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Kevin Yee

Avalon Cove

When King Arthur faced death, according to legend, he traveled to the island of Avalon to meet his end. As a result of this romantic myth, the name "Avalon" has come to represent an earthly paradise, probably in an island setting. So how much of the Arthurian roots does the restaurant Avalon Cove in Disney's California Adventure (DCA) maintain? Basically none of it.

As placards outside the restaurant readily attest, it is actually themed to evoke another Avalon, this time a city on the nearby offshore island of Catalina. After all, the theme of DCA is California, and Catalina has long been a romantic getaway for Californians. And yes, the city of Avalon is named in honor of the Arthurian legend.

The DCA restaurant evokes the basic architectural style of the Catalina city, but employs little other than this basic framework as its theme. Presented by Wolfgang Puck, this seafood- focused facility is not run by Disney at all. The Wolfgang Puck company is a licensed participant of DCA, meaning basically that they pay a fee to run an operation inside the theme park. They are on their own, of course, when it comes to profit or loss.

So how is Avalon Cove doing? I'd heard lots of anecdotal evidence which suggested nothing short of a financial crisis here -- this location and the Mondavi winery were the two locations which appear to have been mired in difficulty from the beginning. Is it coincidence, I wondered, that they are also the two highest- priced restaurants in the new park? As a taste, here's the current menu at Avalon Cove:

Half Dozen Seasonal Oysters Market
Half Dozen Littleneck Clams - $7.00
Jumbo Shrimp Cocktail - $15.00
Smoked Salmon Plate - $18.00
Seafood Sampler for Two - $19.00 (Clams, Oysters, Shrimp, Crabmeat)

Clam Chowder - $8.00
Oysters Rockerfeller - $13.00
Crab Cakes - $15.00
Crispy Calamari - $11.00
Clam Bake - $15.00

Sherry Vinaigrette Mixed Salad - $7.00
Cucumber Iceberg Salad - $8.00
Garlic Caesar Romaine Salad - $9.00
Cobb Salad - $16.00 (with Shrimp) or $18.00 (with Crab Meat)

Linguini with Clams - $13.00
Four Cheese Ravioli - $14.00
Fettuccine with Mushrooms - $18.00
Spaghetti with Shrimp - $22.00
Pappardelli with Bolognese Sauce - $19.00

Roasted Salmon - $19.00 (with Ginger and Tomato Fondu)
Grilled Swordfish - $23.00 (Teriyaki Style)
Sauteed Scallops - $24.00 (Provencal)
Steamed Lobster Market Price
Grilled Ahi Tuna - $25.00 (with Stir Fry Vegetables)
Opened Grilled Chicken - $25.00 (with Garlic and Fries)
Grilled Pork Chop - $19.00 (with Pomegranate and Sweet Potato)
Sides - $4.00-$5.00 (Garlic Potato Puree, Coconut Jasmine Rice, Steamed Vegetables, Fries)

Cove Bar Menu
Tuna Sushi - $7.00
Yellowtail Sushi - $7.00
Salmon Sushi - $7.00
California Roll - $8.00
Spicy Tuna Roll - $8.00
Negi Hamachi - $8.00
Malibu Roll - $8.00

Squash Soup - $6.00
Ale Battered Fish Sandwich - $13.00
Roasted Beef Tenderloin Sandwich - $17.00

Child's Meals (12 and under): $7.00-$12.00 (Fish Sticks, Spaghetti, Macaroni and Cheese, Chicken Fingers, or Mini-Steak).

These are, indeed, high prices on par with Club 33 at Disneyland. Common sense, and a feel for the level of affluence of Disneyland Resort guests, led me initially to the thought that patronage at Avalon Cove would be correspondingly low. Over the course of several visits, I was able to more or less confirm my suspicions, though this location is not yet completely on the ropes.

While it opens early, business picks up slowly on a typical day. One on recent late morning, by 11:30 there was only one party in the restaurant -- not a good sign. Half an hour later, however, the number had swelled to 14 parties. While still not a strong showing for a restaurant (in fact, it's downright bad), it is not catastrophic. The same levels of patronage can be expected in the evening: there was a constant 16 to 18 parties between 6:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. on my most recent trip there. Again, not horrible, but fairly bad. Attempts to goose patronage by placing the menu outside on a placard in April (for the first few months, the menu prices were not posted) have not substantially increased revenues.

You can make advance reservations at the restaurant by calling (714) 491-9653, but judging by the above report, you almost certainly don't need to. It appears that the same story plaguing the Mondavi winery -- high prices, high expectations, and correspondingly low crowds -- is manifesting itself at Avalon Cove.

To judge by the building itself, you would have expected a better turnout. Its location cannot be beat, and it is particularly dazzling in the evening, when everything is lit up so prettily (including the bar itself). This is one location which succeeds in conjuring up the seaside resort, probably because it has a view of the midway games, the coaster roaring overhead, the dark and still water, and also -- importantly -- is lit in the evenings by elegant white bulbs which outline the building's features, just as we always assume is the case with Coney Island (and more importantly, Luna Park, an unsung hero in the Paradise Pier inspiration). It just looks the part of a seaside restaurant. But looks alone do not dictate good business, of course.

