It’s not typically a big deal for me, or for Mom. While we enjoy fresh food, nicely prepared and presented, we’re definitely not “foodies” in any sense. That’s one of the reasons why I’ve never really been interested in going on an ocean cruise; the idea of delighting in a vacation in which the food was continuous, unlimited and a highlight of the day doesn’t really appeal to me.
So I didn’t do a lot of research about which river cruise line was “best” in the food category. I was more interested in itineraries, ship aesthetics and included tours and activities.
With that all said, however, I have to tell you that I was pretty darn impressed with the whole food thing on the Viking Atla. Keeping in mind that I’m unable to discuss food the same way you’d hear in a high-end restaurant review, I’m still going to attempt to share with you what dining was like—from sunrise to sunset—on a Viking river cruise.
Note that mealtimes in both The Restaurant and the Aquavit Terrace varied a bit day by day, depending upon the morning’s tours and activities; look in your “Viking Daily” for the next day’s dining hours.
I like choices. Viking’s done a great job of preserving that sense of choice for its passengers in regards to dining. Here’s what you can choose from:
The Restaurant (note the all-important capitalization)
This is on the second floor of the ship (the one with the lobby/reception area). The Restaurant is located in the front of the ship; the doors are kept closed except during passenger mealtimes. Our server explained to me that crew eats in there an hour or so before passengers do—but I never saw any sign of that so I’m just guessing that it’s true—besides, I’m not sure where else they would eat so it probably is what happens, huh?
Floor to ceiling windows line both sides of The Restaurant. You enter from the back of the room and head to whatever table you choose. The kitchen and prep area are behind the wall at the far front of the room (it’s a tidily-small kitchen setup considering how much food the staff prepares, serves and cleans up). Tables along the windows are typically round and seat six. Rectangular tables in the middle seat twelve. The chairs are really comfortable—which is good, because dinner is a formally-served “event” and you’ll spend some time sitting in them!
Drapes and gauzy liners cover the windows but most diners open those window coverings so everyone can watch the world float by. That’s a really fun part of eating on a river cruise—dipping a spoon into fresh-made muesli in the morning and looking over your shoulder to see a family of swans paddling by. Really! Now that’s a breakfast treat I don’t get at home.
There’s no assigned seating in The Restaurant—conceivably, you can head in there and sit down whereever there’s an open seat. What I found, though, was that at least 15 to 20 percent of the couples traveled with other couples and they kept to themselves at dining time, especially in the evening. That meant four of the six passengers at several tables “knew” each other right off the bat. Since Mom and I were “just two,” we found ourselves able to join any number of tables and we were always welcomed happily as the “newcomers” to that social grouping.
Sometimes, though, we’d arrive in The Restaurant earlier and we would be the two seated first at a table, looking to see who would join us that evening. Tip: If you want to have people join you, catch their eye and smile at them. You can always ask, “Would you like to join us?” If you look down or away or simply are acting like a grump, you’re not going to be a really attractive dinner table partner and people will avoid you to head to a table that looks like more fun. That’s just human nature, I think, not anything negative about specific passengers. We did sit with a couple one evening who were pretty grumpy (they joined us, not the other way around), complaining about the evening’s menu, the servers and other assorted issues. I guess I shouldn’t admit it, but we didn’t choose to sit with them on future nights; there were too many other nice people to meet and get to know over a great meal…
So you know, servers in The Restaurant (both the food and the beverages) stay in specific stations for the entire cruise; the next cruise they shift stations, I understand—so I’d know not to look for Milo (he’s from the Philippines and we learned all about his family and his home) in the front-of-the-ship tables because he would likely be assigned somewhere else in the dining room. But that does mean, if you typically sit in a certain section, you’ll have the same server every meal (breakfast, lunch and dinner) and they’ll quickly learn your preferences in foods, beverages and how you like best to be served. That also makes for a great social connection—your server might ask about your day and what you saw in, say, Bratislava, and you can ask about their days (which were much busier in a less-fun way than ours were) and time off the ship.
