California Grill is the stuff of legend: with its glass windows towering atop Disney's Contemporary Resort and overlooking Magic Kingdom® Park, it has become known as one of Disney's premier dining experiences. But how does its atmosphere and food stack up, and is it worth the price?
A Premium Experience
From the moment we stepped out of the elevator and into the restaurant, it was apparent we were embarking on an experience even richer than some of Walt Disney World® Resort's most special meals. Wine bottles lined the wall ahead, hiding the restaurant's open kitchen until the hostess brought us to our table. There we now looked out—even from our booth seat in the middle of the restaurant—on the rest of Walt Disney World Resort property.
The ambiance set by every detail of the restaurants decor, from its stark white table clothes to modern light fixtures, adds a high level of class to old-school Americana. The kitchen is open to the rest of the restaurant where you can see the entire staff prepare your food. There was one particular member dedicated purely to quality assurance, as she ensured all meat was cooked perfectly to temperature before adding the final garnishes to each plate.
It is that level of detail that set the standard for everything at California Grill, and is what makes it one of Disney's best restaurants.
It is the same level of detail that is present in all of the waitstaff. As Disney has placed customer service at the top of its list of priorities, the servers here fit right in line.
Dinner with a View
California Grill has, bar none, my favorite view of Walt Disney World Resort. If you can secure a window-adjacent table, you will manage to score a dinner overlooking Magic Kingdom Park itself. While not having a window seat did not negatively impact our dining experience, we were told you can have better odds of getting one at earlier reservations or by making a request when you check in for your dining reservation at the resort.
You also get access to the walkway outside the restaurant, which has a view that stretches across almost all of Walt Disney World Resort property. No picture can do it justice, and it gets even better when fireworks are running. Previously, anyone who brought their receipt from a meal that day prior to Happily Ever After starting would be allowed back on the walkway to view the fireworks from the premium spot.
All About the Food
As great as all the restaurant's amenities are, the experience ultimately comes down to the food and alcohol. With a menu that trends on the more expensive side for Disney destinations, it is essential that the meal itself holds up to the standards set by the rest of the experience.
Fortunately, it was the best part.
California Grill's bread service might just be the best I have ever had (from any restaurant). As outstanding as the bread itself was, the dipping oil, complete with sun-dried tomatoes and spices, was the star of the show.
The drinks are prepared by the bartender with the longest tenure on property, and they show it. I had the Sonoma maple bourbon old fashioned at $18, and the heavy pour and layered flavors made it worth every dollar. The selection of wines and cocktails are extensive, so if darker liquors are not your groove, don't be afraid to pivot to something else. That said, if you do like dark liquors, then this should be your go-to.
With a long day in the parks and a big meal in front of us, we elected to split the hearts of romaine wedge salad as an appetizer. What we didn't anticipate was that the kitchen split the portions for us, with each half of the salad we received gorgeously plated. Everything about the food we had maintained that same level of intricate detail and presentation, but the complex flavors are where the dishes shined even brighter. Every bite was a light-meets-decadent sort of affair where every part of the avocado dressing, Point Reyes blue cheese, miso-honey bacon and yuzu kosho-sourdough croutons made their case as necessary. There is a level of divineness to the salad that makes it feel premium and worth savoring, and catapults it to the very top of the list of best Disney salads.
The entrees followed suit in their quality. The pepperoni artisanal, hand-formed pizza kept the same level of extravagance as seen in the salad. As the price of the meal and the gravitas of the restaurant indicate, this is not your average quick-service-style pizza, and is the style of dish you may want to have the whole table split to get an opportunity to try.
We also tried the plant-based pasta, which changes seasonally. This version of the handmade pasta most prominently featured beets, a vegetable that was, to say the least, not a favorite among the group at the table. And yet the pasta was one of the standout dishes of the entire night, with all its vegetables blending into a complex flavor profile that was deep with richness and heartiness. A decadent sum of its parts, I want to go back just to see how the dish transforms across seasons.
And lastly, we had the grilled pork tenderloin, which immediately became one of the best dishes I have had on Walt Disney World Resort property. Its rich bed of goat cheese polenta complimented the perfectly cooked (to medium) pork, the fat-to-meat ratio being more perfectly split than any meat dish I have tried before. Perhaps the dish the restaurant has become best known for, this has cemented itself as one of Disney's most essential dishes to try.
Is it worth it?
If my glowing praise has not given away my hand by now, this certainly will: I will gladly pay the $100 I did for myself to eat here again, and in fact, I would happily pay more. Every moment of the experience and every bite of each dish had me wanting to start the night over from the beginning again. No matter the occasion, California Grill is a must-do.