Photo Credit: TW illustration by Thomas R Lechleiter

Focus onCulinary Travel


Social media's impact on food tourism may have reached its pinnacle: One of the most powerful names in travel, Disney, reveals in this report that it actually stepped up its culinary offerings to deliver the Instagrammable meal.

But in 2018, travelers are also looking beyond the pretty plate in search of authentic food experiences in local homes and from homegrown chefs.  

This hunger for unique experiences is driving hotels, theme parks, cruise ships and destinations from San Francisco to South Africa to deliver them, as the following essays by Travel Weekly editors demonstrate.


Dining at Disney parks has evolved in age of Instagram

By Michelle Baran

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- The 21st-century dining experience at Disney's domestic parks and resorts looks nothing like its 20th-century predecessor, not least because of guests' ability to photograph and share their culinary exploits on social media.

With an international audience of amateur food critics to impress, Florida's Walt Disney World Resort and the Disneyland Resort in California have in recent years become foodie hot spots unto themselves.

"Social media has made the biggest impact on our dining evolution," said Ed Wronski, director of culinary concepts for Walt Disney World Resort. "Our guests love sharing what they are eating at Disney."

Consequently, the Disney dining experience has evolved from a relatively limited selection of overpriced theme-park grub into an expansive array of Instagrammable eateries that include high-end, award-winning culinary establishments; sophisticated, themed and character dining; counter-service venues with a twist; and ever-changing menus that cater to a wide range of diets and dietary restrictions.

A steamed pork bun served at Disney’s California Adventure theme park’s Paradise Garden Grill.
A steamed pork bun served at Disney’s California Adventure theme park’s Paradise Garden Grill.

On a recent visit, I was invited to experience one of Disney's newest and most exclusive dining experiences, 21 Royal, a private-dining venue that opened last year in Disneyland. The setting is atop the Pirates of the Caribbean ride in a lavish apartment that was built based on plans for a residence that Walt Disney designed for himself. The bespoke dinner menu for 12 is $15,000 (park admission for all is included).

The extensive evening begins with diners enjoying highly curated cocktails and canapes while mingling among bedrooms and salons bedecked in antique furnishings. Guests are then invited to the elegant dining room for a custom, multicourse meal. The grand finale is a priceless viewing of Disneyland's fireworks or Fantasmic evening show from a private balcony, taking the elevated dining experience to new heights.

"Food has become a destination, in the same way that attractions and rides have become destinations for people visiting Disney," said AJ Wolfe, who runs, a food blog dedicated entirely to Disney eats.

Back in 2009 when the blog launched, "nobody talked about the food," she said. But with the advent of the iPhone and other smartphones, suddenly everyone was posting food photos.

"Disney has picked up on that, and they have really put a much stronger focus on their food," Wolfe said. "There are people visiting Disney now just for the restaurants, just for the food. That's what they plan instead of planning their attractions, their rides."

With more than 500 food and beverage locations throughout Walt Disney World and more than 150 at Disneyland, deciding where and what to eat at the parks has become an exciting and potentially overwhelming proposition. Numerous food blogs and writers now devote considerable time and attention to helping guests strategize their dining options at the parks.

Some of the most notable developments are taking place at the parks' evolving shopping and dining districts: Disney Springs at Disney World and Downtown Disney at Disneyland.

After a complete refresh, new venues at Disney Springs include restaurants backed by celebrity and James Beard Award-winning chefs. Standouts include Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto's Morimoto Asia (one of Wolfe's current favorites at Disney World) and Art Smith's Homecomin', featuring elevated comfort food. Another fan favorite is the recently opened, fast-casual barbecue spot Polite Pig.

This spring, master sommelier George Miliotes is slated to open Wine Bar George.

Within the parks, Wolfe pointed to the Jungle Navigation Co. Ltd. Skipper Canteen in Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom as an example of a very forward-thinking menu that serves items such as a whole fried fish, curried vegetable stew and lamb chops.

Satu'li Canteen in Pandora -- The World of Avatar at Disney's Animal Kingdom serves nutritious dishes such as beef, chicken, fish and tofu bowls with veggies atop grains such as quinoa.

