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Kevin Yee

Downtown Dining, Part Two

My last column, where we discussed the state of things a year later at Downtown Disney prompted quite a bit of reader feedback!

Below are some of those notes, and also an update on one Downtown Disney tenant that may not be there much longer...

Chef's Feedback

A Reader writes:

The Sunday busy ESPN Zone
The Sunday busy ESPN Zone

Being APs, my wife and I have been there many times, especially since last fall. On Sundays, ESPN Zone is a zoo, and I don't mean it in a good way. We usually went to watch football on Sundays, and unless one was sitting directly at the bar, table service was an absolute joke. That is, if you could get one. I never saw so many people waited on by so few in my life. One other thing -- Raider games at ESPN Zone. It literally gets dangerous due to the boneheaded mentality of most drunken Raider fans, and ESPN Zone just keeps serving 'em.

The outdoor Uva Bar is rather nice, however. You're right; one can usually walk right up and get served due to it not being crowded, but what's wrong with that? The people who work there have been very pleasant, every single last one of them, and they make some mean drinks.

Oh yeah, Avalon Cove. Pretty much the only reason we go to Disney's California Adventure. We haven't been in the restaurant, just the bar. We're usually the only ones there when we go, and it's kinda nice to have the bartender wait around for just little ol' us all Sunday just to serve us. According to the staff there, Disney forbids them to put in any televisions at the bar. Too bad. We would have watched the Super Bowl there and spent more than $12, but if that's the way they want it...

Dear Reader, youāre not the only one to encounter shoddy service at ESPN Zone (see below).

I agree with you that, from the consumer side of things, thereās absolutely nothing wrong with an uncrowded venue. In fact, itās better. Of course, if things are permanently uncrowded, isnāt that a sign that the establishment wonāt be there down the road?

For what itās worth, I agree with Disney on the issue of televisions in the Avalon Cove bar. The illusion of a bygone era of clean boardwalk amusement parks is swept away if you have a present-day sporting event blaring away; suddenly youāre just back in the present!

Secret Worker types:

I just read your article and I have a few comments.

First of all, you said there have been no menu changes in Downtown Disney. You couldn't be more wrong, at least when it comes to the [Ralph Brennan's] Jazz Kitchen. I happen to work there and I can report our menus change fairly regularly. I have been there from the beginning and can remember about five or six major menu changes and minor changes are happening all the time. We have three very different dining experiences to choose from: Creole CafŽ (fast food), Flambeaux's (casual fine dining), and The Parlor (fine dining) all have a different menu and kitchen. We have been consistently busy except after Sept. 11 and after New Year's; both happen to be the slow period for the parks, too. Even during the slow times we are very busy Thursday through Saturday, which I think is the same for most of the stores and restaurants at Downtown Disney.

As for your statement about Y Arriba Y Arriba, everything I have heard is that they're not doing so well. They are busy on Saturdays when they have their club night but other than that they seem to be really slow. Although, I do believe they are going to be having a club night on Fridays, too. I think that is the only thing keeping them afloat.

All of Downtown Disney is dead during the day except during the summer. The problem is that there are not that many businesses nearby, and they usually account for a restaurantās lunch clientele.

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

What's really working against Downtown Disney is that lemon of a park next door. [Disney's] California Adventure has helped bring in more tourists to Anaheim but nowhere near the numbers promised to all the vendors at Downtown Disney. I think that all the vendors have had to cut back from their original plans because of the lack of tourists. All of the surveys Disney has done found that most of the people visiting the Downtown are locals: locals are what keeps the whole place afloat.

Just like Wolfgang and Mondavi you can bet that all the vendors are angry with Disney for promising so much and then not delivering. I think that all the tenants of Downtown Disney are making money, just not in the rate they had expected. They all put a lot of money into it and are seeing a very slow return. I feel that if Disney doesn't do something to improve the parks, it's going to be harder and harder for the vendors to make money. I would be surprised to see any major expansion to the entertainment district until guest numbers are up at both parks, because the word is out about how much of a struggle it is to operate in Downtown Disney.

Secret Worker, my thanks to you for the info on the Jazz Kitchen and for your insights on the vendor perspective. I hereby issue a mea culpa with regards to the Jazz Kitchen -- other readers caught me on that one, too. Weāll try to get our menu listings up to speed soon.

The real evolving story here is that vendors were promised much, as you note, and then had to scale back expectations to mesh with reality. Had they built Westcot next door, would we be having discussions about which Downtown Disney establishment would die first?

