Dining Out and About:
Coral Reef Restaurant
by Jack Spence
AllEars® Feature Writer
This article appeared in the February 24, 2009 Issue #492 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)
The Living Seas opened at Epcot in January 1986. This pavilion was sponsored by United Technologies and was designed to resemble an underwater science lab. At the time of its construction, it was the largest man-made underwater environment in the world. The aquarium in Atlanta has since surpassed this record. As time passed, The Living Seas' popularity dwindled and United Technologies ended its sponsorship in 2001.
To breathe new life into this pavilion, Disney began giving this tired attraction a make-over. In 2004 Turtle Talk with Crush opened and in 2006 the name of the pavilion was changed to The Seas With Nemo & Friends and featured a new attraction. This once staid destination has now become a lighthearted experience. It is also one of the most kid-friendly attractions at Epcot.
Here are a few interesting facts about the pavilion:
* The tank holds 5.7 million gallons of water.
* This water is completely filtered every two hours and 40 minutes at the rate of just over 35,000 gallons a minute.
* The acrylic windows are eight inches thick.
* The aquarium is the home for about 3,500 sea creatures from 65 different species of Caribbean reef fish.
* The animals are cared for by a staff of 40 technical specialists.
* One inch of water from the surface of the main tank could fill a standard swimming pool.
Located to the far right side of the pavilion, through a separate entrance, is the Coral Reef Restaurant. Here you'll find an upscale dining experience with views of the coral reef and its many inhabitants.
I've often wondered why the Imagineers virtually hid this eatery from the guests. If you didn't know it was here, you'd never stumble across it. I've never been able to find out definitively why this restaurant was separated from the rest of the pavilion, but I have heard a couple of theories. First, United Technologies thought a restaurant would interfere with the educational nature of their pavilion. I've also heard that the Imagineers didn't think it fit with the theming of Sea Base Alpha. After all, fine dining establishments aren't usually standard issue in underwater science labs.
The Coral Reef Restaurant is beautifully designed. From the moment you enter its lobby, you know you're in for a treat. A number of colorfully lit glass sculptures line the walls, hang from the ceiling, and create a check-in desk. The lobby also acts as a buffer between the sunny outdoors and the darkened interior.
When you enter the restaurant, you are immediately struck by the four, eight-foot high windows that line one wall and offer views into the aquarium. Each window is framed by tan-colored sand and pebble panels. These panels help offset the dark blues that cover the ceiling and walls. The restaurant is terraced and mosaic-encrusted half-walls separate each level. The chairs are made of light colored woods. The table tops are framed with this same wood and have a metal insert with a swirl design etched into them. The carpet has shades of blue and purple and looks like the ocean surf.
The restaurant was completely redecorated five or six years ago. I really like the new look, with one exception. Before the remodel, the half-walls that separate each level were approximately three feet high. In an effort to give the restaurant a more "ocean" feel, these walls were redesigned with an up and down wave shape. Some portions of the wall are still about three feet high, but other sections are almost four feet in height. Since some tables are positioned next to this higher section of the wall, it can obscure the view of the aquarium for some people, especially children. If a host or hostess tries to seat you at one of these tables, you might want to make sure everyone can see before accepting it. Otherwise, ask to be reseated.
The best seats in the house are those that sit directly next to the aquarium. When you check in, don't hesitate to ask for one of these special tables. You will be told if one is available, or given an estimate of how long a wait it will be until one opens up.
Besides watching the fish, it's also fun to see the SCUBA divers swim by. They will often stop by each window of the tank with fish food and create quite a show as the many creatures vie for a bite. Guests who are registered divers can also swim in the tank (for a fee) and they will also pass by the restaurant and wave to diners. In the past, Mickey Mouse could occasionally be seen in his SCUBA gear enjoying a leisurely swim, but it's been a long time since I've seen him and I'm not sure if he still makes an appearance. To help guests identify the many sea creatures, each table is provided a souvenir Fish Guide.
I ate at the Coral Reef Restaurant for the first time in 1989 while vacationing at Disney World. To be honest, I wasn't all that impressed with my food. I tried it again a few years later, and still wasn't thrilled with the offerings. When I moved to Orlando in 1999, I reluctantly tried it once more and the third time was a charm. I thought everything was excellent, especially the lobster soup. Over the last nine years, I've eaten here a number of times and have always been pleased. The food and the service have been consistently good and although on the pricey side, I thought I was getting my money's worth.
