Conde Nast Traveler

This High-Energy Korean Barbecue Restaurant Is Virgin Voyages’ Hottest Table

It’s no surprise that on Sir Richard Branson’s cruise line, Virgin Voyages, you’re spoiled for choice—especially when it comes to food. Onboard the line’s first ship, the Scarlet Lady, there are six sit-down restaurants that require reservations and serve up everything from upscale Mexican to molecular gastronomy; casual grab-and-go eateries with mezze bites and personal pizzas; and The Galley, a food hall with a ramen station, sushi bar, taco spot, and more. The catch? Most cruises on the Scarlet Lady are three to five nights long, meaning there’s no way to grab a bite of everything on offer. And while the cruise’s app only lets you book one dinner at each of the seated restaurants to give more people the chance to snag a reservation, you’ll still be left to figure out what’s worth booking and what you can skip, at least until your next voyage.

While we’ll leave you to sort through the rest of your dining lineup, there’s one spot that everyone should be jockeying for a seat at: Gunbae, Virgin Voyages’ Korean barbecue restaurant.

It served as my first dinner on a recent Bahamian voyage on the Scarlet Lady and from the moment you walk in, it takes active work to remember that you’re on a moving, 900-foot-long cruise ship and not in a land-based, rowdy K-Town joint. You’ll get a taste of the space’s energy as you’re whisked to your table, past sizzling flameless built-in grills and wait staff leading tables in raucous drinking games. (The restaurant is named “gun bae,” or cheers in Korean, after all).

Our Gunbae guide Wannipa—”waiter” just doesn’t seem to cover it—kept that energy going all night, starting our table off with colorful plates of banchan, traditional veggie side dishes like kimchi, seasoned spinach, soybean sprouts, and eggplant. Then, it was straight to soju and a Wannipa-led game of Sam Yuk Gu, also known as Three Six Nine, where you count around the table, clapping for each number that has a three, six, or nine in it—and taking a shot when you inevitably mess up. (Not to brag but… I won.) The rules, along with other drinking game ideas, are all listed on the menu—and if you’re not imbibing, there are non-alcoholic beverages (including the I Am (G)Root shot, made of ginger, lemon, and watermelon) so you can get in on the fun.

Speaking of the menu, it’s chock full of Korean small bites and noodle dishes, before you even get to the barbecue portion of the evening. Think bindae-tteok, kimchi and mung bean pancakes, or dakgangjeong, perfectly crispy fried chicken bites. Since most food is included in your cruise fare, we simply told Wannipa we were hungry and she steered the ship, so to speak, bringing out dish after dish (and doubles of the things we loved most, like the japchae, a stir-fried mix of vegetables and noodles).

But don’t overload on the admittedly delicious starters, because the star of the show is the grill that sits at the center of each circular table. You have a choice of seasonal vegetables, seafood (like squid and shrimp), short ribs, or the chef’s special (a mix of veggies, shrimp, and short ribs)—or you can “treat yourself” to the wagyu beef platter, the only food item that comes at an extra charge of $45. We went for the veggies and the short ribs, with Wannipa first charring eggplant and mushrooms and then lightly grilling each piece of thinly sliced, fatty meat. (COVID protocols means you can’t DIY.) All in all, it was masterful, melt-in-your-mouth goodness.

But it’s more than just the food and the soju games that make Gunbae worthy of making your cutthroat dinner list: the restaurant is also one of the easiest ways to make friends on board. If your party is smaller than five, you’ll be seated with fellow guests around your table’s grill, the largest of which can accommodate up to eight. Since, unlike most cruise ships, there’s no set seating or even a central dining room, it’s a simple way to create some serendipitous vacation friend magic. And what’s a faster way to make friends than taking shots in a game of Sam Yuk Gu?

It’s the kind of restaurant that puts a smile on your face, if you let yourself drink the K-Pop Disco Water. (Yes, that’s a real cocktail.) Revel in the games and the chance to turn strangers into friends—and leave so stuffed you have to lay out on deck 16 for some fresh Caribbean air.

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