Archive for the ‘Restaurants’ Category

Orlando and Disney World Trip Jan 2010 – Dining

Sunday, February 21st, 2010

Eating out tends to be a big part of our trips to Walt Disney World.  Since we make frequent visits, we don’t really feel any strong pressure to see everything.  We really enjoy taking a somewhat leisurely pace on our trip and including at least one sit-down meal during each day is something that we particularly enjoy.

In this post, I’m going to start with a brief discussion of the Disney Dining plan and then provide a day-by-day overview.  I apologize that photos are a bit sparse in this report.  I’ve never really gotten into the habit of taking a lot of photos at restaurants, other than family photos at character meals or other themed locations.  In fact, even the pretty general photos (without my family) of the Sci-Fi Dine-In below are ones that I actually took several years ago.  If I had thought ahead of time of focusing my main trip report on the meals, I probably would have made more of an effort to get at least exterior photos of more of the restaurants.  I’ll try to think of this on my next trip.

Disney Dining Plan

During the last few trips, we have taken part in the Disney Dining Plan, which allows us to pre-pay a fixed per-day amount to cover the majority of our meals.  The plan provides credits for 1 counter service meal, 1 table service meal, and 1 snack item per person for each day of the trip.  The credits are pooled over the length of the trip (expiring at 11:59pm on the departure day), which does provide some flexibility for how they are used.

The dining plan has been somewhat controversial among Disney fans for some reasons that I do think have merit, particularly related to the increased difficulties getting into table service restaurants (at many locations, it is now pretty much mandatory to make reservations 6 months in advance) and it does also seem that some of the menus have been simplified somewhat since the dining plan began.  Overall, the program does work very well for our family and it does save us a considerable amount of money as we tend to order meals that would cost quite a bit more if we were paying directly.

While we still find the plan to be worthwhile, it is unfortunate that some changes were made that reduced the value a bit since it first began.  Originally, the table service meals included appetizer, entree, dessert, non-alcoholic beverage, and gratuity.  A couple years ago, the appetizer and gratuity were removed.  Including both the appetizer and dessert did make for a bit more food than we probably really wanted at some meals.  I do think it would be much better, though, if they would change the plan to offer a choice between the appetizer or a dessert instead of only providing the dessert.  There were a number of occasions where an appetizer (particularly soup or a salad) would definitely have been my preference over getting a dessert.

I’m definitely more torn on the elimination of the gratuity.  On the one hand, I admit that I did notice that service was sometimes a bit lackluster back when the tip was included and, thus, guaranteed.  On this trip, we didn’t really have any experiences where the service was less than good.  On the other hand, though, having to pay the gratuity separately for each table-service meal definitely takes away from the “pay it and forget it” aspect of the dining plan.  Since you calculate the tip based on the original menu prices, it does re-introduce a little bit of a tendency to want to look at the cost of each item ordered and a brings back a little bit of motivation for ordering the less expensive items.

I was also less than thrilled that an 18% gratuity was automatically added to our check at every location.  I’m not sure if that was because of the dining plan or because we had 6 people in our party, but it isn’t a policy that I like very much in either case.  At a few locations, the server did ask me first if I wanted to charge the gratuity to my room charge, but in most cases he/she just brought the charge slip without asking first or commenting.

My main reason for not really liking the automatic gratuity is that I prefer to be able to increase or decrease it a bit based on how the service was.  I also tend to think that 18% is a bit high for buffet meals, but the amount was not lowered at those locations.  I will note that, since the gratuity was charged automatically, I never added anything to it and I’m pretty sure I would have tipped a bit higher at a few locations had it been left up to me.

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Walt Disney World trip, 12/2008 – T-Rex Cafe

Thursday, January 15th, 2009

(Continuing my very slowly-written trip report of our 12/7-12/15/08 visit to Walt Disney World and Orlando)

Even on a direct flight, the travel time from Los Angeles to Orlando is nearly 5 hours.  When you add on the three hour time change (as well as the travel time to and from the airport), most of the arrival date is used up.  On our trips, we have typically arrived at Walt Disney World by around 8pm or so Florida time.  After a long day, this is usually a bit late to head into a theme park, so we instead usually look for a fun place for dinner somewhere that isn’t overly far from the resort where we are staying.

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This year, our arrival night dinner was at T-Rex Cafe, the newly-opened dinosaur-themed restaurant at Downtown Disney.  Saratoga Springs is just a short bus ride from there, so trying out this new restaurant seemed like an ideal choice for the first night of our trip.  It did turn out to be a good choice and really helped us to transition from the high-stress of travel into the fun of themed entertainment.  Giving credit where credit is due, I should mention here that I was so hungry and hurried to get to dinner that I forgot to take my camera along to the restaurant.  All the pictures in this post were taken instead by my father (most during a previous visit to the restaurant) and I thank him for sharing them with me.

