Food at the main dining room on Carnival Spirit was generally fair to good.
Taking its design cues from Napoleon’s France, the Empire Restaurant is set on decks 2 and 3 aft and serves as Carnival Spirit’s main dining room. A sculpture of the emperor on his throne welcomed us to the gilded room, replete with murals on the ceiling, ornate lamps and chandeliers. It’s ostentatious, but amusing.
Though quite large, the room is a bit tight for the number of guests, servers and fixed tables; on the plus side, there is a good quantity of two-top tables, meaning couples can have private dinners during their cruise (a few tables hug oversized porthole windows—nice seats from which to watch to world go by). Although most courses emerged slowly at dinner, service was unfailingly upbeat, and each evening one of the waiters would perform a recent pop hit to enthusiastic cheers from the room. Breakfasts and lunches were much less busy.
We weren’t expecting our meals at the main dining room to stand out in any memorable way. But considering the Empire Restaurant churns out upwards of 1,000 dinners at a sitting, we found reasonable consistency and several tasty options—plus one good surprise.
The dinner menu is divided in two sections—one side available every night and a page of specials for that evening only. Among the starters we found the salads to be crispy and fresh tasting, the soups reasonably satisfying (French onion one night, pumpkin another). For main courses, the broiled Maine lobster tail and jumbo black tiger shrimp was okay, if decidedly modest in portion. The jerked pork loin was slathered in a sweet and salty sauce and lacked any semblance of Jamaican heat (we scooped off the sauce and ate the meat on its own, which was fine). Of the desserts we tried, the simple cheese plate—wedges of five varieties from cheddar to blue, accompanied by grapes, slivers of strawberry and poached apple slices—was a happy find, while the molten chocolate cake was an exercise in sweetness and richness without finesse or substance.
We hadn’t order anything from the “every day” menu, and on our last evening one dish from this page caught our eye: Indian vegetarian. Knowing that much of Carnival’s kitchen crew is Indian we gave it a whirl, much to the consternation of our waitress, who wouldn’t vouch for what would be delivered (she also identified herself as a real meat-and-potatoes girl). The meal we received was four small ceramic dishes of authentic Indian vegetarian food, all spicy, all scrumptious. In particular, the bhaji—a diced green bean dish—was memorable, and seemed cooked to order. Coupled with salad and dessert it was a satisfying meal, one we would have happily ordered another night if we’d had the chance (the offering changes daily, though the menu doesn’t spell this out).
The breakfast menu was reasonably extensive and the food was better than at the buffet. Various egg dishes, fruits, pancakes, pastries and meats were available. Lunch was also a good experience here. We enjoyed the fish and chips—the batter not too heavy—and the “create your own” burger, which came with garnishings as varied as chili con carne, bacon and guacamole.
Empire has a full dedicated bar, and a wine-list of more than 85 bottles. A majority of the options were priced under $40 a bottle, with a focus on California wineries (vintages unidentified), with a smattering of French and Italian choices.
At breakfast, a waiter canvassed the dining room with a cart offering eye-openers: mimosas and bellinis ($4.25) and a bloody Mary in 8- or 16-ounce sizes ($4.75-$8.50).
One annoyance dining at Empire was that drink orders were not handled by our waiter, but by separate servers who roamed the room. Each order brought another request for our room key, and a new bill to sign. We’re sure there’s an accountant somewhere who thinks this is a good way to tabulate bar charges, but this system feels tacky to us. (Upside: the system helped us keep on top of how much we were billing to our room!)
On sea days, afternoon tea with scones, pastries and strawberries was served at 3:30 p.m., at no additional charge.
Main dinner seatings were 6 and 8:15 p.m., with “your time dining” available from 5:45 to 9:30. For those choosing the latter option, at prime time there was a 20- to 25-minute wait (with pagers) for couples who requested private tables.
Breakfast was served here daily during a two-hour block that varied slightly each morning, but between 7 and 10 a.m. Lunch was served on sea days only, from 12 noon to 1:30 p.m.