John State, culinary director for the Disneyland Resort, said the increase in special dietary requests, such as "vegetarian, pescatarian, flexitarian or food-related allergies and intolerances," has had the biggest impact on the resort's dining experience over the past 10 years.

Satu’li Canteen in the Pandora — The World of Avatar land at Disney World’s Animal Kingdom serves nutritious dishes such as beef, chicken, fish or tofu bowls with veggies atop grains such as quinoa.
Satu’li Canteen in the Pandora — The World of Avatar land at Disney World’s Animal Kingdom serves nutritious dishes such as beef, chicken, fish or tofu bowls with veggies atop grains such as quinoa.

Disneyland was arguably way ahead of the foodie curve when it opened Napa Rose at Disney's Grand Californian Hotel in 2001, which is known for upscale California cuisine and an impressive wine list. Then came the Carthay Circle Restaurant in Disney's California Adventure, which opened in 2012 as a throwback to old Hollywood glamour, and is now one of the most difficult tables to nab at Disneyland. 

State said Paradise Garden Grill in Disney's California Adventure park, a quick-service restaurant that offers a pop-up concept several times a year, has been getting attention for its recent Lunar New Year, California Beer Garden and Viva Navidad menus.

He said guests also praise the slow-cooked beef poutine and the "grey stuff gateau" at the Red Rose Tavern at Disneyland.

New developments at Disneyland's Downtown Disney District include the forthcoming San Diego-based craft brewery Ballast Point and New York-based Black Tap Craft Burgers & Beer.

For those who want something extremely exclusive in addition to 21 Royal, there is Club 33, a long-standing, members-only restaurant and lounge in Disneyland's New Orleans district.

And, of course, there will always be plenty of options for parkgoers who still just want to indulge in corn dogs, popcorn and a good old-fashioned candy apple.

How sweet it is: Cruise lines double down on chocolate

By Tom Stieghorst

Chocolate has always been a part of the cruise culinary offering. The warm chocolate melting cake is a staple on dessert menus at sea.

But in recent years, cruise lines have taken steps to elevate their chocolate game, finding new ways to display, brand and get passengers to pay for chocolate.

Each line has partnered with a different purveyor of the sweet treat and designed a different program to present it.

For example, MSC Cruises' partnership with Italian chocolatier Venchi brings the confection to several spots on its new ship, the MSC Seaside.

Most prominently, it is seen on the ship's Venchi 1878 Chocolate Bar, where a wall of liquid chocolate streaming in a near-vertical sheet behind the service counter captures a passenger's attention.

The bar is organized as an open kitchen where patrons can see chocolate confections created before they are put in glass cases for sale. There is also a Venchi-branded gelato stand near the aft pool with a dozen flavors of chocolate, as well as other flavors like pistachio and hazelnut.

For MSC, it is another step in its strategy of partnering with high-quality brands, particularly Italian ones such as Fiat and Eataly, to introduce itself to U.S. passengers who might be unfamiliar with MSC. Venchi has shops in New York, Chicago and Boston.

A Godiva chocolate dessert aboard Cunard Line’s Queen Mary 2.
A Godiva chocolate dessert aboard Cunard Line’s Queen Mary 2. Photo Credit: TW photo by Rebecca Tobin

Another partnership that plays off mutually reinforced quality is the one between Cunard Line and Godiva Chocolates that began in 2014, when Cunard began offering Godiva desserts in Sir Samuel's lounge aboard the Queen Mary 2.

"We were pleased to find that Cunard shares our values of quality, heritage and innovation," said Matthew Hodges, Godiva's general manager for global travel retail. Godiva has since been added as an offering on the Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth.

When Princess Cruises created its "Chocolate Journeys" concept in 2014, the starting point was a finding that chocolate and chocolate desserts were among the most shared images on social media.

Unsure of what to do with this, it turned to consultants who all mentioned a common name: Norman Love, a Florida-based artisanal chocolate producer. Love said he would partner with Princess only if it sourced high-quality ingredients. Princess considered French and Belgian suppliers before finally settling on San Francisco's Guittard Chocolate Co.

Chocolate Journeys is a multifaceted program that ranges from chocolate-based cocktails and wine pairings to select desserts in the main dining room to afternoon tea pastries and even to spa treatments.

