Tiana’s Palace is the Real Deal
Is it me, or does food in cartoons always look better than in real life? Whenever I see one of those thick Spongebob Crabby Patties, I wonder why no restaurants or burger joints attempted a real-world version. And being a lifelong Walt Disney Animation Studios’ The Princess and the Frog fan, I didn’t know what to expect from the newly announced Tiana’s Palace restaurant. I mean, the food at Disneyland has always been valid. From the Fried Chicken Dinner at Plaza Inn to the park-wide staple of turkey legs and churros to California Adventure’s annual Food and Wine Festival, the cuisine at Disneyland cannot be underestimated.
So when Disney invited me to a first look at the dishes and beverages coming to the quick-service style restaurant inside of Disneyland – located at the reimagined “French Quarter” area of the park – I was pleasantly excited. I would consider myself a “foodie,” but to say I’m an expert in New Orleans cuisine would be a lie. I’ve only been to New Orleans for the first time earlier this year, where I spent four straight days eating anything and everything Louisiana offers. So, I am no authority on NOLA food or culture, but I can certainly say I thoroughly enjoyed what we tasted.
At the tasting event, The Princess and the Frog production designer James Finch spoke on how Tiana’s “Dream Big” philosophy helped bring the original designs to life. Her restaurant in the movie is a repurposed sugar mill based in the 9th Ward of New Orleans. By the film’s end, Tiana’s eatery is jaw-droppingly beautiful, featuring a gorgeous star-filled ceiling, Fleur-de-lis-shaped lighting fixtures, and exposed wood awnings. A research trip to New Orleans inspired the animation team to base the exteriors of the restaurant on the iconic French Quarter. The same area inspired Walt’s and trailblazing motion picture production designer Dorotha Redman’s New Orleans Square in 1964.
Now 60 years later, Disneyland Park is reimagining New Orleans Square into Tiana’s Palace, which is set to open September 7. Executive Creative Director for Walt Disney Imagineering Kim Irvine led the charge in bringing an animated setting to the real world by implementing many breathtaking details from the cartoon classic. On the outside, Imagineers retrofitted the original “French Market” building by adding smokestacks, a rooftop wheelhouse, and a new yellow/green exterior color scheme. Inside, they incorporated nearly every single detail from the movie. Look closely for specialty doorknobs, a star-glazed ceiling, and In addition to drawing inspiration from cuisine in the Crescent City, the Disneyland Resort culinary team makes an effort to source some ingredients directly from the state of Louisiana when possible. We heard from Head Chef John State and Lindell Skinner – the Operations Manager of the French Market and Disney’s PULSE Business and Employee Resource Group (BERG) co-chair – to break down the broad spectrum of menu items. PULSE stands for People United to Lead, Serve, and Excel, a diversity/inclusion group at Disney whose mission is to enhance the experience for cast members and guests of African and Caribbean descent. “PULSE had the opportunity to come in and work with the chefs and work with the team, to really give them feedback,” Skinner said.
In the spirit of Princess Tiana, they served up dessert first! They first rolled out the House-filled beignet featuring alemon ice box pie filling and finished with lemon glaze. Typically, beignets aren’t stuffed or filled, but Tiana’s interpretation pays homage to the Lemon Icebox Pie – an old-fashioned Southern secret popular in local New Orleans neighborhoods. So, the chefs stuffed the pastry with lemon pie filling to add an extra layer of authenticity (and to distinguish this dish from the world-famous “Mickey’s Beignets”). There will even be an open filling and glazing station in the restaurants where people can watch their beignets get stuffed and finished. I wasn’t mad at it, but I probably could’ve done with a little less lemon. Still, it’s a brilliant dessert.
After dessert, we tried the 7 Greens Gumbo (plant-based) with white beans, okra, yams, sweet potatoes, and Carolina-gold heirloom stemmed rice finished with plant-based butter. This plant-based dish was the first of two gumbo servings we got served. Although they were both smacking, the clear winner was, surprisingly, the 7 Greens. Inspired by Leah Chase’s Gumbo Z’Herbes, greens gumbo is a traditional New Orleans special based on greens like collards, kale, turnip greens, mustards, and spinach. Some folks eat greens gumbo while observing Lent; others believe eating seven greens on Holy Thursday and meeting seven people on Good Friday will give you a year of blessings. I didn’t try these samples on a Thursday, but damn d,o I feel blessed by the mouthwatering excellence of the cuisine.
Next, they hit us with the Beef Po’boy Sandwich, which was by far my favorite menu item. The sandwich consists of slow-cooked beef in gravy “dressed” with shredded lettuce, tomato, pickle, and mayonnaise on toasted French bread imported from New Orleans, served with red beans & rice and house-made pickles. Although many these days associate Po’boys with fried shrimp, Disney’s decision to utilize Roast Beef dipped in gravy harkens back to the original “poor boy” created in 1929. Invented by the Martin brothers, they crafted the hearty Roast Beef sandwich on a French loaf to feed the thousands of unionized railway workers, streetcar drivers, and motormen out of work. In my Essence Fest trip earlier this year, my food highlight was visiting the OG poor boy spot Parkway Bakery and Tavern. And while the Disney sandwich doesn’t pack the same punch, it gets close.
Following the Po’Boy, our following savory selection was the House Gumbo. This Creole gumbo features a dark, thick, spicy roux, served with raised chicken, andouille sausage, and heirloom rice. Perhaps featuring the most kick out of all the servings sampled, the House Gumbo incorporates the New Orleans staple Crystal hot sauce to add more authentic Louisiana flavor. And even though most traditional Cajun gumbos do not contain okra, the chefs behind Tiana’s Palace include okra in their interpretation. Please note that the roux has shellfish, in line with old-school gumbo. You cannot taste it, but proceed cautiously in case of any allergies.
Even though I am a foodie and enjoy eating, I also know my limits. Being lactose intolerant unfortunately disqualified me from eating their Gulf shrimp and grits with Creole sauce. The cheesy grits looked appetizing, with the big shrimp imported straight from the New Orleans Gulf. Grits are new, uncharted territory for the Mouse House, prompting some longtime Disneyland reporters at the event to wonder how the new menu item will play to the Parks demographic. Unable to experience it with my tongue, I observed the other journalists’ reactions at my table. Everyone around me raved about how good these grits were. The Gulf shrimp and Grits will easily be the most popular dish for the restaurant. I surely would’ve gone in if it weren’t for the chemical imbalance in my tummy. But hey, I’m more of a sugar grits guy anyway.
Unfortunately, that same tummy imbalance prevented me from trying the Joffrey’s Coffee chicory cold brew topped with sweet cream. This cold brew looks absolutely delicious, and many at the event praised the sweet taste. Served with the glass was a collectible Ray firefly glow cube. That’s just one of the two new novelties that Tiana’s Palace will commemorate guests with, the second being a lily pad and lotus cup ceramic set.
Overall, I’m hyped to return to Tiana’s Palace when they open at Disneyland Park on September 7. The new fast-service restaurant will introduce new menu items that represent Tiana’s story and honor the flavors and flair of New Orleans. When Tiana’s Palace opens, guests will be able to mobile order food and beverages from this location using the Disneyland app.