I think you are exactly right about the majority of the crowd being locals, while Disney's California Adventure (DCA) attempts to target tourists. At the Walt Disney World Resort, tourists unload tons of money and are fine with it. Here, they seem to avoid Downtown Disney after a day at DCA (if indeed they even went to DCA). Something clearly needs adjusting; there is sticker shock occurring at some level.

Bill chimes in:

I, too, am surprised at the success of Downtown Disney. On the occasional weekend evening when I drop by after a visit to the parks, it is jammed with people. Last Saturday, February 9th, I took my mom to dinner at [Ralph] Brennan's Jazz Kitchen as a combination Mardi Gras and her birthday treat. Having checked the menu on the restaurant review site, I was expecting to pay big money for a meal I wasn't really thrilled about. My mom is the one who loves that kind of food. I don't care much for seafood. I was surprised to discover they were offering a Mardi Gras buffet and discount drinks. The buffet was about $20, drinks about $2 and $3.

The Ralph Brennan Jazz Kitchen
The Ralph Brennan Jazz Kitchen

After a visit to the parks, I checked in at about 7 pm. They said a 45-minute wait, about what I expected, maybe even a little less. We waited at the bar next to the bandstand and enjoyed the music. Very enjoyable, however it was nearly two hours before they called our name. Then they tried to seat us outside where the winds were threatening to blow Disney back to Kansas. It was only about 10 minutes more to wait for a table inside. By then the band had stopped for the night. Oh, well. The food was decent. I filled up on catfish and jambalaya. My mom had gumbo, chicken and, well... everything. Not a large selection of food, but OK. Another band came on at 10 and we took our time, staying another 45 minutes.

I guess the point of all this is, they said the Mardi Gras buffet was something new they were trying. They didn't know what kind of crowd to expect and underestimated the wait time. Fair enough. If as you say the place is usually underperforming, perhaps they will see this test as a way to bring in more people. Lower prices and/or a buffet certainly seemed to have a positive effect. I for one hope they stick around.

Hi Bill, as we heard above, they are trying multiple buffet and menu solutions at the Jazz Kitchen (the rotation of menus is itself a hint to me that they are feeling the financial pinch, since they deem it important to try new things). Iām certain they will heed the kinds of stories youāre telling here, since it looks like they really want to make a go of this.

Stew e-mailed:

My family and I -- and I know there are many others who feel this way as well -- are not prone to dining in the Downtown Disney area for the reasons that you pointed out; part of the problem being the prices, but the other part being that they are not catering to mainstream middle- America. Each choice (except for possibly the bakery, HŠagen-Dazs, and pretzel place) seems to be redefining California Cuisine (or perhaps New Orleans Style). As you noted, the crowds are there, but they are the young, unmarried professionals from the Orange County area; not the moms, dads, and two or three kids there on vacation.

OK, rather than continue to beat around the bush --- we miss the Monorail Cafe! That was the one place that Disney ran that gave us options -- good portions, of good food, at good prices.

Sure --- I like Goofy's Kitchen as much as the next guy -- but it gets a little [expensive] spending not only $20 for myself (then again for my wife), but $10 for my 5-year-old (who does eat a fair amount) -- but who'd be just as happy with a $5 Mickey Meal of nuggets and fries. I guess the sad part is that since they are doing as well as they are, they will just keep aiming above the family budget -- we'll just have to eat in the park, or cross to the other side (along Harbor) and eat at Tony Roma's, McDonald's, or Coco's (ok, that's on Katella, but you get the idea). Even the PCH Grill is "above" what we'd be looking for -- and for Mom and Dad, Croc's Bits and Bites gets a little tiresome.

Maybe when someone of "regular" means (like Walt -- he seemed to be much more down to earth than Michael Eisner) is in a position of authority within the Walt Disney Company, this might happen -- in the meantime, I won't hold my breath -- but I will hold (tightly) onto my wallet and just make that trek off-site.

Yes Stew, we all miss the Monorail CafŽ (sniff, sniff).

Your arguments about the need for "regular" food (and prices!) are music to my ears. Every time I walk through the area, I hatch new plans for a cart-run hot dog operation. Disney could charge me $500 a day and Iād still be making profit ö thatās how big I think the unserved public is.

Too bad theyād never allow it; that would cannibalize the expensive dining options.

John pens:

Thanks for the great overview of the status of Downtown Disney's restaurants. I, too, am pleased that they are doing well, despite any predictions otherwise.

However, I would have to say that a big problem my wife and I have with Downtown Disney is the near complete absence of reasonably priced food. With the exception of the take- out place next to the Jazz Kitchen, there's hardly any real fast food or even "good food cheap." (Wetzel's Pretzels is a snack food, and not really lunch or dinner).

