Deja Vu Dining

Janet and I are now about a week away from boarding Virgin Voyages’ Scarlet Lady on her second sailing out of Miami. I’ve been following the development of Virgin Voyages as a brand since 2018, and I’m excited to have the opportunity to experience it for myself. There is a lot about the Virgin brand that I don’t get, and if I am being honest some of it even scares me a bit. Like the night on our cruise that features a party promising to be so wild it comes with a consent disclaimer. I’m guessing that’s over-the-top hype. Maybe? It is an adults only ship after all.

Seriously though, it sounds like fun. We usually cruise to relax, but not this time. The aspect of Virgin’s approach to cruising that excites me the most is their dining. It took me awhile to figure it out, but I think I’ve got it. Virgin is going for a dining experience that appeals to city dwellers who are used to picking up take out on their way home from a long and busy day at work, but who also want to be able to dine out at the most trendy establishment in the city when it suits them. The marketing line from Virgin that helped me pull it all together went something like, “You wouldn’t eat in the same place at home every night, why do it on vacation?”

My first reaction after reading that, and it was visceral, was that I DO eat in the same place at home every night. It’s called my kitchen, I’m the executive chef, and Chef Jeff makes some pretty damned tasty dishes thank you very much! Then I realized that the comment wasn’t directed at me, but at people that actually do eat food from a different establishment every night. These are food savvy people that don’t have the time or space in a cramped apartment to cook for themselves. They appreciate a quality dining experience but don’t want to spend three hours lingering over a six course meal, dining at the same venue at the same time with the same table mates whom they don’t know and have nothing in common with and served food prepared institutional style by the same wait staff every night for a week. When you put it that way it doesn’t sound all that appealing to me either.

There are a couple of things Virgin wants you to know about how their dining differs from other cruise lines. First, there are no main dining rooms, no fixed seating times, and no specialty restaurants that charge a premium. There are over 20 eateries on Scarlet Lady, all of them complimentary, and each offers something unique. Six of those eateries are upscale dine-in venues where reservations are required. They include the cruise ship equivalent of a pop-up experimental kitchen where molecular gastronomy is front and center, and the menu consists of a list of ingredients rather than dishes. The diner selects the ingredients and the chef is challenged to make a Michelin star dish out of them. While everybody’s watching. Then there is the venue that caters to vegetarian and vegan palates while offering something for the meat eater you might be dining with (that would be me). For those who prefer something a little more traditional but with a city flair, Virgin offers their version of the classic Italian restaurant, an upscale surf and turf type Steakhouse, and a restaurant featuring an elevated version of Mexican street food. If you are one of those people that likes to play with your food you’ll want to try Gunbae, a Korean BBQ where you are the grillmaster and you are welcomed with a complimentary shot of soju (Korean whiskey) to get the party started. Wow…what an icebreaker!

There is no dress code for any of Scarlet Lady’s dining venues or really anywhere on the ship, so you can leave the tux and evening gown at home in your closet. Or in my case at the rental shop…after I downsized my body with bariatric surgery I opted not to downsize my tux. Virgin encourages sailors to dress as you like, but to dress appropriate to the evening’s activities. I take that to be license to go country club casual. There are venues and evening events where some people will dress full on black tie like James Bond, after all even Sir Richard goes black tie occasionally. But you’ll still feel at ease in neatly pressed slacks and a collared shirt. Or so they tell me. #itmightbeatrick #stillnotpackingcoatandtie

Scarlet Lady’s six premier dining venues have some secret powers that will go unnoticed by most sailors but are key to their success. Each has its own dedicated bar so you can enjoy before and after dinner drinks away from the dinner table. It is an approach that encourages fun but discourages lingering at the tables which will be key to Virgin’s ability to turn tables. That’s important because each venue is small, the type of dining establishment you would expect to find associated with a boutique hotel which is what Virgin wants Scarlet Lady to be. In addition to their smallish size, each venue has its own dedicated galley so food can be made fresh and to order, rather than the usual cruise ship institutional approach of finishing to order. You won’t see a waiter trying to balance ten covered plates stacked one on top of the other and all riding on his or her shoulder as they attempt to serve dinner. You’ll see just one plate. Yours.

The other thing Virgin wants you to know about dining on the Scarlet Lady is that they don’t have a buffet. Instead, they have “The Galley” which is a collection of food truck, hawker stand, and boardwalk style venues where you can walk up and get fresh and made to order take-out food quickly. Virgin’s marketing staff describe The Galley on Scarlet Lady as an international market that “could be mistaken for a Saturday afternoon in Brooklyn.” I’ll let you know.

There are three more options for dining on Scarlet Lady, starting with the ubiquitous pizza parlor, which of course has a distinctly Virgin look and feel to it. There are also two dine-in venues that don’t take reservations, a casual indoor Mediterranean style restaurant, and an outdoor mezze lounge. All three of these dining options are located on deck 7 by the promenade giving them a boardwalk feel.

I want to break the magic spell Virgin is trying to cast around their dining program just a little bit. Not to bust your bubble, but to give you a peek behind the curtain. Nothing of what Virgin is trying to do with their food program is new to the cruise industry. Royal Caribbean tried the same approach to dining that Virgin is serving up on Scarlet Lady way back in 2014. They called it “Dynamic Dining” and they purpose built dining rooms and galleys on their newest ship at the time, Quantum of the Seas, to allow them to offer a dining experience that sounds just like what Virgin is promising. It failed miserably. I am hopeful Virgin took a long hard look at what went wrong with Royal Caribbean’s Dynamic Dining concept before trying it on Scarlet Lady. We’ll see in about a week!

All nervousness aside, and it’s real, I’m sure I’ll have a good time on this cruise. I’m hoping I have a great time, and that the dining program is all that Virgin Voyages is hyping it up to be. Stay with me as I continue to post here and to my social media accounts before and during the cruise!

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