Carnival goes for classic American with new dining experience

By Tom Stieghorst
Prime ribIn retooling its main dining rooms, Carnival Cruise Lines is returning to classic American dishes instead of the more exotic and fanciful fare that once captivated cruisers.

At the same time, Carnival will tailor the dining experience to either its “casual” or “cruise elegant” dress suggestions. There are typically two cruise-elegant nights on a seven-night cruise.

The announcement of new “American Table” and “American Feast” dining programs is one of the first upgrades Carnival plans to roll out in a bid to return the conversation about Carnival to its cruise product.

Mark Tamis, senior vice president of guest operations, said the scope of the change makes it a big deal.

“It really touches all of the guests,” he said. “Every Carnival customer who sails will experience this.”

Carnival is putting the spotlight on its complimentary dining at a time when the emphasis industry-wide has been on developing specialty restaurants that boost onboard revenue.

In recent years, Carnival has introduced some free dining alternatives, such as Guy’s Burger Joint, and some extra-charge restaurants, such as Ji Ji Asian Kitchen, on some of its ships.

Other cruise lines have not focused in detail on the main dining product, and Carnival might be hoping to highlight the value of its cruise by putting the complimentary dining front and center.

“Every single person eats dinner in the dining room,” Tamis said. “Ensuring that they have fun, that it’s a great experience and a great value — it’s important to make sure we get that right.”

Tamis said Carnival has been working on the new dining program for more than a year, has undertaken multiple focus groups and surveys and has talked to hundreds of guests individually.

Carnival also consulted with New York-based Union Square Hospitality Group, operator of restaurants such as Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern and Shake Shack. Chefs and managers from Carnival traveled with and talked to Union Square chefs for inspiration, Tamis said.

The result is a menu long on familiarity and comfort, and relatively less ethnic than in the past.

“It’s kind of going away from a menu that was a little eclectic with dishes from around the world, really,” and focusing on American dishes that resonate with the majority of Carnival guests who are from North America, Tamis said.

So, for example, one sample menu includes roast striploin, salmon fish cakes and barbecue pork spare ribs as “mains.” There is also a “From the Grill” section that includes free-range chicken breast, a flat-iron steak and pork chops.

Each American Table menu will also include a “Port of Call” entree and cocktail tied to the day’s port call and a “Rare Find,” which is an exotic item like frog legs or alligator nuggets, which is currently categorized on the menu under “Didja” (as in “Did you ever try?”).

“In the focus groups, the guests told us they loved this idea,” Tamis said. “They didn’t always love eating — and the taste of — frog’s legs. They loved the idea of ordering frog’s legs.”

American Table will be more like a restaurant experience than a traditional main dining room, Tamis said. Fewer dishes will be grouped into plates with an entrée, starch and vegetable.

“It’s not just saying ‘I’ll have the chicken,’ and that comes all composed on one plate,” Tamis said. Also, there will be more appetizers sized to order for the table.

On more formal cruise-elegant nights, Carnival will roll out the American Feast, which is designed to be more celebratory, with supper club fare and dishes prepared tableside. Entrees on one sample menu include broiled lobster tail and slow-cooked prime rib.

The celebration includes a parade of chefs bearing a showstopper dessert, such as sticky toffee brioche with whipped creme fraiche. Diners will be serenaded by waiters, as they are now.

“The service is always very friendly and smiling and very engaging; none of that’s going to change,” Tamis said.

Different decor, menu design and tableware will further distinguish American Table from American Feast dinners.

Carnival Cruise Lines picked Carnival Glory to debut the new dining concepts, because it has a fairly typical seven-night Caribbean itinerary and sails from Miami. “To start with a ship in Miami closest to many of our purveyors and partners is certainly helpful,” Tamis said.

The programs are scheduled to start on the Glory Dec. 8, and will be extended to the Carnival Liberty in January and the Carnival Imagination and Inspiration in February. A fleetwide rollout is expected in the later part of 2014, extending into 2015.

Photo of prime rib courtesy of Jim Bowie/Shutterstock.com.
 
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