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They say there’s no such thing as a free lunch, but I can vouch that there is such thing as a free brunch. Thanks to the Citi Private Pass program, some lucky Citi customers and I got to enjoy the 4th Annual Citi Gospel & Blues Brunch on a recent Saturday morning at The Grove shopping mall in Los Angeles.

This listing in the Private Pass e-mail caught my eye.
It wasn’t Brad Paisley that caught my eye in the Private Pass email.

By signing up for the Citi Private Pass events email, I get notified of the latest offers for dining, entertainment and such that Citi offers to certain cardmembers. I rarely spot something that matches my interest, location and budget. But in April I found an event that hit close to home — a free meal within blocks of where I live. Even better, it promised live entertainment in a genre I enjoy: gospel and blues. Weirdly, even though I’d been a Citi cardmember and lived in the neighborhood for several years, I had never heard of the event in its previous three incarnations.

Brunch Offer
The Private Pass website showed up fine on my phone and gave me the sign-up details.

Clicking on the link in the email took me to the sign-up page, which instructed me to send an email to reserve. As a holder of several Citicard products, including the Citi Premier Card, I was eligible to participate. I sent an email and waited for a reply.

Though the event was sold out, ads were still on display at The Grove.
Though the event was sold out, ads were still on display at The Grove.

And waited. Unfortunately, even with my quick response time, the event was sold out, but a couple spots opened up at the last minute. (Annoyingly, I didn’t find this out until a couple days before the event when I realized I hadn’t gotten a confirmation; the RSVP policy was to simply not notify people if the event was full.) In addition to publicizing the event via the email list and website, The Grove was advertising it as a perk to shoppers. Spending $200 at the mall on a Citi card immediately got shoppers a voucher to attend.

The Grove hosted the event in their park area.
The Grove hosted the event in the park area.

Arriving on the morning of the event, I could see why it filled up so quickly. In addition to being free, it was small: about 90 or so chairs set up at tables on the artificial park of an outdoor mall. With each guest allowed a +1 and several thousand people on the Private Pass email list, this suddenly became an exclusive event.

Citi branded signs were all around the tented event.
Citi-branded signs were all around the tented event.

People were already lined up at 10:45, and two men in suits began checking in guests just after 11:00. “Citi VIP” wristbands were issued along with free parking validation (up to a $24 value). Because rain was in the forecast, a tent was pitched overhead. Underneath, a small stage was set up — and the band warm-up sounded amazing.

Tables & Stage
The tables and stage were set up under a tent.

It was a mix of rustic picnic and corporate banquet, as each wooden table was decorated with tin cans of flowers and custom-labeled tambourines — one for each guest to play and keep. Cloth napkins wrapped metal flatware, but the buffet featured plastic plates.

A guest samples the complimentary buffet.
A guest samples the complimentary buffet.

Guests made a beeline for the buffet and found a variety of traditional breakfast items (bacon, scrambled eggs, salads) and some Southern influences (catfish tacos, chicken biscuit sliders). At the end, there was a carving station with top sirloin. At the other ends, a samovar of coffee and a bar offered Prosecco either on its own or as a mimosa.

It looks good, but the food was not particularly tasty.
It looks good, but the food was not particularly tasty.

While I’m not one to look a gift horse/meal in the mouth, the food was not very good. The sirloin was dry and too tough to cut with the plastic knife; the eggs were watery and bland; the coffee was unforgivably weak. The best thing was the bacon and once its tray emptied, it was not replaced. Otherwise, the service was smart, with attentive busboys and a friendly roving photographer.

The dessert table seemed promising but was also disappointing.
The dessert table seemed promising but was also disappointing.

Later a dessert table opened amidst a buzz of excitement, and diners lined up for blueberry peach cobbler in mini mason jars, hot chocolate bread pudding souffle with vanilla whisky sauce and vanilla ice cream. Despite the delicious titles, the treats did not deliver, and I was not the only one at my table to leave them untouched after a spoonful. The event was catered by Command Performance and I would not give them an encore.

Gregory Jones & The Ministry Singers encouraged the crowd to get involved. Image courtesy of The Grove.
Gregory Jones & The Ministry Singers encouraged the crowd to get involved. Image courtesy of The Grove.

But I didn’t come just for the food. I came for the show. After a welcome message from the MC shortly after 11:00, he returned at noon to introduce Gregory Jones & The Ministry Singers. Accompanied by a three-piece band, the nine singers varied in vocal ability from astounding to shaky and for a “gospel and blues” event, played for 40 minutes before getting to a gospel or blues song.

Some audience members were more shy than others.
Some audience members were shyer than others.

This left time for plenty of crowd-pleasing R&B hits from the 1960s and 1970s, and the audience was encouraged to clap, sing along and bang their branded souvenir tambourines. There was a lot of audience participation, with a dance contest and guests taking brief solos on the mic (including an unwitting security guard). There’s no denying it was a good time, but hardly the “real tent revival” promised by the MC. (Granted I haven’t been to that many gospel churches, but I doubt “Mustang Sally” is in the canon of praise.)

Shoppers who couldn
Shoppers who couldn’t get in to the event still enjoyed the show from outside the tent.

The show ended after about 50 minutes with the gospel staple “Oh Happy Day” and there were smiles all around. The event attracted visitors outside the tent, one of whom tried to get in by flashing his Citi credit card.

I didn
I didn’t need a branded souvenir tambourine to remind me how corporate this event felt.

“We do this because Citibank loves to reward its cardmembers,” said the MC. But do they? I appreciate that the event was made available to so many people — you didn’t even have to have a Citi credit card to qualify, a debit card from your Citi checking account would do — but with seating so limited, the event reeked of a branding and publicity opportunity more than an actual reward to Citi’s customers. With half of the tickets held for shoppers at the Grove, Citi sent out emails to thousands of customers and only allowed about 25 of them (and their guests) in.

Like this tray of bacon, the event left me wanting more.
Like this tray of bacon, the event left me wanting more.

Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by previous events from credit card issuers (including one of the best nights I’ve ever had in LA thanks to Citibank) and to be fair, other guests seemed to be having a great time and returning to the buffet and bar for more. But I won’t be attending this event next year. While it wasn’t bad enough to give me the blues, the bland food and watered-down music just aren’t enough to sing about.

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