33 Royal Street is arguably the most “famous” address among Disney fans. What’s at that address? None other than the exclusive and somewhat mysterious restaurant, Club 33. Access to the Club is by membership (or as the guest of a member) only, which costs $25,000 for initiation plus $10,000 per year as of 2013. The existence of the restaurant is denoted only by a cryptic “33” sign near the entrance to the restaurant. This article contains some “secrets” or little known facts about Club 33, plus our impression of dinner at Club 33.
Much lore exists as to how the restaurant got its name. Some claim that the restaurant is named after the original 33 investors in Disneyland, who Walt would entertain in the restaurant. Others have suggested that the name refers to the number of “yay” votes for proceeding with the Club after Walt’s death. Others yet think it’s because 33 sideways looks like “mm.” Another more well-respected rumor is that it represents the number of Disneyland lessees in 1966-67 when the Club was being built. Countless other fables likely exist to offer explanation for the name. While there may be some truth to these rumors, especially the last, the official reason goes back to the address. Club 33 serves liquor, and as such, needed a liquor license. To receive a license, it needed an address separate from Disneyland. It is named after its address.
Backtracking a bit, we started our voyage into Club 33 by heading to the doorway where I pressed a speak-easy style speaker-box. After a couple of seconds, a voice came over the other side of the intercom, and asked for our information. A few seconds later, we were buzzed inside.
No matter how much I had read about the restaurant and despite all of the photos I had seen online, I was blown away as I was enveloped in the sea of rich burgundy and ornate details. Everything about the lobby was lavish. Although I wasn’t around back in the 20s, it felt like what I envision the inside of a ritzy 20s speak-easy looking like. Much like the Lilly Belle, it appeared as if it had remained in pristine condition since 1967.
Right then, I knew the ambiance alone would justify the cost of the experience. I cannot fully stress how important it is to view this restaurant as an experience and not a meal. If you’re considering dining at Club 33 and you don’t really care about Disney history, don’t.
Immediately visible in the lobby is the most impressive piece of Club 33 lore, the French Lift. These lifts were frequently used in the late 1880′s, but are now quite rare. They were similarly rare when Club 33 was being constructed.
When shopping in France with his wife, Lillian, Walt spotted a French Lift he immediately had to have in an older hotel. He tried to purchase the elevator, but the hotel would not sell the elevator (uhh…did they not recognize Walt FREAKIN’ Disney?! They should have given the thing to him, along with any other elevator in the premises, even if he didn’t request them!), so Walt had artists and engineers (Imagineers) visit the hotel to study the lift so that they could replicate the lift with necessary modernizations. If you dine at Club 33, you’d be remiss if you didn’t take the lift.
As you step out of the elevator, you begin to notice all of the exquisite details that give Club 33 such a rich history. Our table was ready, so we would have to soak in these details later.
The lights were low and uneven, and the dining room was a veritable sea of burgundy. These conditions made photographs especially difficult. On top of that, my go-to lens for such occasions, the Sigma 30mm f/1.4, had broken earlier in the trip. My next fastest lens, the Nikon 50mm f/1.8 had too much ‘zoom’ for such confined spaces, so I’d be forced to use the ultra-wide angle and fisheye lenses almost entirely. This was really disappointing, as the results with these two lenses aren’t nearly as good as what I could have accomplished with the Sigma 30. I toyed with the idea of converting all of the photos here to black and white, as I think they’d look better that way due to the harsh lighting and the overwhelming burgundy, but ultimately decided to retain color in most to convey the appearance of the restaurant as accurately as I could. C’est la vie.
As we wanted to see Fantasmic! from the balcony when we made our reservations, we went for dinner. Unfortunately, Fantasmic! was not showing on this particular night, as work had begun in the Rivers of America for the Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides World Premiere. I have since heard that lunch, with its buffet, is actually the better option. If we go again, I think we will give lunch a shot.
We started our evening with drinks. A meal at Club 33 is the only way you’ll ever (within the park rules, at least) consume alcohol in Disneyland, so we were not going to pass up this opportunity. Not really knowing what to order (the beer list didn’t sound appealing), I opted for a gin and tonic. Given the surroundings, I wanted a drink that seemed like it was straight off of the set from Mad Men. I realized I don’t really have a taste for gin and tonic, but it seemed fairly good. Had a kick to it but the alcohol wasn’t overpowering. More importantly, it made me feel dapper as I held it up to the light and furrowed my brow, so it had accomplished its task.
For dinner, we had two options, a seasonal five-course prix fixe menu and an a la carte appetizer and entrée menu. Everyone at our table chose the a la carte menu, which required spending the cost of a one-day park ticket. This requirement is almost laughable, as each of our meals easily exceeded twice the cost of a one-day park ticket. Sarah and I ordered the same appetizer, the crab cake.
