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Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Meal Deal—is the Same Time, Same Place Right for You?

First, I must come clean: I’m a “my time” convert.

Mind you, this didn’t happen overnight. When we first cruised years ago, it was on Celebrity’s Constellation, then under the expert oversight of Michelin-starred Michel Roux. The main dining room food was a true treat and the waiters had time to chat. Every fourth man or so on formal night wore a tux, and the women enjoyed a rare chance to show off their sequins and spikes.

Well, Roux left in ‘07 and Celebrity’s food immediately became indistinguishable from the other mass market cruise lines—merely edible.

Today, on all ships we’ve been on—from Celebrity to Royal Caribbean to Princess to Holland America—we’ve found hardly a tux in sight and the gowns are going too. Waiters are more harried. Few seem to take the trouble any more to get to know their guests, or their preferences.

In short, the MDR experience feels less like Saturday night fine dining, and more like Applebees by the Sea. Given these changes, it does make one wonder, does the same time/same place traditional set seating still make sense? Royal Caribbean certainly has its doubts, evidenced by the debut of “dynamic dining” on its Anthem of the Seas.

However, like most things in life, the set time vs. my time comes down to personal choice. Consider:

The Case for Set Seating

You’re in love with your waiter. There are still a few waiters who manage to squeeze in a bit of chitchat between food order and delivery. And if you’re lucky enough to find one, you may just get rewarded with a glimpse into his home, culture and ship life.

You snagged a great table. Tables for two are, on some ships, treated as an afterthought and can be
shoved in the most unlikely and uncomfortable places. Whether you’re dining just with your
companion or a larger group, if you get a great location, it can make a big difference in how much you feel like coming back.
Getting a great table in a dining room like this one on Navigator of the Seas is worth coming back for.  
The pace is not too fast, not too slow. We’ve had the best and we’ve had the worst; the worst topped two hours for three courses. If you’re with a group, you might not mind a long wait between courses. But if there’s just two of you, the long wait can be painful.

There’s a lot of you. If you’re with a large group and you want to eat together every night, your best bet is probably with set seating. That way, you’ll always know you have a table ready for you.

The Case for My Time

You’re on vacation. Unless you’re retired, your life is essentially dictated by the big hand and the little hand. The flexibility of my time can’t be beat—you show up when you’re ready to eat.

You can avoid the rush. It can be a real challenge sometimes to work set seating around entertainment—particularly on Oasis class ships, where you need to book the shows before you leave home. And you may think you’ve left enough time to chow before the show, only to find that you didn’t.

Have your meal and port stay too. If your seating’s at 6 and you’re still nursing your drink at 8 in
an Old San Juan café, you can forget your MDR dinner. Do my time and show up any time.
Linger too long in Old San Juan and you can forget your set seating.

My Time Misconceptions

Misconception #1: If you show up when you feel like it, you’ll be waiting a long time. Since I’m a recent convert, I can’t speak for the other lines, but on two different Royal Caribbean ships, we waited not more than about 10 minutes for a table.

Misconception #2: You won’t get the table you want. Every time we’ve asked for a table for two, we’ve gotten it.

Misconception #3: If we find a waiter we love, we’ll never have him again. If you find a waiter you want again, simply ask. You may wait longer, but the ships will generally accommodate you.

The Final Word

Whether you opt for my time or set time, it’s always best to do it at booking because if you wait, you may not have a choice.