Updated August 21, 2018
What is a main dining room?
Most cruise ships have one or more main dining rooms. These are typically large, sit-down restaurants with waiter service, where multicourse meals are included in your cruise fare. (You will see them referred to as MDRs by past cruisers on Cruise Critic's message boards.) Some ships -- including all ships in the Norwegian Cruise Line fleet and Royal Caribbean's Quantum of the Seas -- do not have traditional main dining rooms, opting instead for multiple, smaller onboard eateries. However, even these ships have included restaurants that are a bit larger than the for-fee options and are somewhat akin to the main dining venues on other ships.
What is on a cruise ship main dining room menu?
Main dining rooms will serve breakfast, lunch (generally only on sea days) and dinner. When eating in the main dining room, you will receive a menu and order dishes from a waiter. Occasionally, a buffet might be set up in the restaurant to complement the menu choices. Unless specified, you can order as many dishes as you want (two entrees, a dessert plus ice cream, etc.) in any menu category. You can also request a large portion of an appetizer as your main dish or an appetizer portion of an entree as a starter. Dinners are often leisurely affairs, lasting a couple of hours.
Main dining room cuisine tends to be international with a focus on American and Continental fare. A typical dinner menu might feature appetizers/salads/soup, entrees and dessert. Most menus will change daily, but certain basic items -- grilled chicken or salmon, Caesar salad -- will be available every night. Many lines now mark vegetarian, healthy and chef's special dishes on the menu. If you have food allergies or difficult dietary restrictions, it's best to alert your cruise line's Special Needs department in advance of your sailing and meet with the maitre d' onboard to discuss your needs. Most cruise lines can accommodate any special diet, even if it means pre-ordering certain foods or having you make your menu selections in advance.
Are drinks served in the main dining room?
Certain basic drinks -- such as water, iced tea, regular coffee, certain juices at breakfast -- are complimentary in the main dining room, but most drinks, including soda, alcohol and specialty coffee, cost extra. You can order drinks at your table, and a sommelier is available to assist you in ordering wine by the glass or bottle.
Where do I sit?
Breakfast and lunch are usually open seating; a waiter will show you to a table, but you can make requests. For dinner, many regular cruise lines require passengers to choose in advance if they'd like Traditional Dining -- meaning you are given an assigned dining time and table, and you eat with the same people for every dinner -- or Flexible Dining, the arrive-when-you-want, sit-at-different-tables plan. If you choose a flexible plan, know that if you show up at peak dining times, you might have to wait, as you would in a land-based restaurant. Many ships let you make reservations at the main dining room to avoid the wait. If you've chosen Traditional Dining, you can put in a request at the time of booking for a small or large table or a seat near the window, but there's no guarantee it will be honored. On select cruise lines, often luxury lines, the main dining room will be open at specified hours for dinner, and you can arrive at any time. You can request to be seated with just your party, or you will be seated at a large table with other cruisers.
When can I eat in the main dining room?
The main dining room will have set hours that can change daily based on arrival into port and the ship's departure time. Breakfast is served roughly between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m., and lunch between noon and 2 p.m.; you can arrive anytime within that window. Passengers who choose a Traditional Dining plan will be assigned a dinner time, either Early (sometime between 5:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.) or Late (an 8 p.m. or 8:30 p.m. start time). You will be expected to arrive promptly at this time and not wander in 45 minutes into the dinner service. Passengers who choose Flexible Dining plans can arrive when they wish during the dining room's open hours, typically 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.
How do I have to dress for dinner?
If your cruise line has a dinner dress code, it will be enforced in the MDR. Typically, swimwear, flip-flops, casual shorts, sleeveless tops for men and bare feet are banned at all times. On most nights, "dressy casual" is the norm (also called "resort casual" or "country club casual" -- think date night or nice restaurant attire); women wear skirts, sundresses or nice slacks, while men wear slacks and collared shirts. Many lines now allow jeans. Often, there's a formal night or two when cocktail dresses or ball gowns, suits and tuxedoes are encouraged. The more upscale lines will turn you away from dinner for not wearing the correct attire. Regular lines might request a change or simply turn a blind eye to dress code infractions.
What is the atmosphere like in a cruise ship dining room?
Eating in the main dining room is a cross between dining at a nice restaurant and eating in a banquet hall at a wedding or conference. Depending on the room and where you're sitting, it can be quite loud at dinner. Some cruise lines -- Carnival, for one -- like to up the entertainment factor at main dining room meals with restaurant staff parades and song-and-dance numbers. Don't be surprised if your waiter jumps on a counter and starts gyrating or if passengers start waving their napkins as Baked Alaskas get carried through the room.
How can I learn more about the main dining room?
You might like the following articles:
- 8 Tips for the Best Main Dining Room Experience
- 10 Tips for Cruising with a Dietary Restriction -- and Eating Well
- Eat This, Not That: Tips for Eating Healthy on a Cruise
- What's Cooking in Onboard Cuisine
The What to Expect on a Cruise series, written by Cruise Critic's editorial staff, is a resource guide, where we answer the most common questions about cruise ship life -- including cruise food, cabins, drinks and onboard fun -- as well as money matters before and during your cruise and visiting ports of call on your cruise.