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Kevin Yee

Downtown Dining, One Year Later

Downtown Disney at opening a year ago
Downtown Disney at opening a year ago

Heralded by Disney as "a lively, colorful district full of innovative restaurants, shops and entertainment venues," featuring over eighteen shops and snack stands, Downtown Disney opened to much pomp and circumstance slightly more than a year ago, and ushered in the "Disneyland Resort" -- no longer would the term "Disneyland" refer to just one park.

Anniversaries are popular times for scorecards, so let's review what's happened on the restaurant front during the past twelve months:

1. All the restaurants open for business with Downtown Disney in January 2001, with the exception of Y Arriba Y Arriba, which opened a few weeks later having slightly missed its construction deadline.

2. There is nothing else to report.

OK, so that's a bit anticlimactic, and certainly more than a little reductive. There are things to report, but nothing of substance has really happened in twelve months, a fact that is itself a bit odd, don't you think?

Menus have not changed much. La Brea Bakery tweaks its menu on a regular basis, but there has been no large-scale alteration of the offerings. The same is true of all other eateries in the shopping district. From the consumer point of view, there is nothing going on. "All's Quiet on the Downtown Disney Front."

Or is it?

As we reported to you several months ago, there has been fairly high turnover at Wetzel's Pretzels in terms of management. That in itself is no surprise; all fast-food operations experience such turnover of managers regularly.

Wolfgang Puck, as also reported here, was slated to be made a part of Phase II of Downtown Disney. Here was the plan: the bridge over Disneyland Drive (the former West Street) would be widened, and shops would be built along either side. The net result would be an unbroken string of structures along Downtown Disney so it wouldn't feel like a bridge anymore. But these were plans to appease Puck when he was still operating Avalon Cove. Is he still promised a "better" location in the higher-traffic Downtown Disney? No answers there; no one seems to know. Glancing at the official www.wolfgangpuck.com Web site for Puck, one notes with amusement that Avalon Cove is still listed as his, though the site navigation does not reveal any details about the menu or current management.

A screenshot of Wolfgang Puck's Web site, which seems to indicate that Puck still operates Avalon Cove.
A screenshot of Wolfgang Puck's Web site, which seems to indicate that Puck still operates Avalon Cove.

There are minor things to report, of course. Very recently Ralph Brennan, who runs the Jazz Kitchen in Downtown Disney, dropped by for a visit. As he toured his facility in the company of some Disney management, he pointed out the broken trumpet and crab claw on the figures outside the restaurant, and demanded to know why they were still broken a year after his restaurant opened. In effect, Brennan was demanding to know why he was paying all this money to Disney if this is the way they were going to maintain his facility. Because Disneyland owns the buildings, the merchants just lease the space, and Disney is responsible for upkeep.

Not that I want to give you the impression that the Jazz Kitchen statues have been breaking constantly in the past year. No, not at all. As far as I can tell, they've actually been broken for the entire 12 months! If you ask me, all this sounds a bit familiar. Haven't we seen this sort of upkeep problem recently at Tom Sawyer Island and the Enchanted Tiki Room? Does it take a corporate visit to guarantee upkeep?

When Downtown Disney opened, I was fairly vocal in my belief that it would not succeed financially, at least not according to the promises Disney was making. Let's revisit that issue now that it's one year later. Are these places busy? I have only anecdotal evidence to offer, since no one will go on record about it; no surprise there -- all these restaurants are run by larger groups or corporations. At the time, I predicted most of the restaurants would underperform dismally. Let's see how it turned out:

La Brea Bakery - situated at the "end" of Downtown Disney, this prime property manages to attract a fair amount of traffic for its overpriced meals. I was surprised, and not above saying I was wrong. It's true what they say: location, location, location. And it doesn't hurt that the bread is, after all, pretty good.

Naples Ristorante Pizzeria - this place, also near the end of the promenade, does far more business than I would have expected, given the prices. There is a market for wood-fired pizzas on Disney property!

Wetzel's Pretzels and HaŠgen Dazs - these two fast-food joints were the only ones I thought would be busy. And on this count I was right: they are always packed to the gills, probably because they are some of the only reasonably priced food in the area.

A nighttime line for warm pretzels and hot dogs.
A nighttime line for warm pretzels and hot dogs.

Catal - the word of mouth is beginning to spread, and foodies everywhere are still raving about Catal. Again, high prices, but apparently also high quality. This restaurant is not hurting for business, although its outdoor Uva bar seems less and less busy each time I walk past it.

House of Blues - this establishment isn't so much an eatery as a force of nature. When bands are playing -- that is to say, basically every night -- the lines are long and the cash registers don't stop clinking. Not that you could hear them, since the music is pretty loud.

Y Arriba Y Arriba - a Mexican tapas bar mixed with dance club? I figured this one for the first loser of Downtown Disney, but I couldn't have been more wrong. The lines are the longest here. Wander past on any given weekend evening, and you see hordes of young adults, dressed to impress, waiting in line outdoors for the chance to party. Mea culpa.

Ralph Brennan's Jazz Kitchen - may turn out to be the loser I had been predicting. The take-out window seems active enough, but the sit-down areas are never crowded. Here, indeed, the prices do seem to make a difference, and enough customers are turning away that I have noticed nearly empty dining areas on several occasions.

Rainforest CafŽ - there's one only 10 miles away at South Coast Plaza, so this one would be superfluous and empty, right? Wrong. Perhaps the tourists are attracted to this heavily themed locale - it does seem Disney- like, doesn't it? But whatever the reason, the crowds here are thick.

The signature "aquarium arch" entryway into Rainforest CafŽ.
The signature "aquarium arch" entryway into Rainforest CafŽ.

ESPN Zone - combines arcades, food, and sports under the umbrella concept of paying at times double what you thought you would. And yet, this too is a surprise (to my mind, anyway) success.

(You can access the menus and prices for all these restaurants on our Disneyland Restaurant Review.)

Looking back, it certainly appears that most of my prognostications were wrong. And that's fine, really it is! A healthy Downtown Disney experience guarantees more building, more expansion, more Disney. Who could complain about that?

And besides, with all this crow I'm eating, I'll be able to save money by not having to buy food. Perhaps even enough to eat at some of these Downtown Disney joints more often?

Nah, let's be realistic here ö these are Disney prices youâre talking about.


Downtown Dining, One Year Later

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