Early in our marriage, I convinced Mike to spend a few nights at Disney World so I could share my love of the World and show him that Disney World can be a grown-up experience too. Along with two rounds of golf and a visit to the spa, I sought out some of the more refined dining experiences that Disney World has to offer. One of the meals we chose was California Grill, and after our first truly exceptional experience, it became almost a tradition to visit it on each trip.
Our recent meal was our sixth visit to this restaurant. We have visited a few times just the two of us, once with our group of dear friends, and once with my parents (aka Donald and Daisy). Everyone that we have brought to this restaurant with us has thoroughly enjoyed their meal and were impressed by the entire experience. Here in our California Grill Dinner Review we’ll discuss our recent meal here, along with our thoughts on the restaurant’s ambiance, service and a bit more.
If you’re interested in the restaurant from a Disney Dining Plan perspective, California Grill is a table service restaurant that requires two credits per person.
The Atmosphere at California Grill is Upscale Yet Accessible
Check in is located on the second floor of the Contemporary Resort. You are escorted on the elevator to the 15th floor by a cast member as this floor isn’t accessible by the regular resort elevators. The host staff are friendly and pleasant to chat with on the elevator ride. Unless you are going to the first-come first-served lounge, you will then wait again briefly to be seated by the host staff in the actual restaurant. The main dining room is one large room with floor to ceiling windows surrounding the entire room. The bar and kitchen are in the center so that the tables are all around the outside perimeter with the amazing views out the windows.
There are two observation decks on either side of the restaurant that allow you to go outside to take in the view, take pictures, etc. If your dinner reservation is not during the Happily Ever After Fireworks, you can come back later in the evening, show your receipt and you can watch the fireworks from the observation deck. (or the Lounge if you prefer). The restaurant dims the lights and pipes in the Happily Ever After music, making this a unique and memorable way to enjoy the show.
Back and to the left of the kitchen is another smaller dining room. We were seated in here when we brought Donald and Daisy here for a special “adults’ night out”. While we didn’t have a Magic Kingdom view, we had a gorgeous view of Bay Lake and the Wilderness Lodge. We could also see both Epcot and Hollywood Studios and see their respective fireworks shows over the surrounding trees. This room was perfect for that evening as we could enjoy more conversation as this room was quieter than the main room.
The décor is trendy and “contemporary” which is apropos given its location in the Contemporary Resort. While they do have a dress code, it is still somewhat casual as dress shorts, polos, sundresses, and the like are permitted and are the common mode of dress seen in the restaurant. The surroundings manage to be comfortable and not intimidating despite the signature dining moniker.
We have always seen tables with children, particularly in the earlier hours of dinner service. While we haven’t brought Anna and Elsa here yet, we feel comfortable in doing so especially as they are getting older. The restaurant isn’t loud per se, but the set up of one expansive room with an open kitchen and lounge in the center definitely lends itself to a noisier environment. There is no mistaking this is a high energy, fine dining establishment, but the atmosphere also provides a relaxing respite from the hustle and bustle of theme park restaurants and even the casual resort dining options.
The Service at California Grill is Top Notch
As with any signature, higher-priced dining experience, the quality of the service should also be at a higher standard. In our experience, the service at the California Grill has always held to that standard. Our servers over the years have held varying degrees of light-hearted conversation with us but they have all had in common an extremely professional demeanor and a high level of knowledge of the menu and offerings. Our meals were not rushed and moved at a comfortable pace.
As with any dining review that discusses experiences with service, note that your mileage may vary. For any number of circumstances, service one night may not be the same as the next. After all of our experiences though, it is clear that the restaurant strives for excellent service and can deliver.
The Food at California Grill is a Delicious Break From the Theme Park Food
Since the menus at California Grill are seasonal and market-inspired, they change frequently. Some tried and true favorites do remain on the menu year-round. Above I have talked about our service and experiences from all of our visits, however I will only be discussing the food from our most recent visit below. This meal was just Mike and I as Anna and Elsa enjoyed an evening at the Pixar Play Zone.
