Anne Marie Panoringan
Voice of OC’s food columnist — reporting on industry news, current events and trends. Panoringan’s prior work includes writing for eight years at OC Weekly in which she interviewed over 330 industry professionals for her weekly “On the Line” column. She has been recognized by the Orange County Press Club and she also is a recurring guest on AM 830’s SoCal Restaurant Show. In 2022, Anne Marie was a judge for the James Beard Awards.
Last weekend, I spent an evening above New Orleans Square at a destination known to few. While many visitors may be familiar with the members-only establishment named Club 33, most guests are unaware of the neighboring dining space known as 21 Royal and its significance. I’ve seen a handful of articles and videos that approach the subject, but I believe I’m the first writer to experience it firsthand . . . twice. So for readers who want a deep dive into the topic of this elusive experience, read on.
Note: If you listen to a previous radio interview with Andy Harris of the SoCal Restaurant Show, you’ll learn that these were neither media visits nor discounted dinners, but something I reserved and paid for out-of-pocket (not expensed or reimbursed by work) each time.
I’m not here to shine a spotlight on every last detail; that isn’t my intention at all. As a former cast member (Disneyland College Program participant during years I’m not divulging), I plan to leave some of the magic for readers to experience on their own. As a food columnist, I’ll share a few of the dishes that I enjoyed, but I want this column to be about more than that. To me, 21 Royal’s address encompasses the cohesiveness of a unique venue, its highly skilled cast members and the culinary focus as a whole that make being there worthwhile.
Begin at the Beginning: A Brief Background
The structure above Pirates of the Caribbean has served a few purposes over the years. Originally, it was intended as a secondary residence for Walt Disney to entertain guests. This would be an upgrade from the modest apartment above the firehouse on Main Street U.S.A. that I visited while taking Walt’s Main Street tour (this apartment is considered “backstage” and therefore not accessible to the general public) on my birthday. However, Walt Disney passed away before the residence was completed. The project was shelved and the space was underutilized for decades.
Initially, I stepped foot into the 21 Royal space a good 20-plus years ago when it was known as The Disney Gallery. Browsing rotating artwork in a lovely setting with the option to purchase lithographs of memorable scenes in Disney movies used to make the gallery a mandatory stop whenever I was in the park.
Then in October 2007, the gallery was converted to the Disneyland Dream Suite. Imagineers studied the designs first drafted for Walt’s place and recreated the vision for a home away from home to be gifted to random park guests for a single evening during the resort’s “Year of a Million Dreams” promotion. By 2016, all dream suite recipients had (finally) completed their gifted stays inside this exclusive apartment. 21 Royal debuted in 2017.
Your 21 Royal Reservation
Before You Reserve: Booking Details
Something important to know is that from the moment you agree to a date, payment in full is due in two weeks in order to secure your booking. Regardless of whether your reservation is this summer or next year, the total amount by the due date is expected.
As of this writing, 21 Royal is booking at least one year out for Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings. There was currently availability for select nights in 2023.
For those guests who are into accumulating credit card points, 21 Royal does not, I repeat, not consider itself a restaurant, but merchandise. Kind of confusing, I know. So much for thinking I could earn quadruple points to supplement our next vacation.
Also, opting for a meal that does not include alcohol doesn’t adjust the price of the experience.
I usually tell people who ask me about dining here that the difficulty in spending an evening inside 21 Royal doesn’t involve obtaining a reservation per se, but in finding the other individuals to share the experience with. You see, unlike Club 33, 21 Royal does not require a membership to dine there. The distinction is in the all-inclusive price point.
Before I discuss the dollar amount, let’s go over what this reservation includes. The evening consists of a single group of up to 12 guests (the capacity of its dining room) for dinner on select nights per week. This means that there is no other reservation in the books besides yours that evening – more on this later. It also provides valet service at Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel & Spa for the entire day. Why the day? Because each diner receives a single-day park hopper ticket valid for the date of your dining reservation. This is excellent if one isn’t already a Magic Key (a.k.a. annual pass) holder.
On to the food and beverage component. The price point takes into consideration all courses, including small bites before dinner through every morsel of dessert. It also factors all drinks, from cocktails to coffee service, mocktails to Champagne. Refills are welcome so long as you have good manners. If you love wine, congratulations! There are pairings for every course already factored in. Those abstaining from alcohol will be treated to zero-proof options such as a modified version of a Hurricane they call a Tropical Storm and sparkling cider that’ll ruin all future bottles of Martinelli’s.
As for the non-tangible benefits of a 21 Royal reservation, it’s a little more complicated to explain without giving spoilers. However, as the sole group inside the former dream suite, essentially you have free reign of the space. There are a few rules of the house to bear in mind that are covered before dinner.
Up until the end of 2022, a 21 Royal reservation was priced at $15,000; it is now $18,000. Assuming a group maxes out the number of guests at 12, if divided evenly, each guest is spending $1,500. This does include all taxes and gratuity.
More on the Dining Component
Our primary chef for both dinners was Gloria Tae, chef de cuisine for both Club 33 and 21 Royal. Prior to 21 Royal, Tae also worked in Carthay Circle Restaurant, Napa Rose and The Vineyard Room at Disney California Adventure. Together with her sous chef Todd Collier as well as Culinary Director Andrew Sutton, the trio collaborated on a menu that was bespoke to our reservation.