Take the Cove Bar, for example. This attached facility features impressive second- story waterfront views of Paradise Pier, and contains a full bar. You'd think it might attract a good amount of business, but you'd be wrong. At lunchtime one recent day, there were a scant seven parties, most of them drinking beer. Here you can buy a 24 ounce domestic beer for $5.00, a not unreasonable sum for an amusement park. Since the prices in the bar aren't too far out of whack with reality, the answer must lie elsewhere. Indeed, intuition is probably enough to solve this problem: park patrons spend the day trying to get on as many rides as possible -- that's what they do at amusement parks. Puck shouldn't be surprised by that!

So are evenings any better for the bar? Not really. It's equally slow, but for a different reason. Few folks desire to toil in the park's waning hours, because if they haven't already left the park dead- tired, they are still trying frantically to get on as many rides as possible. The real culprit here is probably the design of DCA, which was conceived of as a place that would attract similar crowds, with similar spending habits, as Epcot in Florida. In that park, dining does seem to take a priority that is curiously absent from DCA guests -- and probably lies in the nature of the visitors to the two parks. At Florida, the vast majority of visitors are from out of town, while at DCA, locals still make up a hefty majority of visitors. And locals are unlikely to need the restful downtime that Avalon Cove promises.

And it really is restful, both in the bar and in the restaurant itself. For dining, you can choose to eat indoors or on an outdoor covered peninsular "dock" that juts out into the water. This restaurant really spared no expense in ambience. Just look, for example, at the interesting, themed chandeliers adorning the ceiling of the indoor dining area. Presented as jellyfish (complete with dangling tentacles), they manage to be both tasteful and colorful at the same time.

The real highlight of the dining room, though, is easily the blown Italian glass mural along one wall. Costing over a million dollars by itself, this mural depicts aquatic life whimsically. One would think this to be an ideal spot for a Little Mermaid theme, but apparently Disney and Mondavi have drawn lines of separation a little stronger than that, to the detriment of the facility sadly.

The last, and arguably most important, aspect of the restaurant to mention is its actual product: the food and service themselves. Here I have to report a mixed bag. The service was sadly lacking. Despite very mild crowds, we endured a thirty minute wait to get bread and water after being seated, and there should be no excuse for that. Even more inexcusably, one of our coffees was delivered with a flea in it. With prices so high, one would hope such oversights don't happen, though of course they do.

But the food! Oh, the food! A masterful chef with plenty of restaurant experience, Wolfgang Puck and his team have come up with consistent winners across the board at this restaurant. Naturally presentation is uniformly good, but the real treat here is the taste. Not only were main dishes flavorful in the extreme, but the accompanying dishes were always complementary this is the sign of a chef who knows his stuff.

We sampled the squash soup, the cheese ravioli, the spaghettini, and the bass (fish), and we found each dish to be satisfying, appropriately spiced, possibly even delicious. The portions were also large enough to be filling, in contrast with many other high- priced restaurants. In short, I cannot say enough about the food quality and taste. Despite our poor service and the very high prices, the food alone is enough to lure me back again.

If only that could be said for everyone. The aforementioned lack of crowds is clearly a problem for the Puck company, and Wolfgang Puck himself is said to be concerned (or possibly even annoyed) that the location is under- performing financially. Reportedly, Disney is helping to ease Puck's pain. The second phase of Downtown Disney, slated to expand the area around the bridge over Disneyland Drive, will feature another Puck restaurant as a goodwill gesture to Puck. One wonders if outsized promises were made to Puck about the DCA attendance and appetite for upscale dining, and this is the make- good gesture.

Despite the problems facing Avalon Cove, it deserves a second look and a second chance (or rather, it deserves a first look by those of you who thought it too expensive to try it out), if for no other reason than its spectacular views of the Paradise Pier Lagoon and the sublime flavors of the entrees. The restaurant has a nasty habit of closing down to the public for private parties on some evenings, though, even during Park hours. This truly annoys me, though I suppose it's their right, since they aren't tremendously busy otherwise and Puck doesn't belong to Disney. Still, Walt used to force lessees and exhibits to remain open during Park hours. Perhaps this is a sign of their lack of normal business?

While it's not quite the earthly island paradise of the Arthurian legend, it's also fortunately not an "Isle of the Dead" for the Puck company. Avalon Cove is, fundamentally, just an overpriced restaurant with an outstanding menu, and something of a fish out of water in this mediocre theme park. Here's hoping they embrace a long- term strategy by lowering prices while retaining quality, in an effort to build brand awareness and word of mouth. Otherwise, the "Avalon" in their name may well come to be associated less with the city on Catalina Island and more with the Arthurian Isle of the Dead.

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