With so many options to choose from (flatbreads, sushi, salads, and various starters), it is extremely difficult to choose only one appetizer. On this particular night, Mike and I were starving and went a little crazy.
Our meal started with their bread service. Mike was served their amazing sourdough bread, along with delicious butter and a dipping oil with sun dried tomatoes. I was served gluten free rolls that were freshly heated.
We both were so intrigued by the Florida Corn Soup that we each ordered it (we usually strive to order different things so we can sample more). Topped with Dungeness Crab, the soup was rich yet light. I mourned the ending of my portion and could have made a bowl of it my meal.
Mike enjoyed the Hearts of Romaine salad, which was topped with bleu cheese, miso-honey bacon and avocado dressing. He was surprised by the different flavor profile of the bacon but liked the how it was different from run-of-the-mill bacon. He was infatuated with the avocado dressing as he described it as “liquid avocado”. The salad was extremely fresh and crisp.
I ordered a gluten-free Salmon roll. Our old favorite Spicy Kazan Roll was not included as a gluten free option to my disappointment. The salmon roll was fine but lacked the flavor and quality that I have come to expect from their excellent sushi we have had in the past. It may be that the salmon roll was so simple compared to the complex rolls that they create in the onsite sushi kitchen. I highly recommend the Spicy Kazan Roll from my previous gluten-eating life.
For his entrée, Mike selected the Colorado Rack of Lamb. He is a fan of lamb but only orders it when we are at a higher end restaurant. The lamb was served with Punjabi eggplant, curry-potato samosas courgettes, cucumber yogurt and lamb jus. The rack of lamb was excellent and he appreciated the addition of the lamb jus as it enhanced the flavor of the lamb and brought it to the next level. He was not a huge fan of either side dish but that speaks more to his personal preferences rather than the quality of the sides. As he put it, “The lamb was worth it!”
I chose my favorite entrée, the Grilled Pork Tenderloin. While I do strive to order different items when revisiting favorite restaurants, sometimes a dish is so good that I can’t break away from it. Plus, I only have it about every two years or so, so you can’t blame me entirely. I was ecstatic that it could be prepared gluten free and the dish did not disappoint. The pork is fork tender and the goat cheese polenta is a rich and flavorful side that compliments the pork to perfection. I will discuss this further in my gluten free review.
At this point in the meal, we were beyond stuffed, however the pastry chef at California Grill never disappoints so we had to partake.
Mike ordered the Churros. These weren’t the same churros in the cart at Magic Kingdom. These were, as he described, “cinnamony, sweet and crunchy perfection”. They paired well with the chocolate sauce and ice cream served alongside.
I chose the no-sugar-added and gluten friendly Carrot Cheesecake. This is the first carrot cake I was able to enjoy since going gluten free almost two years prior. The combination of the light cheesecake with the carrot cake “crumbles” and accompaniments created one of the best gluten free desserts I have ever had.
California Grill Overall
We probably gave it away by stating up front that we have visited six times, but we love California Grill. The ambiance suggests an upscale dining experience but manages to not be over-the-top stuffy or intimidating.
The views are second to none and provide breathtaking look over the Magic Kingdom, Seven Seas Lagoon and Bay Lake (depending on which direction you look). Aside from how special the views are from this location, the fresh, seasonal quality of the food and care with the execution of the dishes is evident in every dish we have ever tried.
In addition, the extensive wine list has introduced us to some of our favorite wines. For us, this has become a place to enjoy a bit of a break from the theme parks and have a delicious meal while still being able to enjoy being at Disney World as it surrounds you from outside the windows.
With that, we’ll wrap up our California Grill dinner review. It has become a well-renowned dining experience since it opened at the Contemporary Resort and we are hard pressed to find another meal that we enjoy in the World quite as much as we do this one.
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