A tart served on Princess Cruises.
A tart served on Princess Cruises.

"Norman brought an added layer and texture of expertise that took Chocolate Journeys to the next level," said Gordon Ho, senior vice president of global marketing and sales at Princess. 

Most of the features, except for the drinks and spa treatments, are complimentary.

Another gourmet chef, the French Laundry's Thomas Keller, is responsible for the chocolate pillow treats on Seabourn cruises.

Keller, who created a chophouse for Seabourn's latest ship, has a venture with Italian olive oil producer Armando Manni, called K+M Chocolate. The Napa, Calif.-based purveyor is now making chocolate squares wrapped with the Seabourn name and logo that began being used in evening turndown service aboard all Seabourn ships in the first quarter of 2018.

The squares come in six flavors of milk chocolate, including smoked chili, sea salt and blood orange.

Holland America Line last year introduced a "Chocolate Surprise" parade on the last gala evening of every cruise. Rather than guests having to make their way to the buffet and wait in line, the line dispatches waiters with trays of chocolate desserts, passing them out to guests in the bars and lounges as they take in music or have a cocktail.

The one-hour parade frees more time for guests to spend at their favorite show or post-dinner pursuit, said Holland America president Orlando Ashford. "We wanted to create something special that enhances their evening activities," he said.

Hotel restaurants cooking with local chefs and ingredients

By Danny King

Think globally, cook locally.

That was Journal Hotels' aim last year when it took over what had been Ian Schrager's Public Chicago, which featured the cuisine of New York-based star chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten in the hotel's Pump Room restaurant.

Desiring to forge a stronger bond with locals, Journal Hotels renamed the hotel the Ambassador Chicago (it was originally the Ambassador East), then tapped iconic Chicago-based restaurateur Richard Melman and his group to take over the 145-seat restaurant. Melman's Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises group reopened the restaurant in December as Booth One, featuring classic dishes such as lobster Louie salad and rack of lamb.

"Richard knows what Chicagoans like, and his menu in that restaurant is more like a grill room," said Journal Hotels CEO Stephen Brandman. "He knows the community, and he understands what people in different age groups want to eat during different parts of the night."

Booth One is the most recent example of an effort by smaller, higher-end hotel groups to gain both local credibility and restaurant patrons by bringing in local chefs or restaurateurs to oversee food and beverage operations.

In New York, Barry Sternlicht's 1 Hotels ecoluxe chainlet hired New York-based chef Jonathan Waxman to run 1 Hotel Central Park's Jams restaurant in 2015. Long a champion of local food sourcing, which helps the environment by reducing shipping distances, Waxman features items such as roasted Long Island duck breast and Jams' eponymous chicken dish, sourced from Goffle Road Farms in nearby Wyckoff, N.J. 

"Our sourcing of product really allows the New York-centric experience," said Jason Giagrande, managing partner at his and Waxman's J Hospitality Group. "Not only is it good for sustainability, but the flavor enhancement's there because it's fresh."

Roy Choi is among the star chefs working with hotels.
Roy Choi is among the star chefs working with hotels.

For the 2014 debut of the Line Hotels chainlet in Los Angeles, parent Sydell Group turned to local food-truck maven Roy Choi to oversee the hotel's food and beverage program. True to Choi's irreverence and his only-in-L.A. mashup of Asian and Latino cuisines, his Line L.A. restaurant, Commissary, features an item called rice bowl power lunch, where diners can mix and match items like pea pesto and jalapenos with tofu or Korean fried chicken.

Not one to shy away from his "stoner-cuisine" reputation, Choi also oversees Pot Cafe, which serves dishes such as congee (a rice porridge popular in Asian cuisines) with egg and ginger.

The local emphasis is a departure from the one pioneered by many of Las Vegas's largest hotels, followed by others in cities such as New York and Miami, where Wolfgang Puck, Scott Conant and Jose Andres are among the celebrity chefs who expanded their reach and aligned themselves with hotel operators like the MGM Resorts International in Las Vegas, the Fontainebleau Miami Beach and SBE's SLS-branded properties. 

