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RESTAURANTS : Parks' Fare Is Like a Roller Coaster: Ups and Downs

July 22, 1988|Max Jacobson

After you tumble down Bigfoot Rapids, survive the hour-and-a-half line to ride Star Tours and buy the kids enough souvenirs to open a small shop, you are bound to get hungry. And you may be in the mood for more than hot dogs and popcorn.

Actually, you might be surprised by the alternatives. Although Knott's Berry Farm and Disneyland feed more people than any local restaurants, their food concessions are rarely remarked by reviewers. I decided that it might be fun to pay a visit to the eating places considered to be the top-of-the-line at the two parks, Chicken Dinner restaurant at Knott's and Blue Bayou at Disneyland. What I found exceeded my modest expectations.

Mrs. Knott's Chicken Dinner Restaurant actually predates the park: Mrs. Cordelia Knott served up her first chicken dinners to an appreciative public in 1934. Today, her grandchildren carry on the tradition. According to the menu, the dinner hasn't changed in more than 50 years.

On the Monday night when I visited, there was a long, mechanically steady line for tables. Seating is done on a first-come, first-served basis, just like any other of the park's major attractions. We must have looked like auto parts on a conveyor belt as we edged down the corridor toward the hostess desk.

The traditional chicken dinner begins with a cherry rhubarb appetizer followed by a mixed green salad and then the fried chicken. This is accompanied by mashed potatoes with country gravy, fresh cabbage seasoned with ham and hot buttermilk biscuits. Pie is served for dessert, and there is a choice of beverage. It sounds so great in print that you get hungry just reading the menu.

The rhubarb first course is tart and delightful: little chunks of soft rhubarb in a cherry sauce. It's a small portion, and it piques your appetite as an appetizer should. The homemade biscuits, which arrive about the same time, are light and flaky with crunchy, buttery tops; they are probably a lot like the ones Cordelia herself was once so proud of. She might have had her doubts, though, about some of the other fare.

After an all-American salad of slightly flaccid iceberg lettuce topped with an all-American half-pint of dressing, you get the feature attraction, Mrs. Knott's chicken. The chicken served here is mass produced and tastes it. It isn't bad, just not distinctive; three pieces of tender, well-cooked fryer, oversize and under-flavored, with hardly any seasoning. An excellent, flavor-rich gravy adds a farmhouse texture to the plate, but it is humbled by lumpy mashed potatoes.

Those who disdain fried dishes may quite literally take heart. The restaurant has just added a plump, juicy grilled breast of chicken to the menu. It is served with steamed rose potatoes, and it is very good. The third choice available--chicken and dumplings--is a big, sloppy casserole of chicken stewed in gravy atop a tasteless mountain of flour. Mrs. Knott would not be pleased.

But she would beam at the excellent, short-crusted pies--apple or boysenberry--that the restaurant still serves. And she would be pleased that no one leaves hungry. All three dinners--traditional chicken, chicken and dumplings and grilled chicken breast--are $7.95. And you don't even have to visit the park to go to the restaurant. At that price, it is no wonder that the lines are so long.

Eating at Disneyland is quite a bit different. As at Mrs. Knott's, no reservations are taken: Unlike the Berry Farm, eating in any of the park's concessions requires a ticket of admission to the park itself. And, of course, there is none of the antique mystique that you find at Mrs. Knott's.

Blue Bayou, hidden in a corner of Disneyland's New Orleans Square, is considered, by both employees and visitors, to be the park's most impressive restaurant. It is a cavernous, overwhelmingly beautiful room, designed almost exactly like a New Orleans patio. There are ridged tables, wrought iron chairs and ersatz blue lighting that gives off an eerie glow. One major omission makes New Orleans seem very far off: The restaurant, in keeping with the policies of Disneyland, permits no alcoholic beverages.

I started my lunch with a "mint julep," knowing full well that the bourbon was still in Kentucky. Still, I was startled to find myself sipping on a green liquid that tasted like spearmint chewing gum. I had to eat three rolls to get the taste out of my mouth.

I then proceeded to appetizers with fancy names. Champignons saute s au beurre ($4.50), and courgettes frites ($4.95) were really just pan-fried mushrooms and fried zucchini. Nothing to report here--except that these have absolutely no connection to New Orleans.

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