Food, glorious food — it’s one of the top reasons people go on cruises. In one week, the cruise ship the Queen Mary 2 serves 16,000 meals a day, including 50 tons of fruit and vegetables, eight tons of poultry, 13 tons of fish and seafood, two tons of cheese and dairy, two tons of sugar, 5,000 gallons of milk, 32,400 eggs, and more, using 610 miles of plastic wrap and 87,000 pieces of glassware and china.
Though many people love the experience of fine dining in the so-called dress-up dining room, the 24-hour buffet is a great quick, casual option — if you know how to navigate it. When it comes to cruise buffets, there’s a right way and a wrong way to do them. Here are some of my best buffet tips, culled from decades of cruising.
Get your scrambled eggs from the omelet station.
One of the most important things to know about eating at a cruise buffet is what to stay away from. At breakfast, it’s the static, chafing-dish scrambled eggs. It may seem quick and easy to just scoop some up — after all, they’re already prepared, and really, how bad could they be on a fancy cruise, right? Wrong. They’re made hours before they are put out and are still almost raw even when they hit the buffet. The eggs are scrambled lightly and then left to cook via the heat from the hot station. On the other hand, omelets are one of the things you’ll find made to order at the buffet, so ask the omelet cook to make you a quick scramble instead — he’s already got the eggs. That way you know you’re eating fresh, fully cooked eggs. (Incidentally, eggs Benedict is always done as you order and usually excellent.)
If you’re not an egg person, you can also get fresh pancakes and waffles — again, forget those nasty ones that are somehow simultaneously crusty and soggy from sitting in the serving dish. Butter won’t even melt on them. If you walk over to the cafeteria and nicely ask the cook to give you some pancakes off the griddle, you’ll be much happier with the result.
Don’t let them overly season your stir-fry with soy sauce.
Salads and stir-fry are big at the cruise buffet lunch. Though the stir-fries are made to order, the cooks tend to overuse soy sauce, so ask them to go easy. As for the salads, watch out for the raw onions — the self-serve lettuce always seem to be overloaded with them.
Beware of onions on the salad bar.
Another lunch option to be careful of is the smoked salmon. (It’s on all salad and breakfast buffets.) If the edges are beginning to curl or are slightly brown, stay away. Believe me, I know. There was that time cruising to Turks and Caicos … ew.
Don’t be afraid to speak up at the pasta station.
Important fact: They have the same dinner entrées on the Lido-deck buffet as they do in the dress-up dining room. Same food, supereasy. If you’re not into the chafing-dish options, you can also have a steak cooked to order. But beware: The quality of the meat used at the buffet is not as good as the meat used for the main dining room.
Other important dinner tips? If you’re a fan of fish, stick to whatever fish they’re cooking to order.
And who doesn’t love an all-you-can-eat pasta dinner? You at the cruise buffet if you order correctly. Though the pasta dish is put together in front of you, the pasta itself is precooked. When you order your noodles, the cook will put them in a strainer and submerge them in hot water to warm them while finishing the sauces. The problem is the straining of the noodles: The cook will lift them out, give them a shake, and throw them in the pan with the sauce — and you will end up with a watery mess. If you’re willing to speak up and ask for a better strain or for the sauce to be thickened, then pasta is a good option. If you do choose pasta, do it the day after the sit-down dining room serves meat — they take the leftover high-quality meat and throw it into sauces. And ask the cook to add some marinated veggies from the pizza station rather than the raw ones they use, since they never seem to cook properly.
Go wild at the dessert bar. Just avoid the cake.
Sweets are one of the best parts of the buffet (just make sure the plates holding the desserts are on ice). Puff pastries, petits fours, crème brûlée, and the like all hold up better than cake, which dries out quickly. So pile on the goodies — don’t forget the whipped cream! — and you can even take your dessert to your cabin if you like.