At least one celebrity chef is taking note of the local approach. Renowned for his Japanese-Peruvian cuisine, chef Nobu Matsuhisa, whose Nobu Hospitality is slated to boost its hotel count to 12 from seven this year, is infusing his hotels' menus with local touches.

London's 6-month-old Nobu Hotel Shoreditch offers such dishes as a full English breakfast that includes Japanese-style sausage, shiitake mushrooms and adzuki (a small bean) with tomato-jalapeno jam.

Meanwhile, Nobu Miami Beach's in-room-only menu includes Matsuhisa's take on the classic Cuban sandwich, which mixes Iberico de Bellota ham and Swiss cheese with takuan (pickled daikon radish) and ponzu mustard mayonnaise, all on a toasted tofu bao bun.

"There are signature dishes you do not touch," said Gigi Vega, London-based regional director of Nobu Hospitality. "But [Matsuhisa] also looks for what's new and what best represents a location."

One of the benefits of bringing in hometown chefs can be an increase in local patrons, a group coveted by hotel properties to fill seats during off-peak travel times, and because hotel guests like to go where the locals go. Most of the business at Booth One comes from clients other than guests, and at Jams, almost three-quarters of patrons come from outside of the hotel.

Hyper-local, seasonal fare can mark a departure from a hotel guest's expectations, Jams' Giagrande said, and both the hotel and restaurant try to use those opportunities to better convey 1 Hotels' emphasis on environmental awareness.

"In a standalone restaurant, if tomatoes are out of season, we just won't have fresh tomatoes," Giagrande said. "But in hotels, it's hard for people to understand that when they want a cheeseburger with a tomato on it, so we've definitely worked on communicating and telling the story of why we do things the way we do it."

Ultimate taco takes street-food staple to new heights

By Johanna Jainchill

San Francisco -- Sold on the description of "ultraelevated street food," I found myself at the Ritz-Carlton, San Francisco last month, staring at a taco shell filled with hamachi tartare, osetra caviar, creme fraiche and a leaf of 24-karat gold.

Street food long ago went glam, with food trucks boasting Michelin-starred chefs serving the likes of foie gras and lobster tails.

But I suspected the Ritz-Carlton's promised elevation of a street-food staple, the taco, would take it to the next level. I wasn't disappointed. The landmark hotel in San Francisco's posh Nob Hill neighborhood is home to Parallel 37, helmed by Michael Rotondo, an alum of Charlie Trotter's eponymous Chicago restaurant.

In January, Parallel 37 debuted the Ultimate Caviar Taco. I met Rotondo at the Ritz here on a sunny Friday afternoon. I simply had to know what a $75 taco tastes like.

It was served the way Rotondo intended: accompanied by a glass of Clase Azul's Ultra Tequila for an extra $175. Aged five years in a sherry cask, the tequila retails for more than $1,500 a bottle. Together, they constituted what the chef describes as a "perfect pairing."

The Ultimate Caviar Taco at the Ritz-Carlton San Francisco, served with a $175 glass of Clase Azul’s Ultra Tequila.
The Ultimate Caviar Taco at the Ritz-Carlton San Francisco, served with a $175 glass of Clase Azul’s Ultra Tequila. Photo Credit: TW photo by Johanna Jainchill

Although the liquor is optional, Rotondo said the tequila was actually the inspiration for the dish, and the caviar taco was created to complement its quality. 

"Tequila is an up-and-coming spirit," he declared. "And it can be a refined spirit, especially with proper age to it."

To create a taco as good as the tequila, he chose the "best of the best" ingredients.

Rotondo uses high-grade hamachi fish, a leaf of real gold, not just flakes, which he calls "a real wow factor," and royal osetra caviar from Belgium.

"This is top, top, top of the line," he said of the caviar. "It complements the top-of-the-line tequila."

The idea for an ultraluxe taco came from his time spent in Cabo San Lucas, where he worked for a year at the One & Only Palmilla.

"It's a spin on beautiful Baja seafood," he said, adding that he was specifically inspired by the region's street food, which is often a taco, though never filled with caviar.

"It's always fun to experiment in different preparations," he said, adding that he incorporated some of caviar's classic accompaniments, like chives and creme fraiche.

The results? I have to agree with Rotondo: "It's a great pairing, and it works."