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At the time of our visit, the restaurant was still officially in "soft opening" meaning that it hadn’t yet had its official grand opening and would still be operating with a few limitations.  The main result of this was that they were not yet taking any reservations, which did at least increase the potential for fairly long lines.  Even though it was a Saturday night, it was fairly late (around 9pm) by the time we got checked into our hotel room and then found our way over to the restaurant for dinner.  In addition, my sister just met us there instead of coming over to the hotel, so she was able to monitor the wait time and jump into the line as soon as we called and let her know we were on the way over.  This resulted in us getting a table almost immediately after we got there.

One other effect of the restaurant being in soft opening (and so new) was that we actually had a little bit of trouble finding it.  Even though the building is rather distinctive and rather hard to miss, Downtown Disney is pretty tightly packed which means that individual buildings aren’t visible from everywhere.  With the restaurant not yet having "officially" opened, it wasn’t yet on the maps or most of the directional signs.  We even asked a couple employees for directions, but the ones we asked didn’t really seem to know the answer.  We finally found it by simply starting to walk across the complex until we spotted it in the distance.

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Disneyland Resort Trips Report – June/July 2008 Part 1: The Food

Wednesday, July 9th, 2008

The headline for this post is not a typo.  This report is going to cover two different stays at the Disneyland Resort over just a few short weeks of time.  We first spent 4 nights at the resort on June 22-25 and then stayed overnight again on July 4th.

We have a membership in the Disney Vacation Club (DVC) timeshare and had originally planned to make a trip to Walt Disney World in late June right after our son completed his first year of pre-school.  After our October trip last year, we found that our son had become pretty skittish on rides and attractions and we decided it probably would be wise to delay our trip until December to increase the chance that he would grow out of that a bit.  Canceling that trip meant that we ended up with a number of DVC points that we had to use by August or end up forfeiting them.

My parents live in the Orlando area and they decided to come up to visit us during the same period that we had originally planned our Florida trip.  They were interested in staying down at the Disneyland Resort for a few days, so it then made sense to use up those points with a stay down there.  After researching, we discovered that we had the points available to cover the cost of a concierge-level room at Disney’s Grand Californian hotel for those 4 nights in June with enough left over for the 4th of July as well.  We had used points to stay there on July 4th for the last few years (avoiding the need to drive home after the fireworks) and it was very appealing to do that again this year while also having the chance to enjoy a longer, multi-day stay at the Grand Californian as well.

Instead of trying to test my memory with a day-to-day report on our visit, I’m going to categorize my report.  In this first part, I am going to concentrate on our dining experiences during the trip.  I’ll likely add additional parts to this over the next few days reporting on other aspects of the trip.

Character Dining

My parents arrived mid-afternoon on June 22 and we decided that a character dinner would be a good way to start the trip.  Around the 60 day mark before our trip, we made reservations at Goofy’s Kitchen (at the Disneyland Hotel) for that first-night dinner.  Our reservations were at 6pm and we were happy that they were able to seat us within about 5-10 minutes of our arrival at the restaurant.  Walk-up guests were being told that there was a 90 minute wait, so reservations are definitely a very good idea here.

Before seating, they gathered our family together for a photo with Pluto.  About halfway through the meal someone came to our table to try and sell us a pretty overpriced (around $40, if I recall) package of the photos.  They did the same thing when we did the character breakfast at PCH Grill later in the week (this time with Daisy Duck), so this must now be standard at the character meals.  In both cases, we declined as the packages were pretty costly and the photos weren’t that great.  I don’t remember encountering this there before (although it has been a while since we last did a character meal at DLR) and I don’t really care for this system.  I don’t mind the pre-meal photos, but I’d much rather they use Photopass to sell the photos.  At least at PCH, a CM did offer to also take a couple photos with our own camera, something that wasn’t offered at Goofy’s Kitchen.

The food at Goofy’s was ok, but nothing special.  This was consistent with our past experiences there.  We have always found that you definitely go there much more for the character-experience than for the food.  The food is definitely better than a low-end buffet like a Hometown Buffet, but I would also say it is closer to that than it to what you typically find at a high-end hotel buffet such as at the better Vegas hotels or at somewhere like a Hilton or a Hyatt.  Those used to the Walt Disney World character meals are also apt to be disappointed by Goofy’s based on our typical experiences.