While having brunch the following day with some of our dinner party, we recounted moments from our respective dinners that stood out. According to Ryan Morgan (who attended during my first visit in 2022), he recalled Sutton explaining how 21 Royal is the place his chefs can play and get creative. The team not only works with what’s in season, but which ingredients “speak” to them, sourcing specialty produce from farmers’ markets and importing premium items from other countries. New dishes are in rotation for three weeks or thereabouts before seasonality steps in and requires flavor profiles to be fine-tuned or changed altogether.
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Another component taken into consideration was the combination of food allergies, dietary restrictions and other sensitivities that were accommodated for, both in prepared dishes and beverages. At my second dinner inside 21 Royal, we had someone in our group who was allergic to fin fish and fish oil. The kitchen served a modified selection without ahi, utilizing savory lemon custard, applewood bacon and avocado relish (photos and details of his dish versus what we enjoyed are included). His first course was as well-thought-out as our own meals and he was more than pleased with it. Explanations of our wine pairings, plus thorough descriptions of every course were presented throughout the night, giving us insight into both the chef’s and sommelier Jordan Hallstrom’s thought processes when crafting and pairing a dish.
Our dinners were curated specifically for us, and as I explained to Harris during our radio interview, I hesitate to go over everything that we feasted on, as that may set up expectations for future guests with differing group dynamics. Our sommelier also took the time to select ideal pairings based on our menu being served. To discuss every winemaker and vintage poured over the course of the dinner doesn’t make sense because it is pertinent to our group alone. Could there be crossover between our dinner and someone else’s? Certainly. But you’d be missing the point that this isn’t your standard menu or pairing.
When asked by friends who joined me about my favorite course last week, I will confess that of the six courses plated, the most memorable was named Birds of a Feather, courtesy of Chef Tae. It consisted of a roulade incorporating a Maple Leaf Farms duck breast as well as pheasant; it was alongside braised lentils with a sauce of green garlic in a striking hue. I typically am not a fan of multiple animal proteins on a plate (I tend to think one will overpower another and I won’t be able to appreciate both), but she convinced me otherwise. I also believe lentils aren’t utilized enough and was pleased to see them included. The marrying of flavors in this composed dish was seamless and left a lasting impression. The selected wine pairing for our roulade was a 2017 Father John Comptche Pinot Noir out of Mendocino County, which complemented all the components.
I had a tough time selecting a favorite course from my 2022 dinner, but when the question was posed at the end of our meal, I surprised myself when I realized that it was from the third course. Named Pairings and Comfort, the dish featured tandoori organic chicken in a New Dehli red curry. When it comes to poultry I lean more toward team eggs than chicken itself, so it takes a skillful hand in the kitchen to convince me otherwise. The complexity of the curry really made the dish sing. A Labarge Grenache hailing from Santa Rita Hills in a 2018 vintage kept its integrity when paired up with such a cozy entree.
Transportation from our meeting spot to New Orleans Square was by way of a plush vehicle utilizing a route requiring guests to briefly spend time backstage – the notion of being behind the scenes for many is exciting by itself. Depending on who escorts the group, you may learn a bit of Disney trivia (like which nondescript building is where churros are born), history or even a couple of anecdotes regarding the attractions and day-to-day operations. For instance, we talked about how the ride components of Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway (the newest ride in the park) are completely housed backstage.
While inside the suite, carve out time to explore both the bedrooms and the sitting room just beyond the entrance to 21 Royal. In addition to the historical design of the suite, there are magical touches throughout that you’ll enjoy discovering such as hidden Mickeys, custom artwork and interactive elements. I created an Instagram reel after my initial visit featuring many of these details.
While all the restrooms are fully functional (Note: One has a finicky lock and a tendency to leave the occasional diner temporarily locked in, which happened on our second visit), running a bath in the bathtub is forbidden; shoeless, dry selfies in the tub are allowed, though. Yes, someone will want to take a photo in that bathtub. Paul Schafer, your host, will discuss other guidelines once the group is situated and with a beverage in hand.
I will say that for me, my favorite non-tangible perk while there involves use of the expansive balcony for outdoor entertainment purposes. This benefit is in direct correlation to the weather that evening – something to consider when booking during winter and spring months.
Service was as polished as the gold silverware placed before every course. For as high-falutin’ a meal the chefs meticulously prepared, the feeling in our room was less about formality and more about warmth – and I’m not referring to temperature. It’s the kind of warmth that makes one feel welcomed, cared for and very much at-ease.
But Is It Worth It?
There is always one question people ask when I speak to them about my dinners at 21 Royal. In order to answer that particular question, you have to ask yourself a few questions of your own.
- Do you love Disney history and culture?
- Do you enjoy fine dining?
- Do you invest in experiences?
I believe if you can respond “yes” to at least two of these questions, then a visit to 21 Royal is something to consider. From a Disney perspective, this is a proverbial bucket-list item for many who learn about its existence.
The quality of ingredients sourced and the way in which they are prepared may be outside of one’s comfort level. If this is causing you to pause, I agree with what Brittney Aquino (a guest at both dinners) suggested, which is being adventurous with your palette for an evening.
If you’re wondering whether I think it’s worth it, remember that I’ve been twice. I seek out elevated dining experiences because I know there will be an intense focus on ambiance, service and the meal as a whole. I also feel it is the memories that come out of them which make for engaging conversations.
Friends approached me last year about planning a third visit. Nothing is confirmed … yet.
Anne Marie Panoringan is the food columnist for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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