My only complaint? Because of the delicate shell, a tiny bit of the hamachi and caviar spilled out onto the plate it is served on, and it is not amenable to being scooped up, unless you want a mouthful of dried ice, on which lavender tea is poured for a smoky effect.

It was that good.

Foodies relish immersive experiences in trending spots

By Jamie Biesiada

NEW YORK -- Israel. South Africa. Portugal.

It's an eclectic mix of nations, but one thing they share is being destinations with trending or up-and-coming culinary tourism, according to a panel at the New York Times Travel Show, held here last month.

Uri Steinberg, Israel's Tourism Commissioner for North America, said during the Focus on Culinary Tourism panel that his country had a record year for tourism in 2017, driven in part by foodies.

"One of the things we were so proud of is we were able to step away from the automatic niche of faith-based [travel] and start to attract new people to new products," he said. One of those was culinary travel, with Israel becoming a "mecca for food lovers."

A brunch spread by chef Meir Adoni at the Carlton Tel Aviv.
A brunch spread by chef Meir Adoni at the Carlton Tel Aviv.

Steinberg attributed that to a number of factors, including Israel being a "melting pot" of different cultures and religions, with food from all over the world. It also has numerous, different climate zones in a country roughly the size of New Jersey, leading to readily available fresh, quality ingredients.

"Twenty years ago, this [food] revolution started," Steinberg said, "and what we're seeing today: a country that is pretty much dominating headlines when it comes to the culinary scene as a result of that. What you're getting in Israel is fresh produce, healthy produce, and we're extremely proud of it."

Sheree Mitchell, founder of Immersa Global, which specializes in bespoke food-and-wine tours to Portugal, said that, as the country has emerged from its financial crisis, it has received a lot of attention, in part because it's considered safe but also because it has "amazing food, great wine, beautiful people, beaches, mountains -- everything that you could ever imagine."

After living in Portugal full- and part-time for the past three years, Mitchell has made connections with everyone from wine producers and olive oil makers to restaurants. The accessibility of culinary professionals in Portugal sets it apart from other countries, she said, leading to the possibility of unique food and wine experiences.

"They open their doors and arms and welcome you into their home and tell you everything about their trade," she said.

A new emphasis is being placed on safari food, moving away from the traditional British mold. Singita game reserves teamed up with Liam Tomlin of the award-winning Chef’s Warehouse in Cape Town to bring lighter, tapas-style eating to the bush.
A new emphasis is being placed on safari food, moving away from the traditional British mold. Singita game reserves teamed up with Liam Tomlin of the award-winning Chef’s Warehouse in Cape Town to bring lighter, tapas-style eating to the bush.

Julian Asher, founder of Timeless Africa, admitted that South Africa isn't usually considered a culinary destination, but not for a lack of quality restaurants. Instead, he blames a lack of awareness.

South Africa hasn't had its "Noma moment" yet (a reference to the famed restaurant in Denmark). But it deserves the recognition, and travel agents have a significant opportunity to add value to clients' trips there with culinary experiences.

For example, Asher said, winemaking in South Africa dates back to the 1650s, and old vines produce interesting vintages today. There are also opportunities to stay on farms or wine estates. Hands-on South African culinary experiences include market visits and chef-led classes. The country also has a number of fine-dining establishments, and food is playing an increased role in the safari experience.

"South Africa remains largely under the radar as a culinary destination," Asher said, "despite the fact that there are superb, world-class culinary experiences."

Panelist Aashi Vel, co-founder of Traveling Spoon, offers travelers the chance to book culinary experiences with locals in their own homes, experiences that are increasingly popular in all destinations. The online marketplace connects travelers and hosts.

For example, a traveler in Bali can visit rice paddies and pound curries from scratch with a local family, then tour their garden and learn about their herbs' medicinal properties. Or make Indian cuisine from scratch with a grandmother in Chennai. Or take a market tour in Hanoi with a grandmother and her daughter, and be taught a secret family recipe.

Traveling Spoon works with agents as partners and will connect them with hosts who can accommodate large groups, if that applies to their travelers.

"Our goal is really to make travel meaningful," Vel said. "We give travelers a chance to see where locals live, to eat what they eat and truly connect with the culture."