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Norwegian Cruise Line’s “Freestyle” Dining Explained. Included Food, Speciality Restaurants and More…

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.” This basically means it’s more like eating in a normal land-based restaurant.

You can just turn up at the restaurant when you are ready to eat, you don’t have to eat at a set time.

On some cruise lines, you are given a set dining time. You eat at the same time in the same place every day. Not on Norwegian Cruise Lines!

If you are alone or dining as a couple, you may have to table share with others if you are sailing on a traditional cruise line.

To find out about cruising with a “traditional cruise line” watch the video below. I cruised with Fred Olsen “In Search of the Northern Lights” and had a wonderful time! It was a very different experience than that of cruising with a relaxed line like NCL though

Freestyle Dining

“Freestyle Dining” basically means that you don’t have a set time to eat dinner, you can show up at the restaurants whenever you like.

You’ll go to the desk at the entrance to the restaurant, there they will scan your room keycard and ask you how many people will be eating.

You will then be shown to a table.

Norwegian Prima Main Dining Room Hudson's
Norwegian Prima Main Dining Room Hudson’s

Why I love Freestyle Dining:

  • You can sit in different areas 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 choose! This honestly is my worst nightmare. You are still free to dine with whoever you want – but there is no pressure to table share with strangers.
  • You meet different waiters and other members of the restaurant staff every night.
  • You can eat when you’re hungry! I love the freedom of being able to decide when I want to eat and where.
Emma and Pepsi Max
Emma with Pepsi Max awaiting dinner!

Freestyle Dining – Free Restaurant Options

Main Dining Room

  • If you’re like me, and like 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 restaurants usually serve the same menu.
norwegian prima main dining room food
Main Dining Room Food on Norwegian Prima


  • 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 ship. If one side is closed – changing from breakfast to lunch for example – 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.
Norwegian Cruise Line Included Food Buffet Cakes Norwegian Encore
Buffet Food Norwegian Encore

A Pub Or Bar With Food Of Some Sort

  • On most NCL ships there is some type of pub or bar serving food. On some ships, it is “O’Sheehans” on newer ships it is called “The Local.”
  • The pub/bar serves Traditional pub grub like Buffalo Wings or Burgers.
  • The pub is a great alternative to the main dining room, and I sometimes find myself going there between meals…

Speciality Dining

NCL have a LOT of speciality dining restaurants available at an extra charge.

I personally very very rarely use speciality restaurants. I just can’t justify to myself spending the extra when I have already paid for the included cruise food.

I find the food in the main dining room/buffet/other options to be more than enough for me.

When eating in a speciality restaurant you should book in advance, they fill up incredibly quickly and the best slots won’t be available for very long.

You can book the table on your phone, on your TV in your stateroom and on the interactive boards around the ship. You can also book via the cruise ship App.

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.

norwegian prima speciality dining los lobos food
Los Lobos Speciality Restaurant on Norwegian Prima

Dining Packages

NCL’s “Free at Sea” promotion offers an included Speciality Dining Package. The number of speciality meals you can have depends on the length of your cruise.

Speciality Dining Packages are also available to buy – but you must purchase at least 2 meals – and the maximum you can buy is 14 speciality meals

At the time of writing the cost of these range from $99 for two speciality meals to $469 for fourteen.

A 20% gratuity and speciality service charge will be automatically added to the cost of that package.

Speciality Dining Packages are honoured in the following restaurants: American Diner, Cagney’s Steakhouse, Food Republic, Italian, Le Bistro, Los Lobos, Moderno Churrascaria, Pincho Tapas Bar, Q Texas Smokehouse, Raw Bar, Seafood, Sushi and Teppanyaki.

Norwegian Cruise Line

Find out about all the food I ate on Norwegian Prima – from the buffet to speciality dining restaurants in the video below:

Dress code

There are no formal nights on NCL.

NCL have “Dress Up or Not Nights” where some people do like to dress up.

Find out what I like to wear when I cruise in the article below:

Cruise Dress Examples – (Everything I Wear Onboard: Emma Cruises)

You won’t look out of place if you do dress up – but if you want to dine in jeans every day that is completely fine too.

There are some rules. 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 called “Smart Casual.”

Find out more about Norwegian’s wonderful food in the video below:

Before You Go

Find out about cruising when you have a food intolerance in the article below:

Cruising with a food intolerance

Despite all the wonderful food on offer, gaining weight on a cruise is not inevitable. Find out what you can do to avoid it here:

Avoid Cruise Ship Weight Gain – 7 Easy Things You Can Do

Free Insiders Cruise Line Guide

Ever wondered how the mainstream cruise lines compare? Cruise lines won’t tell you this, but I will.

This FREE guide shows you everything you need to know to find your perfect cruise line.


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.


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.