Breakfast in The Restaurant (typically 7 to 9 am or so) is a blend of buffet (very high-end buffet, really) and served meals. You can wander around the buffet area and pick and choose your morning items (which is what most people did) or you can ask your server to bring you what you like. I liked watching Joszef make omelettes, though, so I enjoyed standing at his cooking station and waiting while he made mine (two kinds of cheese, bacon, tomatoes, and avocados, thank you) although I know Milo would have ordered it and brought it to me if I preferred that.
Standards at breakfast in The Restaurant were an ever-changing assortment of fresh fruit (even including dragonfruit and mango), ship-made muesli (it’s a grain-based cold cereal made right on the ship which people raved about), oatmeal, Cream of Wheat, dried fruits, cheeses, sausage, bacon, scrambled eggs, soft-boiled eggs, potatoes of various sorts, omelettes, pancakes, French toast, bakery items (muffins, whole grain breads, bagels), lox, cream cheese, packaged cold cereals and lots of other things I can’t even remember. All was presented very attractively, no matter if you arrived at the start of the breakfast or later on.
Lunch (beginning at noon or 12:30 pm, depending on the morning’s activities) is a similar blend of service and buffet. Fresh fruit, salads, freshly-made pasta with various sauces, cheeses, meats and breads are all offered. There are also soups and desserts.
Dinner in The Restaurant is a more formal, defined meal which starts at a specific time (7 pm) and takes about 1-1/2 hours from start to finish. It’s a nice capstone to the day; passengers share notes about what they’ve seen and done during the afternoon or morning—all in a lovely, calm setting (and those swans, don’t forget those swans).
Passengers have a choice of three or more appetizers for the first course (different every single evening), three main course choices and four or more dessert choices. These are all on the left side of the menu you’re handed by your server as you’re seated. If none of those appeal to you, look at the menu’s right side and you’ll always find a selection of cheeses as an appetizer choice as well as every-night entrees including a vegetarian choice, steak, chicken breast or grilled salmon. You can mix and match the standard items with the daily choices, for example, choose a “special” appetizer and then the salmon with a dessert from the day’s special list. They’re pretty darn flexible on Viking. Oh, and while the food is presented very artfully (think little squiggles of sauce criss-crossing an entree and “foam” food accents), if you value quantity you can always ask for a larger (or even a second) serving.
The Atla’s chef offered me the dinner menus saved from this trip (I have about 75% of them); I’ve scanned them and included them here on my site so you can look at them at your leisure. I’m not sure how often the menus change of if they’re always the same on this itinerary… Take a look at the menus here!
Oh, and for those of you who wondered, yes, the chef does take advantage of that herb garden on the top deck; one afternoon I watched as two members of the kitchen staff carried pots of the herbs back up to their place in the sun after being used in the kitchen.
Beverages: Wine and beer are included at no charge at dinner and lunch, both in The Restaurant and at the Aquavit Terrace. The wines varied each night but there seemed to be a few which were repeated a few times. I only had beer once and I’m not really a wine snob so I can’t tell you much about the varieties (look on the menus). I can tell you the servers were exceedingly generous in their pouring. I had to cover my glass midway through the meal or Zuzana would continually fill it up and there is no way I would have been awake past 8:15 pm every night. Mom enjoyed finishing the evening by joining others and dancing in the Lounge; Zuzana would fill her glass at the end of dinner and Mom took her glass of wine upstairs with her. As far as the less “adult” beverages, if you’re a milk drinker you need to tell your server (I don’t think they see a lot of us who really enjoy milk that much) and they’ll bring you a “big” glass of milk—and refill it as often as you like.
But The Restaurant isn’t the only place to enjoy dining on a Viking longship; look for my next post about less formal meals on the Aquavit Terrace as well as snacking on board.