Unlike many crab cakes that are composed primarily of filler, these crab cakes are almost completely crab. The “other stuff” is there, presumably, just to hold them together and give them some additional flavor. I believe our waiter stated that the crab cakes were something like at least 98% lump crab meat. That’s pretty impressive. The sauce was rich and creamy, which was the perfect compliment to the lump crab meat. The sauce definitely provided a good balance to the flavor and made the already moist crab cakes (few things are worse than a dry crab cake) even more succulent.
For the main course, we again both ordered the same thing, the Chateaubriand. We had heard from Club 33 members on the Lilly Belle that the Chateaubriand was to die for, and it looked to be one of the best options on the menu, so we opted for it. Upon seeing it, we had high expectations. It was a thick cut, dosed in a Cabernet reduction and beautifully garnished with mashed potatoes and baby tomatoes. Unfortunately, looks can be deceiving.
The filet did not cut easily, our first sign that something was amiss. It was not all that tender and not especially flavorful. Likewise, the potatoes tasted as if they were prepared from a box. The Cabernet reduction was the one star of the meal, and it was excellent and would have weaved together with a superior piece of meat, say the filet I had earlier in the trip at Napa Rose, most excellently. The Chateaubriand was by no means terrible, but I would probably place it in the bottom 10% of all $40+ plates of food I have had in my life. I was somewhat hopeful that maybe my specific cut was an anomaly, but no one at our table was overly-positive about their meal. It was still good, just not nearly what I expected after all of the hype and given the $47 price.
I don’t recall who in our party had which of the above entrees that are not Chateaubriand, nor do I know what they’re called. My apologies.
Dessert was next, and while my selections for the appetizer and entree were clear almost immediately upon seeing the menu, dessert presented more of a dilemma. Many of the choices sounded great; I needed to choose carefully as this was Club 33’s last chance at redeeming itself for the sub-par entree.
Redeem itself, it did. Perhaps it was the delightfully strong gin and tonic setting in, but the Mascarpone Lemon Cheese Cake and a Banana’s Foster’s Caramel Reduction really hit the spot. Rich and decadent, with an exquisite presentation, the two “sides” of the dessert contrasted each other well, without being too stark. A very imaginative dessert, to be sure, and an excellent conclusion to the meal.
With regard to the food specifically, even though the drinks were good, the appetizer was great and the dessert was great, the sub-par entree really impacted the ultimate score I’d give the cuisine (a B-). Similarly, our service was poor, as our waiter seemed pre-occupied throughout the meal. I’m not sure if this was because we weren’t actual members or what, but it also impacts that score a bit.
I earlier alluded to the fact that the Chateaubriand, purportedly one of the top menu items, was a sub-par item for this tier of restaurant. As I said at the outset, Club 33 is not a restaurant, it is the ultimate Disney fan experience, which happens to include a meal. Club 33 is not the most-sought after and elusive experience for Disney fans, with a closed waiting list because of its reputation as an exceptional restaurant. If you want to dine at an exceptional restaurant at Disneyland, you should be heading across the Esplanade to Napa Rose. There’s no waiting list there, the food is easily twice as good, and the prices are substantially less.
No, Club 33 is the Disney Holy Grail because of its history and exclusiveness. There is truly nothing else like it in the Disney universe. You don’t eat there because of the food, you eat there because of the ambiance.
Thankfully, during the course of the meal, our waiter offered to give us a post-dinner tour of the Club. We immediately and enthusiastically accepted his offer. Although I wanted to savor the experience as much as possible, this tour was in the back of my mind throughout dinner, and I was quite excited for the tour to arrive.
The tour was interesting, to say the least. By the time we were finished eating, the room of the restaurant where we were seated was fairly empty, with the exception of a couple of tables, meaning that our tour would not be rushed, nor would it interfere with other guests’ enjoyment of their meals.
Our waiter mixed history of the restaurant with news and “facts” about the parks. I use air-quotes around facts because many of these facts were far from facts. An example of such a fact was his description of the Carthay Circle Theater (or as he called it, “Carthaway”) replica being built at DCA that had it housing a Snow White attraction that, to the best of my knowledge, is not being built). Because I know many of the information he presented to us regarding the Parks was incorrect, I am hesitant to transcribe the facts that I cannot verify concerning Club 33, as I don’t want to perpetuate even more misinformation about the Club, Wikipedia style!
That said, here’s my capsule account of the tour, including the information I have been able to verify as accurate. After leaving the main dining room, where we were seated, our tour proceeded to the room that’s known informally as the Trophy Room.
Over the years, this room has changed, with animal heads and other once-living creatures removed from the years gradually as Disney attempted to distance itself from sport-hunts. The references to hunting are now more subtle, with memorabilia, art, and masks displacing some of the actual trophy heads.
Some remnants of the previous decor remain. An Audio Animatronic vulture that once entertained diners still sits perched in the upper corner of the room under the door, and microphones/speakers that were once used for the vulture’s interactive “show” can be found in the light fixtures hanging about tables.
