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Where to eat? Lunch at the S.S. Columbia Dining Room at Tokyo DisneySea

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Published: January 1, 2012 at 10:18 PM

When I planned my trip to Tokyo DisneySea, I knew that I didn't want to miss the chance to eat a meal on the S.S. Columbia. Who wouldn't want to eat at a theme park restaurant that looked like this?

The exterior of the S.S. Columbia

So with the help of someone I know inside Disney, I booked a lunch reservation at the S.S. Columbia Dining Room. (Tokyo DisneySea has a Web page for priority seating reservations, but it's only offered in Japanese.)

As I walked up to the Columbia after riding Tower of Terror, I felt a moment of mild panic. I'd forgotten to look up how to say "I have a reservation" in Japanese. How was I going to be able to let the host or hostess know about my seating time? I was trying to devise an appropriate pantomime routine as I walked up the grand staircase in the dark wood-paneled hallway that would take me to the S.S. Columbia Dining Room.

I walked up the final step, and saw the restaurant entrance. Moment of truth time.

Entrance to the S.S. Columbia Dining Room

Before I could do a thing, a host strode toward me.

"Mr. Robert Niles?" he asked, bowing toward me.

Stunned, I squeaked a "Yes?" and bowed my head in return, as had become reflex for me during my time in Japan.

The host then smiled and pointed to the card he held in his hand:

Priority seating reservation card

He pointed at the name printed on it in Japanese: "Mr. Robert Niles?"

I'll take your word for it, buddy. If I ever need to know how to write my name in Japanese now, I guess that's it.

As a hostess walked me to my table, I'd wondered how on Earth the first host had recognized me. But before I could envision some grand scenario involving either Disney's "Big Brother"-like security or my imagined international fame as a theme park website publisher, I realized that I was the only non-Asian in the room. They knew they had a 12:30 reservation for some guy from America, and at 12:30 some white guy walks up the stairs. Two and two ain't that hard to put together. So much for my celebrity status.

Inside the S.S. Columbia Dining Room.

Prices in the Dining Room aren't cheap - ranging from about US$25 to US$50 per entree…

The entree menu at the S.S. Columbia Dining Room in December 2011.

…but a meal's only a bad deal if it isn't worth the price, no matter whether it costs $50 or five bucks. And I thought this lunch was worth every penny. Figuring that I'm in a park called "DisneySea" and I'm looking through a window at Tokyo Bay, I decided I'd best go with the seafood. So I selected the Baked Lobster Tail and Sauteed Scallops with Butter Sauce, served with noodles and seasonal vegetables. (2,480 yen, or about US$32.20)

Baked Lobster Tail and Sauteed Scallops with Butter Sauce

A chili sauce was dabbed between the scallops and the vegetables, which helped spice the butter sauce when I soaked it up with the al dente fettucine. But the real attraction, as it should have been, was the shellfish. Both the scallops and lobster remained moist and velvety, kissed with the taste of clean sea air. DisneySea's chefs had cooked each one just enough to draw out their full rich flavor, but not a moment too long to lose it, and leave the shellfish rubbery.

As I lingered over each bite (hey, for 32 bucks, I'm staying in this seat as long as I darned well please), I noticed the detail on the edge of the china.

Theme detail on the rim of the china

No generic plates here. Every detail in the restaurant is themed to convince you that you really are dining on the high seas, under the care of the S.S. Columbia and its parent U.S. Steamship Co. (founded 1865). And after I'd scraped the last tidbit of food from my plate, and had my fill of rolls and butter the waitresses kept offering, here's what my bill arrived inside...

U.S. Steamship Co. bill folder

…not one of those awful, generic "Disney Parks" folders Disney curses us with back home. When I paid my bill in cash, here's how my change was returned to me:

Hidden Mickey change

They certainly love their "Hidden" Mickeys in Tokyo.

As I picked up my change, that feeling of mild panic returned. I'd forgotten to look up about tipping in Japan. The people two tables over who were paying at the same time had used a credit card, so I couldn't see if they'd left any cash for their server. All I could remember was that in most European countries tips are not as large as in America. And tipping seemed to be the norm in Singapore. So I decided to discreetly leave a small tip next to the change tray and hightail it out of there.

I got as far as the staircase before a running waitress could catch me. "We can't accept tips," she said while smiling and bowing. She extended her hands toward me, which held a washcloth on which my coins lain.

Embarrassed, I apologized and took the money. But as the waitress returned to the restaurant, I felt grateful for the moment, and the lesson. In Japan, the price listed is what you pay - no extra incomprehensible taxes, no extra arbitrary tips. I imagined how uneasy a Japanese tourist must feel visiting America, where tax rates vary from city to city and state to state, and some people expect tips (waiters, cabbies and bellhops), while others don't (sales clerks). How easy would it be to succumb to fear that people were ripping you off, adding false charges to your bill and passing them off as taxes? Or by demanding tips that American customers would never pay?

But it was the washcloth that drove home the lesson for me. Not only did the waitress run me down to return my change, she had picked it up with a washcloth, so that she would not even have to touch my money. It was mine, not hers, not hers even for the moment of return. The Japanese obsession with wrapping gifts suddenly made sense to me. Perhaps the moment when you give something is not the moment when you present it - it is the moment you wrap the gift to be presented. From that moment on, you never again touch the gift itself. And by wrapping the gift, you will let the recipient knows that its content is no longer claimed by you, but meant for the recipient.

When I touched again those coins on that washcloth, I finally connected with Japanese culture. I might have eaten lunch on the American Waterfront, but I learned what it's like to dine in Japan.

Next: Dinner at Magellan's, and the end of the journey.

Readers' Opinions

From Anthony Murphy on January 1, 2012 at 10:58 PM
This has to be one of the best and fascinating stories I have read on TPI Robert. I am not being dramatic either. I really really enjoyed it! Really well done! The restaurant looks fantastic and I really felt you conveyed what makes Tokyo Disney stand out even more to the pretty good service we get here in the US parks. DL and WDW gives great service, this is almost perfection.
From Tim Chatlos on January 2, 2012 at 12:40 AM
The Hidden Mickey change still has me smiling. The Japanese really do appreciate Disney on a level unlike anywhere in the world. Simply wonderful. Thank you for this story.
From Marc Benz on January 2, 2012 at 4:01 AM
I think the SS Columbia was the place in Disney Sea where we spent the most time at. Being cruise fans, just walking around the ship and discover how detailed a ship of that era had been recreated was just fascinating. And then, this isn't even a ship but a building made to look like a ship.

Then, we had a snack and a drink in the Teddy Roosevelt lounge onboard and later that day dinner in the dining room.

Looking forward to the report about Magellans!

From Daniel Etcheberry on January 2, 2012 at 10:05 AM
I would think that everyone who works with guests at the Disney resort in Tokyo would speak English.

How ideal it is to live in a country where one doesn't have to worry about tips and taxes are included in the price.

From José María Sandoval on January 2, 2012 at 1:05 PM
Great history!!
From James Rao on January 2, 2012 at 10:07 PM
Mmmmmmmm.... Scallops!!!
From Ricardo K on January 3, 2012 at 7:33 AM
Fantastic! I really want to visit TDLR again!

And yes, that is your name. Each of the characters spell RO-BEH-RU-TO NAH-EE-RU.

From KJ Simpson on January 3, 2012 at 8:32 AM
This was my favorite read, on all of TPI. Thanks for the excellent report Robert, and for writing it with such style!

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