By Cheryl Pendry, PassPorter Message Board Guide and Columnist
With more than 300 places to eat on Disney property, let's face it -- you're never going to go hungry. There's something for everyone and that includes the finest of dining opportunities. But prices at the best Disney restaurants aren't exactly cheap, so where should you go for an evening out that will provide good food, a wonderful atmosphere and top service? For us, there's one choice that fulfills all those criteria without completely breaking the bank and that's the California Grill on the 14th floor of Disney's Contemporary Resort.Let me just say now that we have sampled the food at Victoria and Albert's, and that is truly out of this world, but it's not a place that we would visit with every vacation. In fact, for most people it's a once in a lifetime experience, hence the earlier reference to not breaking the bank.
What makes the California Grill so special? Firstly, there's the location. You often hear that the most important thing for houses is location, location, location and we feel the same is true of Disney restaurants. Sure, some of the other finer restaurants on property enjoy majestic views -- Wishes can be seen from Narcoosee's at the Grand Floridian and you can look out into the grounds of the Wilderness Lodge at Artist Point, but atop the Contemporary not only can you view Wishes, but it's also possible to see Epcot's IllumiNations from the other end of the restaurant. Many people don't realize it, but there is a second smaller balcony at the rear of the restaurant, where you get a great view of both displays. OK, so you don't get the Wishes music piped in, but it's still a first class view.
And if you're not lucky enough to secure one of those coveted window tables, never fear. The servers will invite you out on the balcony just before the show begins and you won't miss a second of your meal, as they are experts at timing each course around the fireworks. We once ordered, headed outside for the show and arrived back to see our server leaving our soups on our table for us.
That's just one of the reasons that we enjoy the service here so much. We have always found the staff here is anxious to provide the best service that they can and are fully acquainted with all the options on the menu, allowing them to offer informed advice. Not sure how hot and spicy something is? They'll happily explain it on a scale of one to ten. Want to know whether something contains meat? No problem -- they'll even double check with the chef just to be 100% sure. Looking for some advice on which wine would perfectly complement your food choices? No problem. You'll even be able to sample a couple of options before deciding.
You're also allowed to linger over your food. The courses don't come at you in quick succession, they're well spaced, allowing you to digest each one properly. In that respect, it's very reminiscent of Victoria and Albert's. It is not unusual for a meal here to take more than two hours if you want to take your time. On one occasion, we even went to pay and were told that we still had some wine left and were asked if we wanted to finish it first before settling the bill. There are very few restaurants like that, where you feel that the table is yours for the evening and you're not being rushed to make way for another party. All too often you feel as if you're on a conveyor belt, with the next family being rushed in as soon as you're out of the door. Not here.
So what about the food? Well, the theme is American, although it's difficult to predict exactly what will be on the menu, as it changes every week to incorporate the freshest of ingredients. Specialties here include the brick oven fired flatbreads, which are delicious, but they're not exactly small. Unless you've got a big appetite, you may be best sharing these. For our Christmas Day dinner last year, we sampled the smoked salmon flatbread and it was superb.
Another of the California Grill's specialties is sushi and boy is it one worth sampling! Having tried sushi on our last trip at both Epcot's Teppanyaki and the California Grill, I can tell you that the California Grill won that battle hands down.
As for the appetizers, the bisques are another favorite, having sampled a range, including asparagus and oyster. When it comes to the main courses, the menu does at first appear to be dominated by meat, but look closer and there's plenty for non meat eaters. Usually there are at least two fish options available and there's also a vegetarian zone. If the vegetarian items you see on the menu don't take your fancy, then make use of the vegetarian zone and tell them exactly what you'd like to try. I've done this before, mixing and matching from some of the dishes on the menu and the chefs have always come up trumps for me. It seems that nothing is too much trouble for them.
Usually by the time we've made our way through the sushi, the flatbread, appetizer and entrée, there's sadly no room left for dessert. I keep promising myself that one day I will leave enough room for their signature dish, the Warm Valrhona Chocolate Cake, a divine sounding mixture of chocolate and cherries. The problem is that this always comes after the other courses and by then, I've found too much on the menu that I feel the need to sample!
One of the other beauties of the California Grill is their wine list, covering everything from the best known varieties to an extensive reserve list, which we haven't yet sampled. Whether you're looking for just a glass or a bottle to complement your meal, your server will be able to offer help to pick just the perfect accompaniment.
Eating at the California Grill isn't cheap. Our bill, for the two of us, is usually between $100 and $150, but it's a price we feel is worth every penny for a truly indulgent and romantic evening. And it's not just a place for couples to visit. We see plenty of families every time we go there, although it's fair to say that usually the children are a little older than at many other Disney restaurants.
Because it's an expensive meal, we always get a little bit dressed up; usually a nice top and perhaps a smart pair of pants or perhaps black jeans. On occasions, I've even dug a nice dress out and worn that. It's not a place I'd recommend heading to decked out in shorts and a t-shirt. We did so on our first visit on our honeymoon and felt decidedly out of place, which could explain Disney's new dress code for this and a few other restaurants, requesting no swimsuits, torn clothing, tank tops or flip flops be worn.
Dining at the California Grill is a great experience and very much an evening out. Combining fine food, good service and amazing views, if it's somewhere you've yet to visit, then be sure to add it to your "must try" list for future trips.
The California Grill is located on the 14th floor of the Contemporary resort, with check in on the second floor. Once your name is checked off, you're then escorted by a member of staff in an elevator to the restaurant. Open for dinner every evening from 5:30 - 10:00 pm, the menu can be found here: California Grill Menu.
About the Author: Cheryl and husband Mark live in England and love to travel, particularly to America and Walt Disney World.