Michelle Baran
Michelle Baran

Viking River Cruises has become the latest river cruise line to experiment with doing something a little different with its alternative dining venue. The company confirmed that for 2018, it is testing the idea of bringing the Italian restaurant concept, Manfredi's, from its ocean cruise ships to its river vessels.

Currently, Viking's Longships feature an alternative dining option called the Aquavit Terrace, an indoor/outdoor venue that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. The Manfredi's concept would replace the Aquavit Terrace but Viking did not say on which or on how many vessels it would be testing the Italian-themed dining experience.

Putting more focus on alternative dining venues is a growing trend among the river cruise lines, despite the fact that the ships often don't have much room to accommodate additional restaurants. The results are impressively creative options that on some vessels have become a highlight of the overall dining experience.

A great example of an alluring alternative dining option is the Bistro, a casual venue on the third deck of Crystal River Cruises four new ships. The Bistro serves a selection of breakfast dishes, lunch items and a tapas-style evening spread, and with a combination of bar seating and banquette tables, this charming caf-style eatery really evokes a casual and welcoming vibe, especially for those who just want a quick bite or some quiet time to read or check email.

Uniworld, too, has been having more fun with its alternative dining. On the company's newest vessel, the S.S. Joie de Vivre, which launched last year in Paris, the French theme really guided the look and feel of some of the more intimate eateries onboard. Le Bistrot, a venue adjacent to the lounge featuring long red banquettes, has a mosaic-tiled floor and artwork evoking the Moulin Rouge, where patrons can grab breakfast, lunch and dinner in true Parisian bistro style, with standards including croissants, tartines, pate and cassoulet.

The vessel's Club L'Esprit, a pool and juice bar by day, transforms into Claude's, a spirited supper club and live music venue, for a few nights on any given one-week sailing, serving shared small plates such as baked camembert, nicoise salad and steak au poivre. On two other nights Claude's is converted into a small cinema showing French movies.

And Scenic was arguably one of the first river cruise lines to really embrace the idea of multiple dining venues onboard, squeezing in an Italian-themed Portobellos restaurant, a more casual River Cafe and the upscale dining experience Table La Rive in addition to its main restaurant on its river cruise ships.

Two years ago, AmaWaterways, completely revamped the menu in its Chef's Table restaurant, an intimate, 28-guest venue at the aft of its vessels, into an extensive tasting menu consisting of appetizers, palate cleansers, entrees and desserts. Each course is paired with a sommelier-selected regional wine. And while it only seats 28, part of the allure is the exclusivity of the experience and that it needs to be booked (whereas the main dining room is open to all guests on board and does not require a reservation).

Avalon Waterways also overhauled its dining options with the recent addition of Avalon Fresh, a program that puts an emphasis on healthy and vegetarian choices. Like some of its competitors, Avalon also offers in-room dining, something that was not common on the rivers just a few years ago.

Across the board, alternative dining options, which previously felt like a bit of an afterthought, are evolving into, in some cases, venues that passengers like even more than the main dining room  something that would have been unheard of several years back. While some still feature the simple and light buffet spreads of yore, themed dining, dedicated chefs, improved decor, and exclusive small-group seatings are all putting a spotlight on this growing crop of impressive food options on river cruise ships.


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