Anyone who knows me (hell, anyone who has come within 15 feet of me when I've had one drink) knows that I am a fervent, revival-tent-level evangelist for the Disney Cruise Line ("DCL"). I've been on five Disney cruises, I'm going on one for my honeymoon (transatlantic 2017, here I come!) and I've converted some pretty hardcore cruise haters to the Disney fold. I'm also a big Disney food fan. Heck, i wrote a fairly substantial chunk of the Eater guide to Disney World! I said a Disney Cruise meal was my best meal of 2015! In a public forum!
That's why my recent experience on the Disney Dream pissed me off.
First, some background for the DCL initiates. Disney pioneered a system of "rotational dining" so instead of one horrible giant cruise ship mess hall, guests rotate between three different themed dining rooms with three different pretty good menus. In addition to these (which are included in the price of the cruise), guests can choose to pay a bit extra to go to two other restaurants. For a small charge, guests can go to Palo, DCL's Italian spot (and the site of the aforementioned best meal of 2015). For a bigger charge, guests can go to Remy, DCL's fancy French joint.
I've been to Palo a ton of times, and to Remy twice before. Why? The food is generally awesome, the atmosphere and view are superb, and there are no kids allowed. It's a great way to end a day of vacation, and it doesn't usually cost that much.
This trip, I returned to Palo for the 50,000th time. It was so good I can still taste it, and our server from a cruise a year ago actually remembered us (probably because we came to the restaurant so often). This restaurant has, over the years, resulted in: my having to special-order a bottled water my fiancé found there because it's not sold anywhere in Chicago, a spending spree on Barolo because a somm finally walked me through why it's so good, and me seriously considering buying a rolling antipasto cart to use at every dinner party I ever have. In other words, they're not playing around, despite the ridiculous assertion that they serve "Regional Italian Cuisine" (what region is, sadly, not specified).
After a lovely meal there, things got bad. I decided to take my family (parents and fiance) to Remy.
Remy is more formal. It's fussier. The servers are French. The decor and dishes are more expensive. But I eat in a fair number of formal restaurants for a living, so I like to think of myself as someone who has some idea how to behave and who knows how these things should go. So when I tell you it wasn't good, believe me, it wasn't good.
Even more confusing? It wasn't the food. The food was great, and the cheese cart is a religious experience. But Remy practically taught a master class on how a restaurant could be so annoying that I'll never go back despite great food and good drinks.
How? Let me count the ways.
The upselling is completely out of control.
Each diner who goes to Remy has to pay almost $100 extra for the privilege of dining there. And it comes with some great perks: a welcome cocktail, four courses, some extra presents from the chef and a great cheese cart. This should be enough. But someone in Disney management must have cracked the whip, because the servers are much more concerned with upselling than with making guests happy.
When the menus were presented, we also got not one, not two, not three, but FOUR different special upsell menus. We could get hundreds of dollars per ounce Miyazaki Beef ("the best beef in the world" our server said at least 10 times). We could order truffle accompaniments. We could get caviar pairings. And just in case the table had any room left or anyone had any cash in their checking account, the sommelier came over with the regular wine list and the ENGRAVED ON ACTUAL METAL "RESERVE" WINE LIST WHICH MUST HAVE WEIGHED 10 POUNDS. Of course, everything on it was outrageously expensive.
And these weren't just casual menu drops. Each was accompanied by a polite lecture which implied that we were complete rubes if we didn't take this amazing opportunity to spend our mortgage payment on rare ingredients. There were even props: a truffle was brought out under glass, with great ceremony, for us to smell.
When we actually ordered dinner, the server asked us once again if we were absolutely sure we didn't want to spend extra money on "the best beef in the world." By that point, I was actually ready to give up and leave.
This sort of behavior leaves a terrible taste in a guest's mouth, especially when they are already spending hundreds of dollars on top of the thousands of dollars the cruise costs in the first place. It actually taints the rest of the meal, because by emphasizing that the regular diner is getting something second-rate (compared to what this kitchen COULD do, if only you were spendy enough) it makes what follows less special. Given that the restaurant is never full, likely because it's slightly beyond the reach of most cruise customers, trying to triple each person's bill (or make them perform the uncomfortable dance of saying no) isn't exactly bringing new people in the door.
It's 2016, give up your stupid jacket policy or at least administer it more politely.
The fancier restaurants on DCL have a dress code. Ok, that's fine, because you're trying to create an atmosphere and if you didn't make rules, everyone would come in in salt-stained swimsuits. But when your restaurant is sitting mostly empty every night, maybe consider making things less strict? Remy requires a dinner jacket for anyone who entered the dining room. Who brings a suit jacket on a cruise in 2016? (answer: Me, actually)
Earlier this year, Disney changed the dress code at Palo to make it less formal. You can even wear jeans! Unfortunately, they didn't change it at Remy and I screwed up and thought they had. I even had a suit on board, but didn't wear it, instead wearing nice slacks and a formal shirt. Uh oh. Here we go.
A dress code, by itself, doesn't have to ruin your night, even if you don't quite measure up. This time, it did.
Let's walk through why the way DCL does this is utterly stupid. We get to the restaurant, where my fiance and I are informed that we need jackets. Whoops! We messed up. They offer us loaner jackets, emphasizing three times that we can take them off the moment we sit down at the table. Wait a second. Is it that important to your restaurant that i make the 15 foot walk from the door to the table in formal dress but not sit for any of the 3 hour meal in formal dress? If so, why? Customers might see me?
We are also informed that, should we choose to get up to go to the restroom, we have to put on our jackets again or we will be breaking the rules. I still can't figure out what the utility of this is, except to annoy guests. During course 4 of a very expensive meal, you're actually going to scold people because they forgot to put their jacket on during their walk to the bathroom and send them back to their table? Shoot me now. I should have experimented to see what would happen, but I was so mortified that I didn't bother.
This doesn't fit Disney, which is why it is so annoying and puzzling that it happens on their boat.
Disney fans know that the brand is all about service. Everywhere on the boat and in the theme parks, guests are totally pampered, and any reasonable request is accommodated. Special needs, whims, wishes and more are granted.
However, Remy follows a different formula, one familiar to diners who ate a lot of fancy food 30 years ago. "Service" means making the diner feel like they are somewhere special, not that they are special. It means emphasizing the exclusivity of the experience at the expense of actually creating a good experience. And it means making a lot of money by annoying people instead of making a pretty good amount of money by serving people.
In a non-captive marketplace? This place would be dead, which is why the vast majority of Chicago restaurants have gotten rid of this sort of fluff. And I won't be going back again.