An inside guide with
Food and Beverage Director
Richard H. Wagner
Ivo Belev is the Food and Beverage Director on Norwegian
Gem. He has been with Norwegian Cruise Line for five years
and has served on six Norwegian ships. Before coming to
Norwegian, he worked for cruise lines in the United States and
in Europe. In his present position, he has responsibility for all of
the dining venues on the ship. Accordingly, I asked him to
comment on the dining options on the Gem.
To understand dining on Norwegian Gem, one has to begin with
Norwegian Cruise Line's signature concept called "Freestyle
Cruising." Under the traditional passenger ship dining system,
each passenger was assigned a specific time and a specific table
in the ship's dining room for dinner. Under the Freestyle
concept, a guest can dine at any time in any of the ship's
restaurants, provided, of course, that it is open. In other words,
on an Norwegian ship, there are no assigned seatings and no
assigned tables. When, where and with who to eat is up to the
The Freestyle concept has won many fans because it gives the
guests more flexibility to plan how their cruise will unfold.
However, as Mr. Belev pointed out, it also improves the quality
of the dining experience. Under the traditional system, "most of
the menu items are pre-cooked and are just waiting to be served.
There is no way around it. You cannot [cook for] 2,000 people
at the same time. What we try to achieve with the Freestyle
cruising is to do more ala minute cooking. We cook maybe 20
steaks, slightly precooked. Then once the doors open we start
cooking based upon what has been ordered by the guests. The
quality of the product is better than if it had been sitting in a
warmer for one or two hours. It is a different level of quality."
Seeing Norwegian's success with the Freestyle concept, most of
the other major cruise lines have set aside portions of their main
dining rooms for flexible dining systems in which the guest can
come for dinner essentially on an open seating basis.
Alternatively, guests can dine in the ship's buffet restaurant or in
the one or two extra-tariff specialty restaurants on the ship.
However, according to Mr. Belev, these systems are not the
same as Freestyle cruising.
"To fully participate in Freestyle dining, you have to build the
ship for Freestyle dining. You can't just convert from regular
dining to Freestyle dining. For Freestyle dining to work, you
need to have Freestyle set-up - - you have to have all of these
different restaurants to give [the guests] a variety of choice. We
have 12 restaurants. That is how we make the Freestyle concept
work. You make the restaurants smaller but with a variety of
Having a variety of restaurants is attractive because it gives
the guest more options. It also helps to ensure that none of the
dining venues is overwhelmed by everyone arriving for dinner at
the same time. To this end, outside of each restaurant and at
various locations around the ship, Gem has video screens
showing how busy each of the dining venues is and how much
waiting time, if any, there will be for a table. A guest can
decide to go to one of the venues where he or she can be seated
immediately or to wait for a table at one of the other venues.
If the guest decides to go to one of the restaurants where there
will be a wait, he or she does not have to stand on line while
waiting. "We have a pager system. You get a pager and go and
sit down and listen to the music or sit down in one of the bars
and have a cocktail. You get a 20 percent discount on
everything you buy. You don't need to wait on line. The pager
goes off; you come back to the restaurant. The waiting time has
never been more than 30 minutes."
"The prime time for all the restaurants is between 6:30 and
8:00 o'clock. This is the time when we make sure we do the
fast turnaround and the tables get done faster." The peak hours
do vary, however, depending upon where the ship is cruising.
For instance, when Gem was sailing in Europe, it had "more
Europeans, more Spanish and more Italians. They prefer to dine
late and will never come at 6:30 for dinner. Their preference is
after 9:30. It depends where the ship is positioned."
Before looking at each of the dining venues, it should be noted
that the various restaurants on the Gem are not merely
differently decorated dining rooms with all the food coming from
a common kitchen. "We have one production area and bakery
supplying all the restaurants with fresh pastries. But every
specialty restaurant has its own galley and its own kitchen staff
as well as serving staff. It takes time to train the people to know
the menu, to taste the menu, all the way to cooking. For
example, with Cagney's Steakhouse, you need to be a really
good grill cook to cook the steak to perfection. If the guest asks
for medium rare and it comes well-done, the guest is not going to
be happy. What we do is we will train the staff and the
[restaurant] will keep them there."
The Main Dining Rooms
Norwegian Gem has two main dining rooms - - the Grand
Pacific Main Dining Room and the Magenta Main Dining
Room. "We have a seating capacity of close to 800 guests at a
time. Breakfast and lunch, only the Grand Pacific is open.
They are both open for dinner."
"The Grand Pacific, even though serving the same menu as
Magenta, is more upscale - - the look, the ambiance as well. It
is more formal. To keep the concept, we have a dress code. It
should be a collared shirt; it should be pants - - no shorts and, of
course, no flip flops. If you don't feel like going to get dressed,
then you can go with the shorts to the Magenta. It's a different
venue and different ambiance. The service, the quality of food
is the same. "
The Blue Lagoon "is a 24/7 restaurant. It is located on Deck 8
just over reception. Blue Lagoon is comfort food - -
hamburgers, hot dogs, sandwiches, a small variety of soups and
salads. It is like an American-type of fast food venue where the
people just pass by, get a chicken wings or have a hamburger - -
something that is not really time consuming. It is for when you
do not feel like sitting down and having a full meal. It is grab
The Garden Café is Norwegian Gem's main buffet restaurant,
located on Deck 12. "In the Garden Café, as well as in the
main dining rooms, we maintain the menu cycle. We do not
repeat the same menu apart from the hamburger station and the
salad bar, which remain the same every day."
"We also serve pizza in the Garden Café. - - lunch and dinner.
It is fresh made. We have at least four different pizzas. We start
from the basic tomato and cheese pizza than we have pepperoni
and one vegetarian choice each day and one calzone (a closed
Just aft of the Garden Café is another buffet. "The Great
Outdoors serves the same menu. Because of the size, we don't
have the same variety." As the name indicates, this venue is
outside protected by an awning. "It provides you with sort of al
fresco dining experience. So if you don't feel like sitting in the
Garden Café, you go to the Great Outdoors, grab a snack, a
piece of chicken, read your book or get a beer or glass of wine.
You sit down, have a glass of wine and watch the sun set."
Also outside is the Bali Hai Bar & Grill, which is forward on
Deck 13. . "The Bali Hai is a beach bar where you can sit
down, have a beer and they will make a fresh hamburger for
you. It is for the convenience for the guests. If I feel like
having a beer and hamburger, I don't have to walk all the way
from Bali Hai to the Garden Café to get my fresh cooked
hamburger. I'll get it there right away."
In fact, there are several places where one can get a fresh
cooked hamburger. In addition to the Bali Hai, one can get a
hamburger at the Great Outdoors, the Garden Café, the Blue
Lagoon and by the pool at Topsiders Bar and Grill.
"We cook fresh burgers ala minute. Maybe, it will take a
minute or two but you are getting a fresh burger. It is not
something that has been sitting on a counter for fifteen minutes,
that is dry and ice cold. You get something from the grill
straight to your bun."
Above: The Great Outdoors.
Below: Bali Hai
Above: The Grand Pacific
Cruise ship restaurant guide - - Norwegian Gem - - Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) -- page 1