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

Universal CityWalk has a nice food court upstairs, most malls have a food court, even Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade has a food court. Downtown Disney needs an area where you can get burgers, fries, slices of pizza, tacos, quickie Chinese food, and deli sandwiches.

I know there's probably no space for it now (although I personally wouldn't miss the ESPN Zone), but any future expansion really needs to include something like a standard mall eating area.

John, a plea for a food court? We want the Company to offer mall- type dining?

You bet we do. Your e-mail finally allowed me, after 12 months of thinking about this, to put the situation into one clear sentence:

"The public wants themed experiences in the parks and quick mall food in the mall outside, while Disney increasingly offers the exact opposite: mall food inside the parks and expensive options outside."

There are exceptions of course (the failure of Mondavi and Puck to ignite the public), but these might be symptomatic of DCAās attendance issues as much as anything else.

Thanks for your clarifying comments!

Ken and Larry chime in:

Catal - This is the true gem of Downtown Disney (followed closely by Brennan's Jazz Kitchen). We've eaten at Catal five times since it opened and have yet to be disappointed by a meal. The last waitress we had was a bit rough around the edges and more suited to Coco's than Catal but nonetheless our meals have been stellar across the board. And I don't think the prices are unreasonable given the quality and presentation of the food.

Brennan's Jazz Kitchen - We've also eaten here five times and our experiences have been equally impressive. The service here is more friendly and genuine than at Catal, the food is superb (it's about time we have a true Creole / Cajun gem here in Orange County) and again I don't think the prices are unreasonable at the least.

Y Arriba (saying it once is enough) - Oddly enough I don't know anyone who's been to this place who's liked it. Too loud, poor and uninformed service, and mediocre food. Okay, the ambiance is nice but it's a club, not a restaurant. We'd never go back and have told people to stay away. And charging for iced tea refills is a joke!

House of Blues - Our one time there was underwhelming and frankly the Las Vegas location (in Mandalay Bay) is infinitely better. Wouldn't go back here, either.

Naples - The one place we haven't tried yet. After watching them make the pizzas I wasn't impressed - overpriced and there was nothing on them.

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

Rainforest Cafe - If you feel like paying for ambiance, it's okay, I suppose, but if you've eaten at the one at South Coast Plaza, why bother? The uniqueness of Catal and Brennan's is what "makes" Downtown Disney, as far as we're concerned.

And finally (yes I know it's in the Grand Californian)...

Napa Rose - So far we're waiting to be blown away by this place. We've eaten here four times but the service has a long way to go to catch up to the food. The servers we've had haven't been as polished as they should for a four-star restaurant, and frankly, given the prices, I've had more impressive meals at equally renowned and high-brow restaurants. The menus are interesting, but there have been many missteps by the wait crew when we've dined there, and they've done next to nothing to make up for it. And the people who greet you at the entrance need some schooling in the "first impressions" department.

Anyway, just a few thoughts from someone who's dropped a few bucks in Downtown Disney. It'll be very sad indeed if Brennan's is the first to go as we think it's one of the true bright spots amongst some otherwise ordinary endeavors.

Ken and Larry, thanks for your rundown on the establishments. Those in the know assure me that Catal and the Jazz Kitchen are indeed worthwhile additions to the Orange County scene. While I value those opinions, these restaurants are out of my price range.

And the Napa Rose seems hit or miss to me, too. My experiences were somewhat like yours. Remember that this is true five-star dining: your $30 entrŽe is unlikely to fill you up entirely (I feel it necessary to say this because many folks stumble into the place without being very experienced in fine dining).

In fact, Napa Rose is so five-star, theyāve recently been named by Zagatās 2002 survey as one of the best restaurants in Orange County. Trust me, this is a big honor. And yet, I was underwhelmed on my trip as well.

And now for some news!

A kind source, far deeper involved than I am, has let me know a few things about Y Arriba Y Arriba. They are in deep trouble after all.

In fact, theyāve been in Chapter 11 bankruptcy for some time now. It was recently given 90 days to become profitable or face permanent closure. The smart money is on closure.

Arriba: abajo?
Arriba: abajo?

It seems that the long lines Iāve seen are only on Thursday nights when they have a club, and the club, in fact, promotes more problems than it solves. Anaheim Police donāt really appreciate the clubs. Try to picture this one: Apparently the Arriba security forces once chased someone down, tackled him, and cuffed him right in front of the Lego store. Not a part of what Disney wants to sell as atmosphere here.

On top of all that, the profits and books are messy. So bad that Disney is doing the bookkeeping for them!

Y Arribaās days seem to be numbered.

Downtown Dining, One Year Later


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