This year, all five finalists are in Orlando theme parks, so TPI founder and editor, Robert Niles, has asked me to post my reviews of those restaurants for his readers, as well as readers of the flog here. I don't have a say in selecting the winner, that's up to you. At the end of each review, I'll give you a link to TPI's listing for that restaurant so you can vote or leave a comment. Robert will announce the winner on July 4th.
This week we look in on Hollywood Brown Derby at at Disney's Hollywood Studios. I hadn’t done a full review of HBD since it opened in 1989, so when I visited the full-service restaurant recently it was like going back in time.
Which is precisely what Disney culineers were going for when they designed the restaurant to emulate a 1930s era eatery. Though not a replica of the original, which, sadly, no longer exists, Disney’s Derby is reminiscent of an old-timey Los Angeles restaurant, with teak and mahogany accents, and the walls are filled with celebrity caricatures that duplicate those that hung in the West Coast restaurant. Actually, nearly 20 years after the first visit, those caricatures are less recognizable now than they were before as the stars fade further into the past. I could barely identify a fraction of the pictures.
But that isn’t important. What matters is the food, service and ambience. The latter is really kind of nice. The sunken dining room with mezzanine seating on two sides transports guests from the hubbub of the park outside into a Hollywoodland atmosphere. Sure, you’ve got big families with crying kids and people dressed casually, but just pretend you’re dining with the Jolie-Pitt brood and you’ll be fine.
Service was good on one of my lunch visits but lackadaisical and slow on another. The waiters are outfitted in white tuxedo jackets and most offer top-notch care.
I started my lunch with sweet Zellwood corn chowder ($9), which also had bits of applewood smoked bacon. It was a large bowl -- whether it was worth nine bucks is up for debate -- and the kernels of corn still had a nice bit of crunch. I would have liked to have seen some more bacon, and the drizzle of ancho chili oil on the top, which resembled something like an oil slick, didn't add a lot, but overall it was a nice chowder.
The original Brown Derby is where the Cobb salad was invented. It was the creation of former Derby owner Bob Cobb (you’d think he’d go by Robert, wouldn’t you?), who whipped up the salad as a late-night snack for a Hollywood VIP back in the '30s. The story goes that there wasn’t much in the fridge the night the bigwig came in so Cobb just chopped up what he could find. It’s the chopping that defines a Cobb today. A woman once wrote to me to chide me for my description of a Cobb salad at some restaurant saying that a Cobb salad was comprised only of ingredients that grew on a cob. Here the Cobb has greens, turkey breast, egg, bacon, tomatoes, blue cheese, avocado and chives. The basic salad is $15, but for two more bucks you can have some chicken cubes added. I splurged. The salad was delivered in a large bowl with the various ingredients grouped together. The man who brought the Cobb to the table asked if I would like him to toss everything together. I figured I’d let an expert do it.
Except for being unable to identify the greens – they looked sort of like soggy parsley but didn’t have that sharp taste – I liked the salad, especially the chewy bacon and salty blue cheese.
I also had the grilled Atlantic salmon (26), a sizeable, fresh-tasting fillet that had a delightful charred edge. It was served atop a bed of baby spinach on a platform of thickly sliced ugli tomatoes (I guess that would make it a platform bed). There were too many tomatoes and not enough cannellini beans, and I couldn't discern the bacon vinaigrette that the menu promised.
For dessert I had the grapefruit cake ($7), which the menu touts as a Brown Derby original! The exclamation point was unnecessary, and so were the calories. The yellow layer cake with cream cheese frosting was undistinguished in flavor.
I was a solo walk-in on a weekday and waited only a few minutes for a table. Either most guests are looking for something a little less pricey, or maybe something less formal, or I just got lucky. It’s always a good idea to make a reservation in advance, or, if you are already in the park, stop by and arrange a table for later in the day.
Disney's Hollywood Brown Derby offers a quiet respite from the park's hubbub, and a chance to feel as though you're dining in a stylish Hollywood restaurant among famous movie stars, albeit poorly dressed ones. In that respect, maybe this is less about the 1930s and more about the 2000s.
Hollywood Brown Derby serves lunch and dinner daily. Reservations can be made at 407-939-3463.
To vote for this restaurant at Theme Park Insider, click on the Hollywood Brown Derby link.