Dinner cruise on the Potomac: A moveable feast with unbeatable views

To cruise or not to cruise? It’s a question locals must ponder when they find themselves looking at the Potomac from dry land, and catching sight of the brand-name party boats floating by. Are the people on board having fun? Would I?

In search of an answer, and after a little sleuthing, I booked a dinner cruise last month on Nina’s Dandy, which offers an array of departures from Alexandria.

Nina’s Dandy is priced similarly to its major competitors, but I like that the Dandy’s dinner is a la carte rather than a buffet; that the deal includes dancing in the main salon on a marble floor, sometimes to live piano, or even under the stars on the upper deck; and that the evening tour runs three hours as opposed to four. (Even if you’re not having fun, there’s no leaving the boat early.)

Here’s how cruising day went down:

4:45 p.m.: I go online to review the wine list for tonight and see bottles better suited for a frat party than for a night with discriminating pals. “Can I bring my own wine?” I ask a cruise representative on the phone. He says yes, provided I pay a $35 corkage fee per bottle. I agree to the terms, since the boat’s non-Champagne choices run from $25 to $48 anyway. Plus, life is too short to drink Yellow Tail merlot.

6:40: On the gangplank off Prince Street in Old Town Alexandria, a photographer snaps our group portrait for later purchase. Nearby, a sign from Homeland Security says wrapped gifts will be inspected. My bag of two bottles gets a quick once-over, and we crowd into a foyer on Nina’s Dandy to await a host to seat us. Some passengers are already eating their first course, a big ring of cantaloupe with a strawberry on steroids. Bummer! Our port-side table is second to the last near the stern — and just over the engine. Only now and then do we get to hear the pianist around the corner.

6:55: Just before we depart, a waiter reconfirms our four pre-ordered main courses. (There are 10 choices, including a vegetarian option.) One of us is getting salmon instead of the spanikopita I requested over the phone, but I let it go. When we ask if the food is made on board, a server points to the carpeted floor. “Below you is the engine room. In front of it is the galley.” Affirmative, in other words. The table settings are retro: burgundy polyester linens and institutional white plates. Enough coffee creamers to run the a.m. shift of a Starbucks fill a bowl near our table lamp. “They’re selling the view,” says a friend, “not the table settings.”

7:05: Despite being told that the boat leaves promptly at 7 p.m, the captain has decided not to leave without all 40 of the guests attending a passenger’s 60th birthday party, a flock of whom are still being photographed on the dock.

7:10: Loud but unclear, a voice on the intercom says something about where to find restrooms, lifejackets and emergency exits. Food is not to be taken out on the decks, and children must be accompanied by adults, the mystery voice continues. I look up to see a wall photo demonstrating how to use a life vest.

7:15: Off we sail! A table companion shows me the Tiffany cuff links his wife, sitting across from me, gave him. They’re tiny gold life rings. “My wife is my life preserver,” he announces. Awww. We toast one another. Two of us are sipping Manhattans served in champagne flutes.

7:30: A mature couple hit the dance floor. We guess they graduated from Arthur Murray.

7:55: We’ve polished off two bread baskets and a small green salad garnished with two cherry tomatoes. Didn’t we order the four-course dinner? The cantaloupe shows up late, and only after we inquire about it.

8:20: The human GPS at our table starts pointing out landmarks on shore. (“And that’s the War College.”) The rest of us wish Nina’s Dandy had thought to announce highlights, or offer a map for each table to follow along. Only later do we learn that because of the wind, recent rain and high tide tonight, we’ll be taking a detour from Nina’s usual route. We don’t get near Georgetown, but we don’t scrape any bridges, either.

8:25: One of us gets up to ask about our main courses when he spots a gaggle of servers with trays and metal covers approaching our section in oblivion — er, the stern.

8:35: Our turn. The portions are titanic. Shrimp stuffed with crab are draped in a creamy hollandaise that could use more lemon. The entree comes with green beans whose limpness suggest they originated from a freezer bag. Chicken breast with a veneer of Parmesan comes with a pleasant-enough cream sauce, as does the poached salmon surrounded by thick, crinkle-cut carrots and monster broccoli florets. Three of the entrees are shored up by white rice. Prime rib — a slab the size of the plate — gets a proper baked potato. The beef, we decide, is the best-tasting and the best value of the entrees. While we pass plates and share tastes, the pianist plays “America the Beautiful.”

8:37: A few raindrops hit our broad window.

8:45: Nationals Park appears to be within swimming distance.

8:55: Three parties are acknowledged with three rounds of “Happy Birthday.”

9:06: Main courses are cleared and replaced by dessert. Chocolate cake is restrained in its sweetness, which means we like it. Chocolate mousse is mostly flavored fluff. The apple pie sports a pleasant, old-fashioned quality, even if we suspect it might be the commercial variety.

9:07 to 9:40: Is the pianist taking a break? Because Nat King Cole suddenly starts crooning, and he’s followed by Elvis and Patsy Cline. As the taped music gets closer to 2014, those who appear to be older than 50 surrender the dance floor. Almost everyone moving to Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” appears to be a millennial.

9:40: I gaze out my window to spot the biggest moon ever. Only after I put on my glasses do I see it’s a US Airways flight heading for National Airport.

9:43: Our genial server drops off the final tab, which includes a round of drinks, the corkage fee for the wine I brought on board and a fuel charge of $5 a head, but not gratuity. He looks like more than a plate pusher in his uniform, so I ask if his duties extend beyond the dining room. “I can pilot the boat if the captain has a heart attack,” he says, then takes the receipt and my credit card.

9:50: Our waiter finds my posse on the upper deck, where I sign the check and wonder why we haven’t spent more time outside. (The sprinkle of rain has passed.) The skyline and a gentle breeze are the perfect segue from dessert. Low platforms encourage a few women to shed their pumps and dance atop the boxes; the corners are taken by couples for mash sessions. As we pass under the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, some of the passengers shout just to hear their voices echo.

10:20: The pianist is back, doing a decent job with “What a Wonderful World.” As we get closer to the dock, we spy an egret scoring dinner near the shore: a whole (gulp) fish.

10:21: We disembark to find the photographer displaying all the shots he snapped pre-launch. The four of us are inclined to buy our picture as a memento. Upon closer inspection, however, the life buoy in the foreground of the portrait resembles a toilet seat. We decline the opportunity and save ourselves $20.

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THE SCOOP

Location: Nina’s Dandy departs from 0 Prince St., Alexandria. 703-683-6076. dandydinnerboat.com.

Open: Lunch noon to 2:30 p.m. daily; dinner 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 7 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Boarding times are earlier. Schedules may vary.

Prices: Lunch cruises $48 to $58; dinner cruises $88 to $108.

Nina’s Dandy is unrated because Tom Sietsema cruised only once.

Weaned on a beige buffet a la “Fargo” in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. This is his second tour of duty at the Post. Sietsema got his first taste in the ‘80s, when he was hired by his predecessor to answer phones, write some, and test the bulk of the Food section’s recipes. That’s how he learned to clean squid, bake colonial cakes and distinguish between nutmeg and mace.
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