Shared Tables and Early or Late Seating – Why? What Started It All?

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a table with chairs and a white tablecloth in a room with a large window

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My recent less than glorious experience on an MSC cruise left me pondering one of the undesirable things I encountered. When going to the main dining room for any meal we found it seemingly extremely frowned upon to request a table for 2, or in other words, to refuse to share a table until we at last locked in one for early dining. Where did this share a table with strangers tradition come from and why?

It seems to go back to the pre-cruise industry era of the mighty coal fired ocean liners. These ships were designed for transatlantic transport and the passengers that were initially mainly migrants. Luxuries like bed linens and meals were not always provided and there was no refrigeration so “fresh” food items like eggs and milk came onboard in the form of chickens and cows. Can you imagine the smell after a 2 week crossing (just think about cheap interior cabins near the walking food)?

As the design of ships progressed there also developed 2 distinct classes of passengers, cabin class and steerage class. The cabin class consisted of the wealthy passengers who enjoyed certain comforts. This led to the development of large dining rooms with spacious tables and 2 dinner seating times to facilitate getting meals served to all of these passengers as efficiently as possible. The tradition of dressing for dinner – think Downton Abbey –  among the wealthy carried over to ship dining as well. The steerage class passengers were packed into large dormitories and those low standards for this class continued until the beginning of the 20th century (remember transport was the goal not the experience – think Spirt Airlines and you get the idea).

a room with tables and chairs

With the continued development of “passenger shipping” it has been typical for cruise ships to include meals with the price of a ticket along with transport and accommodation. An early experiment by Easy Cruise to sell a discounted ticket for accommodation only and charging extra for all food and beverages failed rather quickly (thankfully).

In the 1910s it became popular to provide a la carte restaurants where items were billed on top of the ticket price. Primarily a way for the cruise lines to make extra money, these early specialty restaurants were also a way for first-class passengers to show off their wealth and so the idea spread to other cruise lines. Interest seems to have waned in cruising after the 50s with the increased success of the airline industry after WW2 and the cruise lines returned to the traditional two seating times in the main dining room.

As mentioned in our recent news post, thanks in large part to the TV show, The Love Boat, the 70s and 80s brought a new interest in cruising among a demographic previously not so interested in going on a cruise. The phrase that cruising was for the “nearly dead or newlywed” having been the norm up to that point, now it was something more and more younger people were interested in.

a room with tables and chairs

Enter, my favorite cruise line, Norwegian Cruise Lines in May 2000 and the introduction of freestyle dining. Finally passengers could eat where they wanted, when they wanted, and with whom they wanted. This also led to a resurgence of interest in specialty restaurants as they allowed passengers to celebrate special occasions and provided more variety on longer voyages. These ideas have spread to every other cruise line in some form.

Since its beginning in 1844 “passenger shipping / transport” has changed dramatically and it will no doubt continue to conform to passenger preferences as well as cruise lines ability to adapt and remain profitable. The formal attire, set dining time standard may linger a while longer as some seem to enjoy parts of that tradition.

For me, the introduction of freestyle dining and more casual attire are part of what got me interested in cruising in the first place. While it may have changed from primarily a means of transportation to an enjoyable type of vacation just for fun, there are aspects of being on a ship that will always remain captivating and exciting for many. – René

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2 COMMENTS

  1. [regarding] NCL freestyle dining…Except for the buffet dining at a time you would like often involves long queues or inconvenient meal times or you have to book a time…often all booked out pre cruise. Hardly flexible.

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