I never thought I’d miss a cruise ship buffet – until now

26 April 2023

This is an homage to the cruise ship buffet — a venue I generally despise.

Nothing good ever happens in the Lido deck buffet. Have you ever experienced the meal of your life or met the man of your dreams over steam-tray-served entrees? Me neither.

Buffet food is typically mediocre. When it’s not, you get so excited about Indian chickpeas, California rolls and freshly sliced brisket that you put together a plate that looks like the United Nations, gets along just as well and leaves out all healthy vegetables. The after-effects can be unpleasant.

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Then there are the people. They touch their face, they touch the tongs, they haphazardly abandon the tongs and cross-contaminate the dishes. They crowd the stations and cause backups, cut in line, take the last chocolate chip cookies, dammit, that you’ve been trying for the past 10 minutes to snag. Their coughs and sneezes are magnetically attracted toward anything edible, and they save seats for people who never show up or might possibly not exist.

We all know people who love buffets, and you’re lying if you say you don’t judge them for that. The folks who happily pile a plate high with bacon then go back for seconds. My kids (and likely yours), who think a balanced meal consists of cereal that spans the entire color spectrum, pizza and dessert (that’s four food groups if pepperoni is involved, right?). In our deepest hearts, we don’t think they’re OK.

Related: Cruise ship buffet taboos: 10 things you should never do at mealtime

And then … I went on a cruise without a buffet.

At first, I was stoked. I was thrilled to have dining choices — Korean barbecue, fancy Mexican and weird experimental tasting menus — that were diverse and included in the fare. I would not need to make weird plates of pad thai, quesadillas and Brussels sprouts to feel nourished on evenings when I didn’t want to dress up or pay extra for dinner.

However, on the second morning of the cruise, I was scheduled on one of those badly timed tours that run exclusively during lunch hours but do not include food. (Aside: Why are there so many of those?) I, therefore, needed to eat a late breakfast and, due to other commitments, had a half hour in which to do it.

I didn’t have time for a sit-down meal, so I headed to the ship’s food hall, which I’d dubbed the faux buffet because it was in the typical pool deck buffet location and offered multiple stations of themed entrée choices. But it wasn’t a buffet, let’s be clear, because waiters took orders and served dishes, some food (at least) was cooked to order and only professionals handled the tongs.

Burger Bar in Scarlet Lady’s Galley food hall. ERICA SILVERSTEIN/THE POINTS GUY

I grabbed a table, flipped up the “service, please” flag and waited. And waited. And waited some more.

All cruisers know that the buffet gets packed the morning before a tour. Apparently, food halls and other buffet alternatives also get packed the morning before a tour. However, unlike at a buffet, you can’t get food without a waiter.

I did what every Dunkin-wielding, aggressive-driving Bostonian does in these situations. I made unapologetic eye contact with every crew member who walked by until one finally came to take my order.

In my euphoria at being able to order food, I forgot to ask how long it would take to bring me Nutella and banana toast and some yogurt with granola. Five minutes passed. Then 10. Then 15. I started to sweat. My stomach started to grumble. Should I leave? Would the Target-brand fake Luna bar I brought from home hold me throughout the tour? Was there something in a grab-and-go box worth eating? Should I run down to the coffee shop and croissant my lunch?

Gentle readers, my story has a happy ending. The server brought my food with minutes to spare and I scarfed down the meal before dashing back to my cabin for my day pack and heading to the gangway.

This experience led to an epiphany of sorts. As much as we all love to hate buffets, they serve an important function on a cruise ship. They provide a quick-service, grab-and-go meal option when you just want to feed yourself and get on with the day rather than having a dining experience.

Related: Virgin Voyages says it’s too cool for buffets. But guess what I just found on its first ship

Cruise lines can try to fill that need with pre-packaged foods, Bento boxes or calorific muffins at the coffee shop, but the food options are typically limited and cold. No one is writing poetry about steam-table scrambled eggs and hash browns, but on busy mornings, they fill a need.

Salad bar on Scarlet Lady. ERICA SILVERSTEIN/THE POINTS GUY

And so, after sailing on a cruise ship with no buffet, I will now proudly admit I’m switching teams and hopping on the buffet bandwagon. As a card-carrying fan, I still claim the right to get impatient with the idiots who cut in line, to get grossed out by the drippy salad dressing dispensers touched by everyone, to question all fish dishes left to sit in the sun and to regret every badly put together multiethnic meal I concoct from multiple stations.

I’m not saying buffet dining is great — but I firmly believe it’s a necessary service. So pass me the tongs because I’ve got 15 minutes to eat, and I’m going to make the most of it. Mock me, if you will.

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