Red Oak-Smoked Honey-Whiskey Barbecue Tri-Tip @ Ariel’s Grotto

Price: $39.99

When: August 25, 2015, 2:30 PM

Reservations: Highly recommended

Verdict? Not recommended

Ariel’s Grotto (formerly Avalon Cove) is a table-service (and character-meet-and-greet) restaurant in Paradise Pier. It’s located on the north-east edge of Paradise Bay, right by the entrance of the Paradise Pier boardwalk. Ariel’s is unique among Paradise Pier restaurants in that it’s located at water level – the restaurant is underneath the Cove Bar (with whom it shares a kitchen), and has outdoor dining options over Paradise Bay itself.

As it happens, most people don’t come to Ariel’s for the outdoor dining – they come for princesses.

As a “character-themed dining experience,” Ariel’s offers its guests the ability to interact with just about every Disney princess on the planet. Belle? Tiana? Snow White? Yep, yep, and yep. They’re all here. The princesses are announced by a guy in a Renaissance Faire outfit (and a headset), at which point they roam around, stop at each table, sign autographs and cause kids to lose their minds. For parents, this has got to be a blessing – your kids get to meet all the princesses they can handle, in one place, without waiting in a bunch of discrete lines. It’s all very centralized and efficient: Disney even has photographers in the restaurant, ready to take group shots (for a modest fee).

Oh, and Ariel’s also serves food.

The menu is set: one price gets you an appetizer (soup or salad), an entree (one of six) and a dessert (just one offering, here). I went with the salad and the “Red Oak-Smoked Honey-Whiskey Barbecue Tri-Tip”.

The salad wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t anything special. The apple slices were crisp, but the candied nuts were a bit soft/gummy, and the lettuce was a bit past its sell-by date. The dressing was pleasant enough, and (thankfully) the salad wasn’t drowning in it.

The tri-tip was totally forgettable. The dish comes with five slices of meat (cooked medium, Ariel’s recommended option), a scoop of mashed potatoes, a few asparagus spears, and some squash. The only flavorful thing on the plate was the barbecue sauce (peppery, not too oily): the tri-tip was a delivery vehicle for the sauce, and the potatoes and veg were basically filler.

Dessert was delicious. The dessert plate comes with three items: creme brûlée, a “s’more tart”, and a chocolate-dipped strawberry. I’m a sucker for a good creme brûlée, and this one was fine: solid, a bit eggy, a great crusty top. The tart was super-chocolatey (and heavy), but it had a great flavor profile (and, indeed, tasted like a s’more). The chocolate-covered strawberry was the weakest offering, and basically came off as garnish for the other two items.

I don’t pretend that anyone seeks out Ariel’s for the food – the place is effectively a Princess Fantasy Faire with an attached kitchen. Our party had three kids in it, and all of them were thrilled to meet princesses (heck, two of them had just come from the princess makeover counter a few hours earlier). That said, if you’re going to drop $40 (per person!) on lunch, it would be nice if the lunch was making more of an effort. There’s just not enough happening with this tri-tip to make it worth recommending. (However, you might check out the Fire-Roasted Corn Cakes…)

Ariel's Grotto - Starter Salad Ariel's Grotto - Dessert