Creating transcendent dining experiences at sea

Designers must consider every element to create comfortable, aesthetically pleasing restaurants

Creating transcendent dining experiences at sea
The three floor-to-ceiling chandeliers in Le Bistro on Norwegian Prima will leave an enduring memory for guests

By Yohandel Ruiz |

When talking about the modern cruise experience, it is almost impossible not to mention dining  – and it’s a very different conversation than we were having even just 10 years ago.  

On older ships, there were few dining venues, so everyone had pretty much the same experience, often with assigned seating each night. However, the latest ships have so many dining choices that guests are able to fully customise what, when and where they eat. At the heart of this highly personalised experience is the symbiotic relationship between design and food. 

Studio DADO is generally known for cruise work, but our portfolio includes as many restaurants as any other type of space. For a land-based resort project, we might design three or four restaurants at most but on a ship we may design 10 venues, each with a completely different cuisine and ambience. Our mission is to figure out how to transform these restaurants into destinations – to make them thematic without turning them into theme parks, high design without being uncomfortable. 

We design our spaces without ‘bad’ seats, so that even if someone orders the exact same meal every time they visit, they can have a completely different, but always enjoyable, dining experience within the same space. Often, people assume that the best seats are next to the windows and that might be true on land, but it is not necessarily the case in the middle of the ocean at night when there’s not much to see other than your own reflection. That’s why we consider sight lines and incorporate art, custom lighting, texture and signature furniture that can be viewed from every vantage point. In venues that are open for more than just dinner, such as the Compass Rose onboard Regent Seven Seas Cruises’ new Seven Seas Grandeur, we create transformative designs to ensure they have a different atmosphere at noon than they do in the evening.  

We spend a great deal of time refining the details of our spaces, which is a discipline honed by years of cruise ship work. Every surface and piece of furniture is carefully planned, all the way down to the way the chairs slide beneath the tables. On some ships, everything is custom made to ensure that we are telling the story of the food and the space. Our team works with fabric designers, artists and local craftspeople and makers to make sure that the restaurants we design deliver the ‘wow’ factor every time a guest eats there.  

Something that seasoned cruise guests often mention is the sense of community onboard ship. It’s common to get to know fellow passengers and we like to embed those opportunities into our design concepts. For example, a floor-to-ceiling chandelier or a custom mural can be a fantastic conversation starter.  

We also have a deep understanding of the real estate we’re working with. There may be as few as 1,200 guests or as many as 6,000 onboard a vessel, but we always want our spaces to feel personal and comfortable. Shipboard dining venues expect only one or two sittings of guests each night (whereas land-based restaurants expect many more), so they are intimate settings. Guests can spend all evening at dinner, which means they get to know their servers and fellow diners and often come away with a new set of friends. Consequently, we hand-select furniture that is as elegant as it is comfortable, and we look at every millimetre of every layout and path to make their experience as pleasant and memorable as possible. 

To empower teams to deliver the highest level of service, we must also consider back-of-house operations when designing restaurants. On a ship, a single kitchen might produce dishes for two or more restaurants, but the galleys are often smaller than they would be in a land-based restaurant serving a single menu. We use 3D modelling technology to look at the paths of guests, servers and staff from every angle, virtually walking through the space to develop the optimal layout. Next, we ensure that we meet regulations for everything from flooring to the ceiling and lighting materials, appliances and construction processes to the letter. Finally, we make sure to give the highly trained service professionals the space, tools and amenities they need to perform their roles well. 

Whether it’s in Le Bistro onboard Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Prima or the Grand Dining Room on Oceania Cruises’ Oceania Vista, these design strategies translate into dining experiences that are deeply memorable for more than just the menu.  

Yohandel Ruiz is a founding partner of Studio DADO.

This article was first published in the 2023 issue of Cruise & Ferry Interiors. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed. Subscribe to Cruise & Ferry Interiors for FREE here to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox or your door. 

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