The buffet does feature carved prime rib as a main entree and it was pretty decent.  On my first trip up there, I did get a piece that turned out to be quite a bit more rare than I generally like (and I prefer beef to be medium to medium-rare), but I can’t fault them too much for that since I didn’t specify a preference.  On a subsequent trip up there, I was easily able to get another slice that was more to my taste.  I do think they should probably ask before serving the meat that rare, but it still wasn’t that big a deal.  I did think the rest of the selection at the buffet was somewhat more limited than it should have been, which was not unexpected based on past visits.  For example, I was really surprised that they only offered one variety of roasted potatoes (which I couldn’t eat because they had onions) and didn’t even have the mashed potatoes and gravy that are usually commonplace at this kind of buffet.

I actually thought that the children’s section of the buffet was a better selection.  They had a couple different kinds of pizza, chicken strips, popcorn shrimp (I actually had quite a bit of this), macaroni and cheese, and spaghetti.  Our son actually completed finished off two pretty full plates of food, which was a larger meal than we are used to him finishing.  He especially liked the spaghetti and ate two pretty big helpings of that.

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Disneyland Resort – California Food and Wine Festival

Monday, April 14th, 2008

My family spent the afternoon at the Disneyland Resort on Sunday, April 14.  The primary purpose for this trip was to meet up with a couple friends to experience the special food offerings available at Disney’s California Adventure for the Taste of California Marketplace, which is part of the annual California Food and Wine Festival currently being offered in the park.  This is the west coast version of a popular, long-running event that Disney holds every Fall in Epcot at Walt Disney World.

The Taste of California Marketplace offers a selection of fairly small, sampler-style portions of a number of different food items, all designed by California-based chefs and intended to represent the state’s culinary culture.  Small cups of California-made wines and beers are also offered to accompany these.  All of these items are available at the now-defunct Lucky Fortune Cookery counter-service restaurant, which is located in the Pacific Wharf section of the park.  This location provides a good infrastructure for the food service as well a large dining area (shared with two permanent restaurants with a great deal of available tables and chairs.  It makes for a much more convenient location than the multiple locations that were used during the first year of the event and which are still in use at the Epcot event.

The sampler-sized portions served at the Marketplace mean that the typical guest is likely to try a variety of choices, particularly if the items are being ordered as a meal rather than as a quick snack.  I ended up ordering 5 of the different food selections as well as one cup of wine.  Another couple that was dining with us eventually ordered and shared at least one of every item offered.

I initially ordered one each of the chicken and beef California skewers, the Festival Cheese Plate and a cup of Mirassou Chardonnay on a first trip to the counter.  The Marketplace also has the usual selection of soft drinks available and, since it was a hot day and the wine doesn’t really work as a thirst-quencher, I did order a Coke as well.  After finishing those, I was still hungry enough to try a couple more items, so I went back up and ordered the Pepper Crusted Beef Tenderloin Slider sandwich and, for dessert, the Seasonal Berry Trifle.

I particularly liked the skewers, which included the meat and a few various vegetables with a sweet chipotle glaze.  The sauce was fairly strong, but I found it to be extremely tasty and to really complement the flavor of the meat.  I generally don’t like cooked vegetables, and I have a strong sensitivity to onions, so I didn’t really eat too much other than the meat.  That did make the portions especially small for these (a common problem for me with skewers), but I did really enjoy the portions I did eat.

The cheese plate was ok, although I tend to like somewhat softer textured cheeses than most of the ones chosen for this platter.  For one thing, I tend to find softer cheeses to be a bit more flavorful while these were a waxy.  The one big exception was what they described as a huntsman cheddar bleu, which I thought was absolutely delicious.  I love bleu cheese and it mixed with the cheddar to form a flavor that I found tremendously appealing.  The cheese plate also came with some seedless purple grapes which were very fresh and at just the right level of ripeness.  The platter also featured a good sized pita crisp.  I’m not really much of a wine expert, so I asked the clerk to recommend a wine that would go well with my order.  She suggested the Chardonnay as a good compliment for the cheese plate and I found that it did go well with it.

My least favorite of the items that I tried was the Pepper Crusted Beef Tenderloin Slider.  This miniature sandwich was served on a small brioche roll and also included onion crisps and what Disney described as a citrus mojo criollo sauce.  Due to my sensitivity to onions, I had to remove most of them from my sandwich, although I was able to leave a few on as I’ve found that fried onions generally don’t affect me quite as much as ones that are raw or cooked in other ways.  That meant that I was able to get at least a bit of the flavor that they added to the sandwich.  The sauce was very heavy on garlic, though, and I strongly expect that one’s taste for this sandwich will be very much measured by one’s tolerance for garlic.  I generally do like garlic and initially found that I really liked the flavor.  About half-way through the sandwich, though, I found that I had pretty much had my fill of it.  The friends we were with pretty much picked this as their favorite item, though, so certainly your mileage my vary.

