Call it a rite of passage, or maybe a right of passage.
For decades, the midnight buffet stood as an icon of cruising, scorned by some as a symbol of conspicuous gluttony, beloved by others as an epitome of gastronomic glory.
But today, as Americans pay more heed to health concerns, the midnight buffet is on its way out. Too much, too heavy and too late, many passengers say. Besides, with many ships now offering around-the-clock dining, guests know they can get a late-night food fix any time they want.
But foodies needn't despair. The midnight munch-out isn't disappearing — just changing to conform with new preferences.
Instead of mounting a bountiful spread in the main dining room for the midnight buffet, a growing number of cruise lines are switching to trays of hors d'oeuvres served at places where passengers gather late at night, saving the buffet for a special night.
"Who wants to eat at midnight? Only a small percentage," said Rudy Sodamin, director of corporate food operations for Royal Caribbean. "So we came out with the Midnight Delight idea. We serve midnight snack food instead of a midnight buffet. We bring the food to guests — in the bars, the casino, the lounges, wherever people are having fun."
Typically, he said, the staff offers finger foods, canapes, pastries and sweets.
Disney Cruise Line helped set the trend toward lighter late-night fare. When the line launched two years ago, it did so without the traditional late-night buffet, substituting instead canapes passed in the bar at the midnight hour. "We did our research," said spokesman Mark Jaronski.
Behind the changes in on-board eating habits is America's growing adherence to healthier diets. In recent years, many lines have begun offering balanced-diet alternatives to their always expansive menus. Some carry menu selections endorsed by the American Heart Association. Sugar-free desserts and low-calorie salad dressings are on just about every line's menus.
Several other lines are following much the same course.
"We've changed within the past year," said Fran Sevcik of Norwegian Cruise Line. "Now we serve heavy hors d'oeuvres in various areas of the ship, some on trays, some served by waiters. People are eating lighter fare, not going for big buffets. And now that they know they can eat practically 24 hours a day and vary their dining times, there isn't the traditional rush for the midnight buffet."
Princess Cruises has discontinued midnight buffets on ships that have 24-hour restaurants. "It was a lot of preparation for not a lot of people," said spokeswoman Jill Biggins. Around-the-clock restaurants, on the other hand, give guests the opportunity to eat whenever they want, she said.
Still, not every passenger worries about his waistline, and not every cruise line has done away with the midnight buffet.
"We feel differently," said Natko Nincevic, Carnival's senior vice president of hotel operations. "Midnight buffets are still a value. Guests are still enjoying them."
However, Carnival's buffet selections have changed over the years, Nincevic said. "We serve more fresh fruit, seafood and poultry, less heavy food." The emphasis is on lighter fare rather than heavy, sliced foods, he said. "And we're also focusing more on desserts."
Whether or not they offer a daily midnight buffet, though, all cruise lines still mount a gala buffet at midnight at least once during every cruise.
"The gala buffet still gets a crowd," said Norwegian's Sevcik. "It's visually so beautiful — ice carvings, fabulous carved vegetables and fruits, a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach."
Royal Caribbean's Sodamin says the galas give the top chefs a chance to show off their culinary skills, a treat for guests.
Theme buffets, too, remain popular with passengers.
"We do Mexican, Oriental, Cajun, French and American," said Carnival's Nincevic. Royal Caribbean has two theme offerings, seafood and chocolate. Norwegian says its once-a-cruise chocoholic buffet draws so many guests that the lines snake out into the hallway.
Buffet styles change in other ways depending on the locale and the season.
Norwegian holds outdoor buffets one evening on Caribbean cruises and an outside Klondike buffet on its Alaska runs. But passengers on ships sailing in Europe, Sevcik said, still cling to the traditional dining-room buffet every night.
Local dishes also find their way on the buffet tables. When sailing in the Mediterranean, Royal Caribbean makes sure to include Mediterranean dishes in its smorgasbord.
Nighttime on-deck buffets are especially popular upon leaving port in the Caribbean, a romantic time when city lights twinkle on the dwindling shore line, a pleasant breeze wafts across the deck and the moon and stars make holes in the inky black sky.
Not everybody, to be sure, is happy with the perceived demise of the midnight buffet.
"Sure, people miss it at first," said Royal Caribbean's Sodamin. "But when they realize there's other food around, they like it."