary society—it is invitation only and extended to those with world-class culinary acumen. According to Douglas Ward, AmaWaterways is the only river cruise line to bake bread on board and offer fresh fish for meals.
Their 28 person Chef’s table has been a huge hit since its inception several years ago. The newest menu feature a taster’s menu concept. Each course three courses features the taste of three items. Here is what we enjoyed on our latest AmaWaterways cruise in December 2016.
Here is a brief summary of the Avalon dining options. There is full breakfast buffet with made-to-order egg station, hot and cold menu items, and complimentary sparkling wine & juices. Food selection features low-calorie, low-fat, high fiber, low cholesterol, and high energy foods, as well as the traditional full breakfast fare. There is a daily lunch buffet with pasta & carving stations and complimentary soft drinks. Wine and beer are now complimentary on 2017 cruises. The evening meal features daily four-course à la carte dinners in the main dining room with choice of appetizers, soups, salads, entrées, desserts or cheese, after-dinner coffee/tea, and complimentary wine (including from the region), beer, and soft drinks.
Some Avalon riverships have alternative dining area called the Sky Bistro. It offers a choice of grill fare on the Sky Deck (weather permitting). You can also have light lunch in the Panorama Lounge.
Avalon is adding Avalon Fresh, which is locally sourced vegetarian cuisine. The additional dishes are the creation of Austrian chefs and brothers Karl and Leo Wrenkh. These chefs are emphasizing fun and tasty food that is both fresh and healthy. These new dishes will be added to the regular entrees for the evening meal and will be featured on the menu with a special Avalon Fresh logo.
Avalon usually gets the poorest marks for cuisine by reviewers, so maybe this new approach will improve their ratings.
Crystal, the new folks on the river cruise scene, has only one ship at present, but 2 are scheduled to debut later this year. The current rivership is called the Mozart. This large ship sails only on the Danube and cannot sail into the Main-Danube Canal. The Mozart, offers good dining in the main dining room. It also has two casual options for food and has a 12 person extra-fee wine dinner room, a snack bar and room service. The line emphasizes farm-to-table cuisine and regional menu items that feature the area the vessel is sailing. Early reviewers state the food quality and service is quite high. The line is all-inclusive for most beverages, and one report stated there was a choice of 15 wines in the included price.
The main dining room serves buffet breakfasts and lunches and sit-down, open-seating dinners. There is no menu service at breakfast or lunch. Breakfast options include a cold buffet (with fruit, yogurt, cereal and muesli) and two hot stations serving omelets, oatmeal, pancakes, and breakfast meats. At lunch, there is a salad bar with some prepared salads and meats, and a carving station, fish, soup, warm vegetables and made-to-order pasta.
The dinner menu includes five starters (soup, salad and appetizers), three main selections; and two desserts, plus a cheese plate and petits fours.
The Vintage Room is the ship’s exclusive and intimate dining venue that serves special local-wine-themed dinners for a maximum of 12 people. It costs 290 euros per person or it is possible to rent out the room for 3200 euros. No early sign ups are allowed, it must be done on board.
One feature that helps differentiate Crystal is an off shore dining experience at a Michelin starred restaurant included in the price. According to the Crystal River Cruise Website “we partnered with a handful of carefully selected Michelin-starred restaurants in Vienna and Budapest” to provide a unique dining experience. My research shows there are 7 restaurants in this program and only 16 guests will be allowed in each venue to keep the experience more intimate. One note, however, at some of these venues, it will be a fixed menu, so if you do not like the meal being offered, it may not be the experience you are looking for.
Like most river cruise lines, breakfast and lunch meals are served buffet style and the dinner meal is seat down style. The breakfast meal features an extensive selection of hot dishes, cold meats, cheeses, cereals and pastries. There is a station that serves freshly cooked omelets and fried eggs. They have a healthy choice section of fresh fruit, yogurts and smoothies. The buffet lunch menu includes a soup of the day and a wide choice of salads, hot dishes and a daily freshly cooked option, such as pasta. This is followed with desserts and cheese.
