The original Grand Class ships maintained one dining room for guests who chose the traditional (assigned dining time/assigned seating) system, but introduced two other dining rooms -- both essentially identical to the traditional dining room -- where passengers could theoretically dine when they wanted, and with whom they wanted, during normal evening hours of operation.
The menu was identical in all three dining rooms. In addition, the ships had Sabitini's, an Italian theme restaurant, which had its own menu and carried a surcharge; and a southwestern theme, extra-cost restaurant.
This system is still in place on the Grand, Golden and Star Princess. The newer Caribbean Princess is similar, except for the southwestern restaurant, which has been changed to the Sterling Steakhouse.
However, on the new Diamond Princess (and her sister Sapphire Princess), the two "Personal Choice" (cost included) dining rooms are no longer carbon copies of the traditional dining room. Where two identical rooms stood before, these two new ships have four somewhat more intimate theme dining rooms, none of which carry a surcharge. Though their layouts are identical, each features its own menu and its own identity, with interior decoration and decor, right down to different touches in the servers' uniforms and themed tableware.
The seemingly most popular new restaurant is The Sterling, a steak house where large, deliciously crisp fried onion rings, Peppercorn Steak, and Prime Rib (carved in view in the restaurant) are the featured items.
The Vivaldi is an Italian restaurant with several different pastas (the three-colored pasta with ricotta cheese was my favorite) and a mouthwatering version of Osso Bucco.
The Pacific Moon is an Asian venue where sushi is freshly prepared tableside by staff in Oriental dress, and the sampler appetizer of dim sum, pot sticker, and a spring roll will make you wish you'd ordered two.
The Sante Fe is serves up southwestern fare, with guacamole prepared tableside, and a rather typical Tex-Mex menu.
All four restaurants operate much like land based restaurants with two exceptions: (1) There's no check presented at the end of the meal. The cost is included in your cruise fare; (2) In addition to the individual restaurant's own themed menu, guests can select items off the full menu from the traditional dining room. Guests may order any courses from either menu – and can even order courses from the other themed restaurants.
But just as at land-based restaurants, guests may either make reservations or simply show up and take their chances on space being available. Princess strongly encourages advance reservations, particularly if you want to dine during peak hours -- so much so that they've put a Concierge service in place where guests can call to make reservations at any of these restaurants.
The Maitre D', Beniamino Acler, tells us this particular setup of "Any Time Dining" is becoming so popular with Diamond passengers that the traditional dining room, normally wait-listed, now often has space available, even though each evening they supplement the traditional dining room's cuisine options with a menu from one of the alternate restaurants to provide more variety. All the service staff rotate among the four theme restaurants and the dining room every three to five weeks, so they are familiar with the menus of each.
As more of a "traditional dining" type of cruiser, and not one to stand in line for even the hottest land-based restaurant, I approached the "Any Time Dining" experience with some skepticism.
In a previous experience with "Any Time Dining" on the Golden Princess -- and problems that arose – I felt it wasn't of much value to my cruise experience. Since the menus were identical at both dining rooms, it seemed more convenient to have assigned seats waiting for us at an assigned time, and familiar service teams taking care of us each evening.
With this most recent evolution, I'm sure I'll still enjoy the traditional dining experience on cruise lines that featuring it; but Princess, despite some minor annoyances with the system, may have won me over to "Personal Choice," since it offers very good quality food, interesting themes and menu innovations, and some flexibility in the dining experience.
Meanwhile, like their earlier sister vessels, the Diamond and Sapphire also offer Princess's Italian Trattoria experience for an extra fee (presently $20 per person) at Sabitini's. There, guests order only their entrée and dessert, and a virtual cornucopia of taste treats of various courses is served leading up to the entrée.
Our stomachs were so full after this dinner, we considered asking for a staff member with a mover's dolly to roll us back to our cabin.