TRAVEL

Club 33: Dining At Disney's Secret Restaurant

05/29/2012 10:01 EDT | Updated 05/30/2012 05:38 EDT
Dawn Cuthbertson

It's a sage-green door that's easy to miss, and that's exactly how they intended it to be.

Most of the people who flood out of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride in Disneyland's New Orleans Square have no idea that a 5-star members-only restaurant is just around the corner.

The ones who do notice the restaurant's only identifier - a simple oval frame with the number 33 subtly hung on the right-hand side of the door - awkwardly hang around with their camera at the ready in case a famous face emerges.

With a 10-year wait list to become a member and 45-year history of serving royalty, politicians and countless celebrities, getting into Club 33 is notoriously difficult.

Until today.

Disney invited The Huffington Post Canada for lunch at Club 33 on the heels of a major announcement: They’re inviting new members in. One hundred invitations went out earlier this month to people who’ve been waiting a decade and can afford the $25,000 initiation fee as well as $10,000 in annual dues. New members will also get to enjoy dining at 1901, a brand new exclusive club in Disney’s California Adventure Park slated to open in mid June. But with several hundred people rumoured to be on the wait list, the ones who aren’t selected will have to continue practicing the same level of patience as Sleeping Beauty.

As we ring the buzzer and wait for the attendant to open the door, passersby pause to see if we're famous. While we're not VIPs, we at least look the part after reading the club's dress code carefully. Tank tops and running shoes are commonplace at Disneyland but they're not allowed in Club 33 and the staff has no problem asking guests to cover up or reminding you that cellphones are prohibited.

Red-wine coloured wallpaper, soft chandelier lighting and hushed voices greet us as we're invited into the club's foyer, a stark contrast to the squeals of glee and excitement heard throughout the park. The only venue in the park that serves alcohol, getting up to the second-floor dining and trophy room is an experience on its own. The French lift is an exact replica of a tiny four-person elevator Walt Disney fell in love with during a trip to Paris. He wanted to have one just like it installed at Club 33, so he sent engineers over the pond to get the dimensions right.

Disney, who never dined at Club 33 because he died six months before it opened in June 1967, wanted to create a place where high-profile guests could relax over a cocktail away from the crowds and cotton candy, says Alastair, who’s been a server at the club for 20 years.

“Everyone’s a VIP here. You always have to be at the top of your game to make people relax,” he says.

Rumour has it Michael Jackson once dined on the balcony, Justin Bieber romanced Selena Gomez at the club for Valentine’s Day this year and the cast of 'Modern Family' had a meal there in late February after a day of filming in the park.

"Most people are wonderful," says Alastair, adding the only celebrity who made him feel nervous was Hollywood legend Barbra Streisand.

New on the job, his colleagues warned him that Streisand would be difficult. It wasn’t until she showed up and was “amazing” that Alastair figured out his fellow servers played a nasty trick on him.

There have been several rumours over the years as to why Disney named it Club 33. While some believe it had to do with the number of the club sponsors when it first opened, Alastair clarifies the lore by revealing it’s simply named after the address, 33 Royal Street. There were only 18 members during the club’s first year but the female server’s French maid uniforms, which were so short guests could see their knickers if they bent over, made for a lively place, says Alastair with a smile.

Disney enlisted the help of artist Dorothea Redmond and decorator Emil Kuri to furnish the club in a First Empire 19th century theme. If Napoleon had been a guest, he would’ve felt right at home. The drapery is the same as the Blue Room in the White House and signs that they spare no expense in making a meal at Club 33 an elegant affair are at every turn. Lavish flower arrangements are replaced every three days and ornate chandeliers provide soft lighting throughout the dining room. Sketches from 'Mary Poppins' and some of Disney's most popular films adorn the walls, and an oak telephone booth from 'The Happiest Millionaire' is among several props and antiques featured throughout the club.

The trophy room is more casual and suited for guests who want gourmet food in an informal setting. The chandelier above each table has a microphone dangling from the center. Playful even in his senior years, Disney had them installed in hopes of capturing guest’s conversation, and then talking back to them through a vulture perched on top of the trophy room’s door.

Diners should go to the club hungry. The salad bar, which includes fresh seafood, artisan cheeses and piping hot tomato soup has enough choice to fill you up on the first course. But that would be a crime, as the lunch entrees include marinated organic chicken complimented with truffle macaroni and cheese and grilled asparagus. You’re by all means bursting with food at this point but the desserts – from mini crème brulees to chocolate-dipped macaroons - are just too irresistible to pass up. Chef Jorge Cruz has been behind the 5-star creations at Club 33 for 10 years and says he changes the menu every three to four months as the seasons change.

While it’s fun to serve celebrities, Alastair says his favourite guests are the ones who are most grateful to be there. A family who was sent there through the Make-A-Wish Foundation sticks out as memorable, as does serving Roy Disney Jr., who looks exactly like his uncle Walt, adds Alastair.

“It was an honour and thrill to serve him."

* The writer was a guest of Disney Parks.

Club 33: Dining at Disney’s Secret Restaurant