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NCL’s freestyle dining explained

If you’re setting off on your first cruise, or your first cruise with a new cruise line, the dining options can be confusing. I always like to know how things work before I cruise so below I have explained the dining options onboard NCL ships. Dining on NCL is easy, it’s “freestyle” and this basically means its more like a normal land based restaurant.

NCL Norwegian spirit windows restaurant

Freestyle dining

Freestyle dining basically means that you don’t have a set time to eat dinner, you can show up the restaurants whenever you like. You’ll go to the podium at the entrance to the restaurant, there they will take your room key card and ask you how many people will be eating. At this point you’ll be seated wherever there is space.

Why I love freestyle dining:

  • You can sit in different parts of the restaurant each night, meaning that you’re not always stuck with the same view.
  • You’re not forced to make polite conversation with table mates that you didn’t chose! This honestly is my worst nightmare. You are still free to dine with whoever you want but there is no pressure to do so at all.
  • You meet different table waiters and other members of the staff.
  • You can eat when you’re hungry! Nothing worse than trying to make yourself eat when you’re not hungry. I love the freedom of being able to decide when I want to eat.

Freestyle dining free options

  • MDR. If you’re like me and researching your cruise ahead of time you may see the abbreviation ‘MDR’ used. This stands for main dining room. There will be at least one, but sometimes up to three ‘main’ dining rooms. These usually serve the same menu.NCL Norwegian getaway food fruit pancakes cruise line
  • Buffet. Each cruise ship will have a large buffet which is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. They are technically not 24 hours but I don’t think I have ever gone to the buffet and been unable to find food. The buffet usually goes around both sides of the ships and if one side is changing from breakfast to lunch then the other side will be open. The food in the buffet is usually really good, much better than anything I’ve ever had on a land based all inclusive holiday. It can get pretty busy at peak times though.
  • Pub. On most NCL ships there is some type of pub, on the newer ships it is O’Sheehans. The pub serves traditional pub grub and I cannot get enough of the buffalo wings, on my last 7 night cruise I had the wings 5 times! O’Sheehans is a great alternative to the main dining room and I sometimes find myself going there between meals…NCL Norwegian Getaway Burger Wings O'Sheehans
  • Noodle bar. There is also a noodle bar on some of the ships which is complimentary. I’ve only been in the noodle bar once, but it was really yummy.

Speciality dining

NCL have a LOT of speciality dining restaurants available at a ‘nominal’ charge. I love how they say nominal. I personally very very very rarely use the speciality restaurants. I just can’t justify to myself spending that extra cost when I have already paid for the cruise. I find the food in the main dining room/buffet/other options to be more than enough. When eating in a speciality restaurant the table MUST be booked in advance, they fill up incredibly quickly and the best slots won’t last for very long. You can book the table on the phone, on your TV in your stateroom and on the interactive boards around the ship.

Most of the restaurants, (Cagney’s Steakhouse, Moderno Churrascaria, Teppanyaki and the French, Mexican and Italian restaurants) are paid for on a charge per meal basis. There are also other restaurants which are a la carte.

Dining package

NCL’s latest free at sea promotion offers a dining package. These are also available to buy but you must purchase at least 3 meals to buy the package. Even if you have the dining package you will still be charged extra to the following places:

  • The Supper Club – $15 USD
  • Ocean Blue – $15 USD
  • Bayamo – $15 USD
  • Cirque Dreams/Illusionarium – $10 USD regular seats/$15 USD premium seats/$35 USD VIP seating on Breakaway
  • Sushi -$7 USD
  • Raw Bar – $7 USD (does not include Seafood Plateau. If ordered, the upcharge is to be waived)
  • Pincho Tapas Bar – $7 USD

Dress code

There are no formal nights on NCL! Woohoo. This is music to my ears. NCL do have ‘dress up or not nights’ where some people do dress up. You won’t look out of place if you do dress up but equally if you want to dine in jeans everyday that is completely fine. You can’t eat in the main restaurant in swimwear but that really is about it, as long as you are dressed then all is well. Technically the dress code is ‘smart casual’.

NCL Norwegian Getaway crisps sandwich eggs breakfast

My recommendationsNCL Norwegian getaway breakaway epic o'sheehans buffalo wings table four wings

I would recommend mainly sticking to the complimentary dining options unless you have the dining package as part of a promotion. Unless you are a particular foody who really wants to try something different then the main dining room and buffet/pub will offer you more than enough choice. I would definitely recommend heading to O’Sheehans to have some buffalo wings!


While we are on the subject of food:

Here is how to dine with a food intolerance: Cruising with a food intolerance

And here’s why cruise weight gain is not inevitable: You don’t have to put on weight when on a cruise!

Happy cruising 🙂


Saturday 27th of August 2022

Hi, I'll be sailing with NCL next year. They offered my husband and I two specialty dinners. I have looked at the menus and was wondering what the asterisk is on pretty much all the specialty dinning menus.

NCL’S Ultimate Beverage Package (Now Premium) – Emma Cruises

Saturday 20th of August 2022

[…] Fancy learning a little more about freestyle dining? NCL’S Freestyle Dining Explained. […]


Thursday 6th of April 2017

Hi Thank you for all the heads up, really useful informations!

We are taking my mum on the Norwegian epic this summer to celebrate her 80th and this is our very first cruise holiday ! Not sure what to expect as I have read so many negative comments. I also booked directly through NCL as I thought that would be the cheapest options but I know subsequently that the local travel agent can do it about £500 cheaper for the same deal but hey you live and you learn so I won't let that to ruin my mum's special celebration!

Any other tips you can give us to help this to be a very special holiday for my mum? We are staying in the Haven so hoping the service would be good?

Emma Le Teace

Thursday 6th of April 2017

It may be worth phoning Norwegian and talking about that! They won't lower the price but I know quite a few people who have got free onboard credit when they've found a price cheaper elsewhere. Got to be worth a go!

The epic is such a funky ship, the shows will be amazing. My main tip would be make sure that you book the shows as early as you can, you don't want to miss out!

If you're staying in haven the service will be incredible! I've never made it up there myself but I've heard amazing things. What a way to start your first cruise, in the haven! You'll have an absolutely amazing time.

Please feel free to message me on Facebook or tweet me if you think of anymore questions. I was on the epic a couple years ago.

Have a fantastic time, glad this article was of use.

NCL best bits | Cruising isnt just for old people

Sunday 26th of March 2017

[…] NCL’s freestyle dining explained […]

Josiah Christian

Friday 20th of January 2017

How long were the wait times you experienced for NCL's freestyle options? Immediate seating usually? 15-30mins? longer?


Friday 20th of January 2017

I don't think I've ever waited for more than 10 minutes, it's usually immediate seating. They do have those things which you can take away which buzz when your tables ready though so some people must use them.

I guess it's because I'm normally in a small group of 2 or 4 that I've never had to wait very long, I also normally eat pretty early.