Sure, Chef Gusteau had it right… anyone can cook. But sometimes, isn’t it nice to let someone else do all the mise en place-ery and take care of the dishes? As much as my husband and I love Disney World for the atmosphere, the attractions, the getting unnecessarily teared up because you met Ariel and she was literally the first movie you remember going to oh noes am I crying DON’T LOOK AT ME, we also love it for the food in a big, big way. Living less than an hour away, we always make a point to plan our trip around where we’re going to eat, and over the years Disney World has provided us with some truly amazing meals. Don’t get me wrong… I love a good burger and fries, and few things are finer than a big plate of buffalo chicken wings. Sometimes, though, you want to try something different. You don’t have to visit during Epcot’s annual Food and Wine festival for some primo nosh, and if you’re willing to spend a little more, Disney dining can be decadent and delicious in ways you might not expect.
Victoria & Albert’s
It’s only fitting that we start this list off with a heavy hitter, and the Grand Floridian Hotel’s Victoria & Albert’s is one of those places you never forget, largely because you’re still traumatized from the last time you looked at the bill. The prices start at $135.00 USD per guest for the Prix Fixe Menu, and they only get higher if you want wine pairings or the staggering ten course menu in Queen Victoria’s Room (don’t worry, I told her you’d be cool). The high cost is not without value, however… recipents of AAA’s Five Diamond Award, a Four Star rating from Forbes Travel Guide, and many, many other reviews, this restaurant is serious business when it comes to making you feel like you got your money’s worth. Formal attire is required in the form of a dinner jacket for sirs and a dress or “pants ensemble” for madams, but once you sit down to the soft sounds of the harpist (who can totally play The Beatles, by the way) and the knowledgeable servers begin to walk you through choosing your seven course menu, you’re not going to care what you’re wearing.
Each course has several options, typically including an extra option for an additional cost such as wild turbot, and everything is prepared fresh. Braised oxtail and cherry ravioli with roasted red peppers? Sometimes I still lie awake at night thinking about it, a single tear trickling down my cheek. Hawaiian Kona chocolate souffle? So warm, so rich, you’ll want to keep your fork handy to stab anyone who dares try to sneak a bite. (Like a lady, mind.) Not a “foodie”? Hey, neither am I, but after some coaxing At the end of the meal, you’ll be given personalized menus as mementos, including a long stem red rose, and a special treat. With a special vegetarian menu, optional wine pairings, and an ambitious number of courses, it has everything you need to make that special night even more unforgettable… even if it doesn’t come with the wheelbarrow it should to roll you to your car when you’ve feasted. We’ve been here twice… once on our honeymoon, and again on our fifth anniversary, and I keep looking for excuses to come back. Maybe we’ll see each other there. You’ll be enjoying your wild chicken with mushroom gnocchi… you’ll look over… and our eyes will meet… because I’ll be outside in the bushes watching you through the window and vicariously enjoying it through you.
Situated within Disney World’s Contemporary Resort, the California Grill is Disney dining for people who want a high quality meal… and a show. Though the lounge offers first-come, first-served seating and the bar has some of the best sushi you’ll find, don’t expect to just walk up to this place without a reservation. I mean… it’s got its own elevator. Though it does have a dress code, it’s a lot less restrictive than others, and mostly comes down not dressing like you either came out of a pool or are about to spend eight hours sweating in a theme park. It’s only open for dinner, but hey, you’re going to want to be here in the evening anyway, because not only are the fireworks from Magic Kingdom right in your face and easily visible from all the beautiful windows, any accompanying music or dialogue is also piped into the restaurant. Want to get even closer? Go stand outside and watch them from the rooftop!
As for the food, well… despite not being as pricey as Victoria & Albert’s, we’re still talking about a place where the cheapest appetizer is fourteen bucks, and an entree will run you anywhere from thirty-four to fifty dollars apiece. While dinner doesn’t offer any particularly adventurous food creations (caramel pecan chicken in a reduced balsamic foam!), this is the place to go if you want delicious food cooked to perfection. Fish that perfectly flakes at the touch of your fork. Chicken that’s always moist and tender. Artisanal cheeses I can’t offer any opinion on because I am a cheese wuss but my husband seemed to like them. Fresh made ravioli you’ll want to eat, like, a dozen of. It’s just elegant enough to make an evening out with your family feel special no matter what the occasion, and you’ll be dreaming about how tender that steak was and how perfectly the sauce paired with it for the rest of your trip.
