Above right: Hotel Director Xavier Mattihas.
Right: Executive Chef Patrick McCabe.
Above and below: The Windjammer Cafe.
Above: Chefs preparing a dinner in the Windjammer Cafe..
Below: The starters at Johnny Rockets.
The Buffet Restaurant
The Windjammer Café is Explorer's large buffet restaurant. It is located high atop the ship on Deck 11 with its large windows presenting views astern as well as to either side. It is not far from the ship's main pool area or from the ship's sports complex.
"At any given time, you have a choice of over 200 to 300 items. We try to keep it as exciting as possible. We have a variety of Asian style foods, we have a variety of different island foods - - we try to keep it a little bit itinerary specific and then there is a reflection of what is in the dining room will be up there as well. We get a lot of repeaters specific to the ship so we try to change the offerings up in the Windjammer on a fairly regular basis. We revise the menus usually on a two to three week basis," comments Chef McCabe.
While it is not open 24 hours a day, the Windjammer is open much of the time. "Breakfast, lunch, tea time, dinner - - basically from six in the morning until 9:30 in the evening. It is a busy little operation."
"For lunch and breakfast, the Windjammer would be the dominate venue," Mr. Matthias continues. For dinner, "the families [with kids] will go to the Windjammer for dinner. People with special needs who have to take a medicine at certain times will gravitate towards the Windjammer. A lot of guests gravitate towards the [Windjammer's] sushi bar in the evening as their main appetizer before going to the dining room."
"There is an Indian night and an Oriental night, but there are certain standards that we have. We have standard pasta cooking every night. We have the Mongolian Wok - - the stir fry - - that goes on every night. We have a carving station. Those are basics in terms of our dining experience."
The Specialty Restaurants
Explorer has two quite different specialty restaurants - - Portofino and Johnny Rockets.
Portofino is a relatively small elegant room overlooking the starboard side of the ship high on Deck 11. "It is quality food and it is also all about the ambiance of a fine dining restaurant. It is an experience as opposed to just coming into the dining room. The quality of the food, the presentation. We have a little more time up there to prepare. It is all ala minute cooking, there is nothing prepared in advance. It is all plated as it is required. There is nothing done in advance. It is an experience," Chef McCabe points out.
This romantic venue with a décor that echoes an Italian villa, is open for dinner from 5:30 until 9:45 p.m.. There is a cover charge of $20 per person. (See our review)
Portofino is not just a dinner venue anymore. Mr. Matthias elaborates: "We have transformed Portofino into a dining area for our suite guests in the morning. It is a little more intimate. It is not as rushed and not as crowded as the main dining room. You can get anything that you can get in the dining room plus. Previously, we had a continental breakfast in the Concierge Lounge. But this is something above that. In Portofino, you can get eggs to order and so forth. You can get a proper hot breakfast. It is all there. We run this from 8 to 10. Then also we offer sandwiches in Portofino for the suites from 12 until 1:30."
Then once a cruise, a "Savor Lunch" is held in Portofino. "That's an effiort to promote our cookbook and market the chef in terms of what he can do given the opportunity and a small crowd. Obviously, there are different dynamics associated with cooking for 3,600 guests and cooking for two people. We generally have an attendance of between 65 and 80 guests."
Chef McCabe adds: "I invite a few officers there as well so everyone gets a chance to talk with somebody about ship life or whatever you want to talk about. I do a galley tour, I do a little bit of a speech, let people know how much quantities of things we go through, answer as many questions as I can. We have a nice lunch."
"We have a couple of appetizers, a soup, salad course, main course and then a dessert. It is a choice. It is not just a set menu. There is no wine pairing but we do serve wine with it. It is not a chef's table, it more of an informal gathering with the chef, some officers and some good food."
Johnny Rockets is a fun venue. (See our review). Modeled after a mid-20th Century American diner, it specializes in hamburgers, hot dogs, French fries, shakes and sundaes. In addition, from time-to-time the staff dance in the aisle.
"Johnny Rocket's is as the Johnny Rocket's that you'll find ashore," Mr. Matthias comments.
Chef McCabe goes on, "It is a franchise. We man it, we do it and everything else but it is all done to the specs of Johnny Rocket's. We use their ingredients, their recipe cards. Its good. As with everything else, it is fresh ingredients. We make the burgers onboard."
"We offer the floats and the root beer - - the full offerings There is a cover charge of $4.95 and the different specialty drinks, there is also a charge associated with that. But the cover charge gets you your burgers, your fries and your onion rings. The secret sauce that is amazing." Mr. Matthias continues.
"We do the YMCA [dance]. The crew that works there is hand-picked. They are trained. We have the [coins] to play the juke box and everything like that."
"Yes, it is a burger joint but it is not a McDonald's or a Burger King. It is a whole experience."
Coffee, Pizza and Snacks
A trademark feature of Royal Caribbean's large ships is the Royal Promenade - - an indoor mall running down the center of the ship. Along it are stores, bars and a casual dining venue called 'The Café Promenade." Its seating area extends out onto the promenade like a sidewalk café. "It is the social place of the cruise. You go, you have a cup of tea, you sit, you chat, you look at people passing by on the Promenade."
One popular feature of this 24-hour venue is its self-service area where guests have a choice of coffee and different teas. You can also order a specialty coffee from the counter. "We have partnered now with Starbucks. We had a Starbuck's trainer onboard training our guys in terms of their specifications and making their coffee. So we are no longer selling Seattle's Best, we are selling the Starbucks product itself."
Alternatively, guests can order drinks from Café Promenade's full service bar. There are also pitchers of ice water and baskets of fresh fruit.
The menu at Café Promenade changes throughout the day. "You have early in the morning a selection of Danishes that runs until 11. From 11 until 3 a.m. in the morning, you have different sandwiches, pizzas and little snacks. At three in the morning, it is whatever we have remaining, there is no menu per se. You will always be able to get pizzas but I can't promise you that you will have a roast ham sandwich or whatever," Mr. Matthias smiles.
"All the snacks are complimentary. Any of the items coming from the bar - - the specialty coffee, the ice cream - - there is a small charge for those. But the Danishes, the pastries, the self serve coffee are all complimentary."
The dining operation on Explorer of the Seas is dynamic. As Chef McCabe explains: "We are continuously trying to change. People are cruising a lot more than they used to. The more you see the same thing, the less of a wow it is. So we have to continuously try and come up with things.."
In addition to developing new ways to use Explorer's existing venues, Royal Caribbean plans to add new dining venues to the ship. "The company has committed to revitalizing a number of our vessels and so when we go back in drydock [in 2014] we are going to have a lot of specialty restaurants." Mr. Matthias foresees these additions as being along the same lines as the venues that were added to Radiance of the Seas in 2011.
"A lot of guests [prefer] going to different restaurants because it adds a sense of adventure to your cruise vacation. You are not structured - - six o'clcok I have to go to dinner. You have a nice day out, you have a reservation for 8 or 8:30, you go to a nice restaurant, have a bottle of wine. You know those options are available for you. That is what our market research has shown the guests are asking for."
Cruise ship dining guide - - Royal Caribbean International - - Explorer of the Seas - page 2