We had a chance to eat a lunch meal on the Emerald Sun in 2015. The food was very good.
The dinner meal offers choice of two appetizers and two soups, three main courses (one vegetarian), two desserts and a cheese plate. On a gala night, the menu expands with two additional courses. Similar to other river cruise lines, each night for the dinner meal, the main courses of steak, chicken or salmon can always be ordered.
New in the cuisine offerings for Emerald, is that they are adding an onboard meal prepared by Chef Fabien Morreale when its’ rivership ports in Avignon on its Sensations of Southern France sailings. Chef Morreale owns two restaurants in the town of Martigues and is renowned for his Provencal style cooking. This is a really good upgrade, in our opinion.
Again the first two meals of the day are buffet style. Breakfast selections consist of meats, cheeses, juices, breads and pastries and hot and cold cereals. There is an option to order eggs, omelets, pancakes from the Chef’s station.
The lunch buffet consisting of salads, hot and cold dishes, a menu is also provided with various selections. Wine, beer, soft drinks and juices are served and all are included in the cruise fare.
Dinner is a set menu with appetizers, soup and salad as well as four or five good entrée selections including a vegetarian option and many tempting dessert choices. Regional wines are served, as are soft drink, beer and juices.
Tauck is changing its onboard menu to add healthier choices to all meals and upgrading the wine selections. They have a shore dining option offering guests the chance to enjoy regional cuisine at local restaurants and this has become a very popular feature on Tauck cruises. Some are at spectacular venues like castles and palaces. For example, on the “A Taste of France” itinerary on the Rhone, Tauck takes guests to Abbaye de Collonges, the restaurant of Michelin-starred chef Paul Bocuse.
Tauck also has its Arthur’s dining venue, a more causal alternative to the more formal cuisine in the main restaurant. In conversations with another river cruise industry expert, he told me that Arthur’s had an excellent steak dinner. This restaurant features more American fare than European style cuisine, so those looking for a more European experience may be a little disappointed in this approach.
The main dining room (named the Crystal Dining room on our 2015 Scenic Opal cruise) serves most of the meals you will eat on board this river ship. Meals were generally very good. Breakfast and lunch are buffet style (although there are some items you can order off the menu) and most dinners are served at your table at night.
The best dining experience in the Crystal Dining room was the seafood buffet—it is the best seafood buffet we have tasted on any cruise ship period!
Other dining venues include the River Café (a casual all-day dining place), Portobellos and the Table La Rive. Portobellos Restaurant is for 32 guests at one nightly seating, and reservations are necessary, but each guest is given at least one chance to dine there during a 7 day cruise. We thought the five course Italian meal that was paired with Tuscan wines was excellent and a special feature of the cruise.
Desert at Portobellos
You can also get room service from your butler, certainly not a standard feature on most river cruise lines. During good weather there sometimes are special meals served on the Sun Deck area. Some guests, on the upper diamond deck, can have a special dining experience at the Table La Rive. My problem with this, is the dinner occurs in the same dining room as the other guests.
With superb dining (based on our 2015 cruise) and fine wines, Scenic has gone a step further and is introducing an on board cooking school on their French sailing ships, the Scenic Sapphire and the Scenic Diamond. This new space will be called “Scenic Culinaire”. The school will feature cooking stations and the lessons will center on the regional cuisine of the areas of France the rivership is sailing. This is an excellent addition!
Uniworld emphasizes high quality gourmet cuisine. Uniworld uses a farm-to-table approach, emphasizing fresh ingredients that are locally grown. It is an all-inclusive line, so all beverages and foods are already included in the price of the cruise.
Breakfast is buffet style. Selections include cereal, breads, cheese, meat, fruit, yogurt, smoothies and fried foods such as sausages and hash browns. There is a chef designated to cook omelets, fried eggs; and poached eggs. Other dishes can be ordered separately from the kitchen.
Lunch includes a soup station, salad bar, carvery, hot entrees, pasta, sandwiches and desserts. Often, local delicacies are often provided as an optional treat.