For dessert, I had actually asked for the Ghirardelli Chocolate Marquise, but was surprised when they gave me the trifle instead.  When I checked the receipt, I found that it did show the trifle as well, so I guess that the cashier must have hit the wrong button.  Since the trifle was generally to my taste as well, I decided not to bother trying to get it corrected.  The berries were strawberries and were very fresh and nicely sweetened by both the vanilla custard and light whipped cream.  The pound cake was a tad more dry, but still tasted very good.  Overall, it was a good dessert, although I would probably be interested in still trying the other one if I make it back there before the end of the festival.

One thing that should be noted is that the marketplace does not make for an inexpensive meal.  The items are priced fairly high for the portion sizes and getting enough food for a filling lunch can quickly run up in costs.  They do honor the customary discounts for annual passholders and Disney cast members (employees), which can lower the cost a tad if you qualify.  Without discounts or tax, the food items that I ordered came to a total of $24.50.  The glass of wine was another $3 and the Coke was the usual $2.50 or so (I don’t recall the exact amount).  Those prices for just one person are in the same ballpark as lunch at a fairly high-end table-service restaurant, although with service and presentation that are more in line with fast food. 

I mentioned at the beginning of this post that I visited with my family, but I haven’t mentioned anything about my wife and son’s food choices.  The reason for that is that neither of them ended up ordering from the Marketplace.  The food choices just didn’t really appeal to my wife’s tastes and we also decided that the combination of the high prices and fairly exotic selections were questionable for a 4-year-old, even though our son does tend to be a fairly adventurous eater.  This was where the Food and Wine Festival’s setting inside of a Disney theme park was very much an advantage.  It was only a very short distance for them to go over to the Farmer’s Market counter service restaurant where both were able to get chicken strips for lunch. 

The close proximity between the somewhat upscale offerings of the festival and the more traditional theme park offerings served us well after lunch as well.  Our son did get restless with the somewhat longer, more formal lunch (and he was in a bit of a cranky mood anyway), but afterward  we were able to easily take him to do things that were more enjoyable to him.  Had we not been visiting with a small child, we might have been more interested in exploring more of the seminars and other events associated with the festival.  Instead, we park-hopped over to Disneyland where he got to visit with Mickey and Pluto, ride the tea cups and the carrousel, and then finally see the "Enchanted Tiki Room" show before we headed home for the day.  It was an extremely hot day, so we were fortunate that lines were pretty short allowing us to do quite a few things in just a couple hours.

California Adventure had been pretty crowded that day, so we were expecting much larger crowds at Disneyland than we actually found when we got there.  I suspect the Food and Wine Festival is turning out to be a pretty good attractor for the park, although I’m also sure that the "2 for 1" deal for that gives 1-day at each park for one price is also bringing a lot of people in.  I would guess that most weekend visitors taking advantage of the deal likely go to Disneyland on Saturday and California Adventure on Sunday, which would account for at least some of what we saw.  I did notice that the lines for the regular restaurants in the Pacific Wharf area of the park were substantially longer than the lines at the Marketplace, which probably isn’t too surprising at the prices they were charging.

I would overall consider our experience with the Food and Wine Festival to be a positive one.  The food choices at the Marketplace made for a very enjoyable and interesting lunch, even if the prices were definitely somewhat inflated for what was being offered.  Still, it was an overall positive once-a-year experience and I could easily see going again next year.

Lawry’s The Prime Rib

Monday, January 28th, 2008

Last week marked the 9th anniversary of my wife’s and my first date.  While that is a milestone that probably declines a bit in significant after our 7+ years of marriage, it still provided a good excuse to get a babysitter and enjoy a dinner out together.  Last Thursday, we had that dinner at one of our favorite restaurants, Lawry’s The Prime Rib in Beverly Hills.

My first experience at a Lawry’s restaurant was actually at their location in downtown Chicago to celebrate my 16th birthday.  It was almost 2 decades later before my next chance to eat at one of their restaurants, but it always stuck in my memory as one of my all-time favorite dining experiences.  Since that first trip to the Beverly Hills location (which is the original one in this format) a few years ago, it has become pretty much my wife’s and my first choice for "date night" special occasion dinners.

As you can probably guess from the name of the restaurant, Lawry’s specializes in prime rib.  In fact, when I made that first visit to the one in Chicago back in the mid-1980s, that was the only entree that they offered.  Back then, the only menu that they gave you (other then a wine list) was a small flyer listing the prices of the different sized cuts of prime rib.  If you wanted something other prime rib for dinner, then you needed to go somewhere else.

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