Located in Epcot in the Italy pavilion, this authentic Italian restaurant may lean towards the least costly of all the places on the list, but if you’re used to or just prefer the concept of pizza as something you get for under twenty bucks with some breadsticks (which, hey, is perfectly awesome in its own right), the costs here might seem a bit steep. Hey, if you want authentic wood-fired pizza with sauce so fresh you can literally taste the garden in it, that’s what you’re going to get here. Because of the way the pizza is cooked and prepared, it’s traditional for it to come out with the crust darker in places than you might expect, which means it might be a tough sell for any kids who refuse to touch anything that “looks burnt” unless you ask for it to be pulled from the oven earlier. The actual menu is very traditional, with everything from lasagne verde to veal dishes, but the build-your-own option for pizza as well as choices like classic Caesar salads or chicken parmigiana means there should be something for just about everyone. Though most of the appetizers are on the small side, many of them are presented in such a way that makes sharing easy, so don’t be afraid to try a few different things.
The downsides? Well, apart from the fact that the restaurant’s cavernous design means it gets really really noisy, the pizza doesn’t really “travel” well, so while you can get a box to take the rest of it back to your room, don’t be surprised if it’s a floppy slice of mush. The pizzas here aren’t as heavy as many American pizzas are, however, so with the lighter crust, sauce, and cheese, don’t be surprised if you devour the whole thing in a single sitting. Smaller parties of two or three might be able to get in without a reservation if you’re willing to wait a bit, but at busier times of the season, you’ll want to book ahead if you have your heart set on a slice. Which you should, since this is hands down the best pizza you’re going to find at Disney World. (I’d tell you about the worst, which I’ve had, but first we need to turn off the lights and find a flashlight for me to hold under my chin because it’s that scary.)
Cinderella’s Royal Table
I admit it. I’ve never been a Cinderella fan. I have nothing against the old girl, I just more grew up wanting to be Spider-Woman, or Donna Noble, or, if I’d been born more recently, probably Twilight Sparkle. But there’s just something about this place, located, yes, in Cinderella’s Castle at Disney’s Magic Kingdom, that makes you a little bit squealy and twitterpated regardless of how cynical and aloof you pride yourself on being. It is technically considered a Character Dining experience, since you’ll most likely end up seeing the Fairy Godmother and some of the mice, to say nothing of the keepsake photo op you get with Cinderella herself before dinner, but even if the idea of being roped into audience participation makes you quiver a little, you must persist, because gentle reader, the food. Instead of being priced per item, you’ll be charged a flat fee per person, and choose your appetizer, entree, and desert from the menu. The items tend to be hearty faire prepared with care and top-notch ingredients… shrimp and grits, chicken and risotto, beef tenderloin and heirloom tomatoes, aaaaaghlaglagl… oh, uh. Sorry. Went all Homer Simpson on you for a second there. I’m not vegetarian, and I still found myself choosing most of their vegetarian options when my husband and I visited, because they were just that good. Sadly, the garden fresh spring rolls I enjoyed so much no longer appear to be on the menu. R.I.P spring rolls. You were too beautiful for this world.
What’s great about Cinderella’s Royal Table is how it really delivers the quintessential Disney dining experience. The characters aren’t around all the time or obtrusive (and can take a polite hint if you want to be left alone), but having them there while you’re surrounded by the sort of incredibly detailed architecture and design Disney is known for, being able to look out the turret windows and watch the park far below, while you’re sitting in Cinderella’s freaking Castle, is kind of a surreal yet amazing experience. It’s the sort of thing you might look at if you didn’t have children and expect it to be “for” kids, but it really, really isn’t. While it’s definitely expensive, Cinderella’s Royal Table is more accurately “for” anyone who’s looking for a Disneyfied dining experience that feels truly special… and tastes really great, too.