Last week, my friend Donald and I invited some friends of ours, Shane and Randy, to join us for lunch at the Coral Reef Restaurant. This was their first time to eat here. We arrived at our appointed time and we requested a table next to the aquarium. We were told it would be at least 20 minutes before a table opened up, but we decided to wait.
After we were seated, we were greeted by our server Ettienne. We couldn't have asked for a more personable young man. He had a smile on his face and seemed genuinely happy to be our waiter. Throughout the entire meal, he took excellent care of us and we all tipped extra for his fine service.
Unfortunately, I can't gush over parts of our meals. After praising the virtues of the Coral Reef to Shane and Randy, I was somewhat embarrassed that the food didn't live up to my glowing description.
Our lunch started with loaves of Ciabatta bread and a balsamic vinegar and olive oil dipping sauce. This was tasty and we asked for seconds.
We all ordered appetizers. Donald had the Seared Sea Scallops served with a Cauliflower Foam and Black Truffle Vinaigrette for $10.99. He wasn't impressed and said they lacked flavor and were rubbery. If there had been salt on the table, he would have used it.
I ordered the Shrimp and Lobster Cake served over Napa Cabbage Slaw with a Sweet and Spicy Vietnamese Vinaigrette for $11.49. To be honest, I really liked the slaw as it was quite tasty, but the shrimp and lobster cake lacked flavor. If you blindfolded me, I wouldn't have been able to tell you what I was eating. Shane and Randy both ordered the Curry Corn Chowder and both enjoyed it. They said it was a little spicy, which they like, and they would be willing to order it again.
For an entree, I ordered the Lobster Salad for $20.99. It is accompanied by a small cup of Lobster Soup, which I've always loved on past visits. But once again, everything lacked flavor. Both the soup and the salad were bland. I realize that lobster has a delicate taste, but it was almost nonexistent here.
Donald ordered the Grilled Pork Tenderloin served with Sweet Boniato Potatoes and Green Beans drizzled with Pecan Sauce for $22.99. In this case, he was pleased with his selection. He wouldn't describe it in poetic prose, but it suited his needs.
Shane ordered the Grilled Mahi Mahi toped with Spiced Pineapple Chutney over Cashew-Jasmine Rice finished with Coconut Rum Beurre Blanc for $20.99. Overall he was pleased with the taste, but felt that the portion was rather small for the price. Randy ordered the Grilled New York Strip Steak served with Roasted Potatoes, Watercress, and Tomatoes tossed in Caramelized Shallot Vinaigrette for $27.99. I would say his entrée was the greatest disappointment of the afternoon. Although the steak was somewhat flavorful, it was small and riddled with fat and gristle. He left a good portion of it behind.
For dessert, Donald and Randy ordered the Chocolate Wave for $7.99. This is a small serving of cake served warm with a luscious sauce baked into it that oozes out when you cut into it. Both were pleased with their selections. Shane ordered the Butterscotch Creme Brulee. He too was happy with his choice.
Although I was disappointed with some of our dishes, I will give this restaurant another chance. For nine years I have been pleased with the food at the Coral Reef Restaurant and I like to think that we just happened to eat here on an off day. And I certainly can't complain about our service. Ettienne treated us quite well.
But I also have to comment, the prices at the Disney World restaurants are rising at rates higher than their outside competitors. Our meal (including an 18% gratuity) came to almost $190 for LUNCH. And none of us ordered alcohol. At $47 per person, we should not be getting tasteless food and fat-riddled steaks. Also, the portions could be a bit larger.
The Coral Reef Restaurant is a popular spot and reservations are definitely suggested. You can secure a table by calling 407-WDW-DINE (939-3463) up to 90 days in advance.
Lunch: 11:30 a.m. - 3:30 p.m.
Dinner: 4 - 9 p.m.
Coral Reef Photo Gallery: http://allears.net/din/gall_res.htm
Reader Reviews of Coral Reef: http://land.allears.net/reviewpost/showproduct.php?product=83&cat=34
Other articles by Jack Spence: http://allears.net/btp/jacks.htm
Jack Spence's blog, The World According to Jack: http://land.allears.net/blogs/jackspence/
Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.