Dinner features a full menu with several hot or cold starters like an antipasti plate, two soups (usually one consommé and one creamy option), three entrees (fish, meat and vegetarian), rich desserts and cheese plates. Guests can also request more standard options like steak.
Along with the main dining room, some ships have a Sky Lounge, glass-enclosed Lounge or have dinner on deck under the stars. There are special dinners on select riverships such as on the S.S. Maria Theresa, in the Leopard Bar. The bar converts to a special dining room that holds up to 20 guests on select nights during the cruise. I talked with a highly respected river cruise advisor, who told me the 5-course meal was excellent and one of his favorite among river cruise lines.
Uniworld’s has an “Epicurean Adventure” program on select European itineraries, that includes wine tastings, culinary demonstrations, and special dinners.
Uniworld continues to upgrade its cuisine. This will be especially true on its newest ship, the S. S. Joie de Vivre (joy of life), that will cruise on the Seine starting next month. This new rivership will have 2 dining rooms, and both will emphasize French Cuisine. Along with the main restaurant, called Le Restaurant Pigalle, there will be a private dining area featuring wines.
In a just publish report from Travel Pulse Online (3-21-2017), the CEO of Viking provided a new possibility for Viking cuisine. “When asked about lessons learned from the new ocean ships (for features or programming) to roll back to the riverboats, Torstein Hagen remarked that its expanded dining choice among alternative restaurants at sea provides a good model for how cuisine might be broadened along the river as well”. One distinct feature of Viking cuisine is that the chefs on Viking Longships grow herbs on the sun decks and invite passengers to help harvest them for dinner. Viking has a “Taste of …” dining events that emphasize the food and drinks of the region of the cruise. One event, “Taste of Germany” features pretzels, bratwurst and Kölsch beer.
Along with main dining room, guests can dine al fresco on the Aquavit Terrace or at the Aquavit Lounge, a casual setting with a pub-style menu.
Breakfast and lunch buffets are standard here and are described as good but not exceptional by other writers. Several reviewers note the breakfast meal never varies during a cruise. Hot breakfast selections are scrambled eggs, pancakes and French toast, American bacon, sausage, and hash brown patties. Cold selections are often oatmeal with fixings like fresh and dried fruits, a small platter of cold meats, fish and cheese, and a variety of cereal options, including Muesli. The lunch buffet usually has sandwiches, soups, salads and desserts. There is a limited menu that guests can order from which includes hot entrees and a “slider of the day.”
The dinner meals generally receive a good rating, but again seldom rated as exceptional. It is a sit down affair and guests order off the menu. There are two or three changing items on the menu and 3 standard items available every day. Meals start with an amuse bouche, hors d’ouevres, such as marinated artichoke with cream cheese salad or mushroom risotto. There is always a soup course, followed by a choice of main courses such as fish and meat options. Dessert also offers a choice; there’s always a fruit offering and a sparse cheese plate in addition to the sweets choices. There was also an “always available” menu that offered grilled chicken, salmon and sirloin, and a good Caesar salad, complete with anchovies.
Some writers say portions are small; other claim the portions are good. Others have noted the dining room seems cramped (with 190 passengers compared to 130 to 160 on other lines, I can see why some would feel this way). Probably the biggest complaint by many is the same 2 wines used throughout the whole cruise. They are quite willing to provide different wines at a fee.
There is no real way to compare which river cruise company has the best cuisine objectively. We all have our own tastes. The food on all is good and some is exceptional. I am not a fan of extra charges for food that Crystal and Scenic seem to champion. While 3 tout their Butler service, it is not an extensive as luxury hotels. I am also not a fan of awards voted on by past guests for food on river cruise lines—voters usually have only experienced one line and if they had a good cruise, it gets their vote. About the best way I have found to make a somewhat objective comparison of food and beverages, is to use Douglas Ward’s ratings. Here it is:
We hope this update helps you understand more about cuisine on Europe river cruises. If you have further questions or need advice on river cruise trips please call Hank (713-397-0188) or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org so we can help you get a great trip! As always, we are eager to help you travel, especially on Europe river cruises and help you: Savor Life . . . make memories . . . Visit Dream Destinations! Your journey begins here!