There’s just something about Disney’s Polynesian Resort that really captures that vacation feel, if you know what I mean, from the bobbing tropical flora to the sandy beach where you can watch the fireworks after sunset in a hammock. So it’s sort of weird, then, that there’s just something about the Kona Cafe that, well, makes you feel at home. It’s a very casual, laid-back experience, with comfy booths and island decor that just sort of encourages you to sit back, relax, and take your time with your meal instead of trying to hurry back to the park. It’s open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and don’t expect to just be able to walk up and be seated without a reservation. Despite the casual appearance, this place can get very busy, but the good news is that if you want something other than American or Italian food, it’s also very worth it. Grab a pot of the French press Kona coffee, pick out a couple different appetizers (because you’re going to want to share and try everything), and settle in for a delicious meal.
Not only does the menu offer everything from pan-seared duck breast to wok-tossed noodle dishes, it changes depending on what time of day you go. Stop in for breakfast (provided you have someone to carry you out from your carb coma) and enjoy the rich and filling Tonga Toast, a massive fresh-prepared omelet, or the macadamia-pineapple pancakes that are so huge you won’t be able to eat more than one, but so delicious you’ll darned well try. Or come in for lunch before an afternoon on the beach, and fill up on piles of sticky wings, pot stickers, and fish or pulled pork tacos. Kona Cafe is a great choice no matter what you’re in the mood for… just don’t expect to be able to move after. I bet if you ask nice, they’ll get a shovel and sort of nudge you out onto the beach.
Le Cellier Steakhouse
I’ll be honest with you, gentle reader. I’m of two minds of Le Cellier. On the one hand, the restaurant, located inside Canada at Epcot, is probably one of the most expensive sit-down dinners you can have in a Disney World park, and if you’re the sort of person that salivates at the thought of a big hunk of meat and some creamy mashed potatoes, you’re probably going to enjoy it a lot. On the other hand, it’s also so hyped that the huge expectations generated by how hard people try to get in there (with reservations being notoriously difficult to make at times) might actually work against it. Make no mistake, the menu is a carnivore’s dream. Everything from filet mignon to wild salmon, sirloin, and even succulent Wagyu short rib is on offer, served with rich sides like smoked bacon and spinach risotto or carmelized onion pastry. The poutine is absolutely delicious, with thick gravy, fresh made fries, and melting cheeses, though if you’re actually from Canada like myself and are used to it being a more simplified pub item the cost and the ingredients might come as a surprise. If you do order it, don’t expect to finish it all by yourself… though you’ll try, bless your heart, and possibly ignore anything else you ordered until it’s gone.
Unfortunately, Le Cellier is never not insanely busy, and if you’re a small party like my husband and I were, you may find yourself crammed at one of the smaller tables in an awkward location. Pressure to turn tables over is high, and the wait staff can often seem like they’re trying to rush you through your meal. Still, the beautiful design is a sight to behold, and if you’re going with a group of people, the variety of menu items is sure to please, and you can bet they’ll all be cooked to perfection… though vegetarians might find themselves limited to pasta and a salad. Well, “steakhouse” is right there in the name, after all. You’ll need to put on your war paint and be parked at your computer the morning of the day reservations open up for your trip and start refreshing like a lunatic if you have your heart set on a specific date and time, but hey, if you’re a Disney warrior, that’s probably part of your morning routine by now.
This, of course, is by no means a definitive list, just one based on our own experiences and travels. It’s also not to say the kiosks and counter service meals at Disney World should be avoided, since a sandwich at Sunshine Seasons in Epcot followed by a trek to the kiosk in China where they’re serve you a slurpee made from raspberry and green teas (or a drink made of chilled coffee, tea, and whiskey if you’re rad) is one of the finest meals you can have. The point of all this was to say… eating at Disney can be expensive. But if you don’t mind bending the bank a little, and you’re looking for something extra special, Disney World has something for everyone to ensure you leave happy. Possibly a few pounds heavier and fighting your loved one over the contents of your takehome box… but definitely happy.