by Terri Hardin | February 28, 2017
Disneyland has long had a reputation for turning visitors' imaginations into reality. But for visiting foodies, it may have topped itself with its latest offering: 21 Royal. This exclusive dining experience gives small groups a chance to experience an elegant meal prepared by top chefs, all enjoyed in an elegant location originally built as the private living space of Walt and Lillian Disney.

The experience is not just a unique seven-course meal but a series of what the Disney folks call "sense memories," -- and those who have the opportunity to visit 21 Royal will likely call "the meal of a lifetime."

I had the opportunity to experience this firsthand, when, at Disney's invitation, I found myself sitting with 11 others in the dining room of what had recently been the Disney Dream Suite and, way before that, the 2,200-square-foot private apartment of the Disney family. The night, which had begun with cocktails in the foyer, flamenco guitar music and cocktails within the apartment's interior courtyard (and ogling of adjacent private bedrooms), soon turned to serious eating and storytelling.

Sommelier Matt Ellingson poured a 2009 Trimbach Cuvee Frederic Emile Riesling (just one of many memorable vintages) and Napa Roses' Chef de Cuisine Justin Monson, carrying a bowl, stirred ingredients while he paced behind our chairs. In front of each of us, for the third course, was set a beautiful, abalone-shaped bowl -- inside which a clam, a sea bream fillet, and strips of abalone nestled in a glistening broth.

"When I was a boy," Monson began, "my father would take my brother and me for walks along the coastline, and we would look into the tidal pools on the shore and see what had been caught there. And just as we were counting the creatures -- a crab, a clam, a sea hare; suddenly another wave would come up, and ..." Chef Justin lifted his spoon, deftly slid a whipped foam of sea urchin into the bowl of the nearest diner, and delivered the punchline: "we'd have to start all over again!"

Throughout the meal, Monson and Executive Chef Andrew Sutton served as guides as much as chefs. While our meal provided its own particular "sense memories," groups who arrange for a dinner at 21 Royal can request their own theme and the culinary team will tailor the experience around it. While 21 Royal has been open as a dining space since 2014, it was just this year that it was opened up to those who aren't members of Disney's exclusive Club 33, allowing small groups to book the one-of-a-kind table.

More courses followed on exquisite tableware. Wines were decanted and poured from exotic decanters resembling dragons and corkscrews. Finally, after dessert (apple "buckle" and brown-sugar ice cream, paired with a 2011 Morlet Family Vineyards Late Harvest Semillon Billet Doux Alexander Valley), the guests began to move from the bright lights of the dining room onto the New Orleans Veranda. Adjacent to the dining room, the veranda looks out onto the park where, on certain nights, there will be an excellent view of Phantasmic and fireworks.

Robert Donohue, the resort's director of park event sales and services, who joined us for the evening, reckoned that 21 Royal was an excellent opportunity for incentive dinners, especially for groups staying at the Grand Californian, where "we host of a lot of financial institutions and Fortune 500 companies."

The beauty of the 21 Royal experience is that the chefs do not intend to offer the same meal twice.  Happily, it is likely to be replaced with something equally sublime. The culinary team discusses the meal with the group prior to the dinner to find out if they are celebrating a special occasion or hosting the event for a particular business purpose, taking all this into account as they plan the menu.

"Guests," Monson explained, "are not just joining us to eat and drink. They are joining us to be transported into this legendary home, and we want our guests to discover the extraordinary space through the food and the storytelling-to live the 21 Royal 'lifestyle,' if only for one magical evening."