Where Paradise Pier was a blatant grab for the attention of teens and tweens, Downtown Disney is aimed squarely at adults - well, near-adults, anyway. It's a complex of 18 restaurants, night clubs, and upscale shops designed to round out the offerings of the newly named "Disneyland Resort." And whatever your feelings are toward what the Eisner years have done to our beloved Disneyland, you cannot help but admire the results of the efforts the Company has put into expanding the Disneyland experience from what is usually a day trip for families with children into (forgive the cliche') a vacation destination. Die-hard Disneyland fanatics will cluck over the further commercialization of Walt's playland for kids, but there's no denying the simple fact that Downtown Disney has a lot to offer grown-ups who enjoy Disneyland, but have found it has limited appeal. No rides here - it's all about shopping, dining, and drinking. Let's start with the clubs and restaurants…
Sports bar lovers will think they'd died and gone to Heaven when they visit an ESPN Zone for the first time. Every seat at the bar and every table has an excellent view of at least one television - all of which are tuned, as you'd expect, to a sporting event or one of the Disney-owned ESPN cable channels with a couple of shows broadcast live from inside the complex. Although it was too chilly when we were there, the outdoor tables looked like a great place to kick back and savor a cold beer on a balmy southern California evening after a rough day in the parks. Inside you'll find the "Studio Grill" featuring American cuisine and where the program "Up Close" is broadcast, the "Screening Room" - featuring a 16-foot screen and a dozen 36-inch monitors with tiered seating, and the "Sports Arena" arcade and entertainment center. It's an oasis for Dad where he can relax while the kids are in the park and Mom is happily shopping.
"The Rainforest Cafe" is an excellent choice of restaurant for families with kids. It combines the audio animatronics of Disneyland with an approachable menu with at least a nod toward good nutrition. Every 20-30 minutes, a thunderstorm wakes the slumbering beasts nestled amid the lush vegetation and Banyan trees surrounding you. Don't expect the same level of sophistication in these figures as you would in the newest Disney attractions because you won't see it. Private rooms upstairs and the bar downstairs are available for meetings, and there's a souvenir shop for the trinket lovers. Menu selections include themed seafood, and traditional American and California cuisine selections. The food generally receives high praise from those we've spoken to, but our sole experience with the Rainforest location in Walt Disney World was memorable only for it's fantastically disappointing food. Perhaps they were having a bad day, but I would suggest that you keep your expectations in check. The advantage here is solely in the relaxed atmosphere with features for the kids and soothing rainforest sound effects and subdued lighting for weary parents on vacation.
The legendary "House of Blues" restaurant chain has managed to keep itself fresh with an ever-widening array of performers. The multi-level nightclub features a 900 seat theater, a 300 seat restaurant with balcony dining, and of course, the obligatory souvenir shop. It's a bit loud for our taste, but the menu is awash in comfort foods. And on a warm evening, I could easily imagine spending endless hours enjoying the outstanding music with a refreshing beverage or three and a satisfying meal here.
"Y Arriba Y Arriba" is a tribute to California's lively Latino community embodied in an excellent nightclub featuring live entertainment and a cuisine that's definitely as spicy as the dancers. It's the place to go when you want to let your hair down and have some real fun.
Fine breads and pastries are among the standouts offered by this famous chain of Los Angeles eateries. Dine inside or outside on the sidewalk terrace, or choose the self-serve "grab-and-go". The popular "La Brea Bakery Cafe" features a full coffee and expresso bar, cold sandwiches, grilled paninni sandwiches, soups, salads, and a wine bar that offers wine by the glass and a selection of micro-brewery beers. It's a great choice for a light lunch or early dinner when you need to recharge after a long day in Disneyland.
"Naples Ristorante e Pizzeria" was our favorite place to eat in all of Downtown Disney for two reasons. First, of course, was the food. We sampled pizzas and hors d'ourves and were simply overcome with joy. Pizza is a passion with us and they served the best pizza we've had in over 10 years. The second reason we enjoyed ourselves so much here was that the staff was simply charming. As the song says, no request was too extreme. You can bet that we will visit "Naples Ristorante" at least once every time we visit Disneyland.
Surpassed only by Naples, "Catal's Uva" restaurant and bar features a 140-seat indoor/outdoor dining area that specializes in serving 40 wines by the glass and tapas made with an enticing variety of ingredients from all over the Mediterranian rim. The upstairs "Catal Restaurant" offers a far more sophisticated menu of fine Mediterranean cuisine. It is as fine a restaurant as you would find anywhere in the world. We only sampled a few items, but it was clear that this was a place we would want to visit over and over just to explore all the exotic offerings. The indoor restaurant is paired with the open-air "Tapas Bar" outdoors in the mall. Positively cosmopolitan in it's elegance, Catal should be one of your first choices for fine dining in Disneyland.
"Ralph Brennan's Jazz Kitchen" is a slice of New Orleans ensconced in the middle of Disneyland. You'll find three separate venues here - New Orleans favorites to go in the Creole Cafe, casual dining with live jazz in "Flambeaux's", and casual-fine dining in "The Carnival Club". We didn't get a chance to try this nightclub, but the music coming out the front door as we passed by made us sorry we couldn't go inside. We're Dixieland fans (ever hear of the Firehouse Five Dixieland jazz band whose members were all Disney animators?) and can't wait to try this place. Next visit for sure!
Take-away snacks can be found in the central mall as you walk the length of Downtown
Disney in places like the "Haagen-Dazs Shop", "Wetzel's Pretzels", and "The Marcelene
Candy Shop" (named for Walt's home town in Missouri).
While hardly a place to go for fine dining, this seems like the best place to mention the AMC Theater 12-screen megaplex. Its another attempt by Disney to keep visitors from straying from the boundaries of their influence. But if you put your cynicism aside for a moment and remember that the theme parks close early in the evenings for much of the year, having a movie theater within easy walking distance of your hotel would be most welcome if you were on vacation in a strange city (and Anaheim certainly qualifies!).