Hollywood Brown Derby

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Hollywood Brown Derby

As part of my ongoing TP Ranger duties, I’ll be checking up on theme park dining options from time to time. Not just new eating opportunities but the old stand-by restaurants, too.

This week we look in on Hollywood Brown Derby at Disney Soon-Not-To-Be-M-G-M Studios. I haven’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, 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, some 18 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 my lunch visit. The waiters are outfitted in white tuxedo jackets and offer top-notch care.

I started my lunch with the barbecue pork rib belly ($8) served with succotash and a chunk of chili cornbread. The succotash and cornbread were good, but the pork belly was tough and beyond chewy. It should have started melting before I got it in my mouth.

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 $14, 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 parsely but didn’t have that sharp taste – I liked the salad, especially the chewy bacon and salty blue cheese.

The menu suggested a wine pairing of Kim Crawford sauvignon blanc, but frankly neither the wine nor the salad did much to enhance the other.

For dessert I had the grapefruit cake ($6), 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 just after noon 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.

Originally posted on orlandosentinel.com August, 10, 2007.