The Trophy Room is smaller than the main dining room, and appears set for parties and visiting dignitaries who demand privacy from the rest of high society (although when we were there, I was surprised at how many of the patrons appeared to be “regular folk” just like our party; there were few patrons who seemed as if they were part of the pantheon of Southern California’s elite). If Teddy Roosevelt ever ate at Club 33, this is the room I imagine him utilizing. It oozed of restrained and refined manliness, yet I can’t help but imagine the place becoming a rowdy bastion of ‘stories from the hunt’ of an African hunting expedition amongst the elite after the liquor began flowing. Perhaps I let my imagination get the best of me. It definitely has a cozier feel, but is equally as ornate and well-appointed as the main dining room.
Leaving the Trophy Room and continuing down the hall, we encountered one of the Club’s more famous pieces of decor: a phone booth. This functional phone booth is quite ornate, with its bevelled glass windows and flawless oak panels is actually a prop from the 1960’s film, “The Happiest Millionaire,” which is one of the last films Walt Disney personally touched.
In the same vicinity is another movie prop, and arguably the Cub’s most famous piece: an ornate walnut table with white marble top. It was used in the legendary 1964 Disney film, “Mary Poppins.” If it’s not the most famous piece in the Club, it’s second (to the French Lift). While neat, the table doesn’t do nearly as much for me as the things there that are more personal to Walt himself. I know Mary Poppins was an incredibly personal movie for Walt, but it still doesn’t seem as significant as something from his personal life.
Of course no tour is complete with a stop in…the lady’s restroom…yeah, I don’t know what to say about this one. Sarah took photos of the restroom, and it’s pretty luxurious for what it is. Sorry if these photos offend your sensibilities, but I thought they were pretty interesting.
Moving along with the “normal” tour, one of the highlights of the restaurant is probably the piano just past the Gallery and across from the bar. Seemingly innocuous and no more refined than your average piano (at least to my untrained eyes), the inside of the lid features a meticulous painting of 19th century New Orleans Harbor. Our waiter listed off a few celebrity musicians who had played the piano, which is now non-working, but I’m not sure of the veracity of that story. He also stated that Lillian Disney had picked out the piano for the Club. Again, I’m not sure whether this is true.
Sadly, as implied above, Walt Disney never lived to dine at Club 33. It was completed just a few months after his death. Around the time of Disneyland’s 50th Anniversary, the Club had a painting commissioned of Walt dining at the restaurant. The painting now hangs in the restaurant, and features Walt at a window table, with the Mark Twain Riverboat outside, sipping a cup of coffee as he reads the paper. As far as art goes, this is probably the only piece I have ever seen that actually gave me chills. It is truly a moving piece of art.
At the end of the tour, in typical Disney fashion there was, of course, a gift shop! (This joke is so tired now, but what the heck.) Contrasting typical Disney fashion was that there was no counter or cash register nearby or any other means of knowing how to make a purchase. Rather, you simply loitered around a glass case, and sooner or later, a Cast Member would ask you what you’d like to purchase. It was almost as if the case was daring you to buy something, and waiting around a bit before being able to make a purchase was like even deeper initiation into “The Club.” If gift shops (or cases, in this case) could talk, this one would say, “I don’t need a person hawking goods bearing the exquisite logo of this Club. I’m cool, you know that, I know that. You want to buy me–you’ll wait around until we’re good and ready to sell something to you.”
I was going to purchase Club 33 ears, but ultimately opted against them once I saw them. Sarah purchased a baseball hat. There were something interesting items, most noteworthy the class ring style men’s rings. However, most of the items were stock print-shop clothing with the “33” logo emblazoned on them. Definitely nothing imaginative, and not what I expected for such an exclusive club. I have heard that they once sold prints of the Walt painting I mentioned earlier. Had that been available, I think I would have purchased it regardless of the price tag.
Our tour is over here, but these few brief paragraphs can hardly do justice to all of the details about the Club, which quite simply oozes history. A voluminous book could, and really should, be written about the Club itself, before the true history of the place is lost or morphed over the years by discrepancies in retellings from the generations of Cast Members who keep its history alive with anecdotes like those contained in our tour.
Keeping in mind my lukewarm review of the meal itself, which was heavily influenced by the main entree, I would give our experience at Club 33 a 10/10. Had the entree been better, I would put the meal on par with something like California Grill at Walt Disney World, but probably still below Jiko and Flying Fish. It definitely couldn’t touch restaurants like Victoria & Albert’s at Walt Disney World, or Napa Rose at Disneyland. That said, if ever a restaurant deserved a mantra of, “come for the food, stay for the experience,” it is Club 33. Our hours there will likely go down as some of the best ever in any Disney park, and if we ever have the opportunity to go back, we will in an instant.