This week’s SATURDAY SIX takes a look at the Top Six Counter Service Restaurants at the Universal Orlando Resort. Last year we looked at the overall top six restaurants on property, and because both the Three Broomsticks and Fast Food Boulevard made that list, they were ineligible for this one. Speaking of which, later this year when The Cowfish opens in CityWalk we may have to revisit our original list because there have been some pretty impressive venues (including Antojitos and Vivo) who have made quite an impression since their debut. However, today we are looking resort wide for the counter service restaurants that we love the most, starting with….
# 6 – Thunder Falls Terrace (Islands of Adventure)
Located in Jurassic Park, Thunder Falls Terrace has several things going for it. The first is its menu. Unlike your typical theme park counter service, this location eschews traditional fare like hot dogs and chicken fingers and instead has items such as charbroiled ribs and rotisserie chicken. It is also one of the only counter service locations where you can get a mixed green salad made in front of your eyes. There are several large seating areas inside (along with tables outside as well) with one area has a fantastic view of where the Jurassic Park River Adventure boats splash down. This is even more fun to watch when guests walk by this area not realizing they are about to be in the Splash Zone and get soaked.
# 5 – Captain America Diner (Islands of Adventure)
The menu at Captain America Diner is not going to win any Michelin stars, but the view can’t be beat, and there is a ton of stuff inside for the Marvel fans in your party. Believe it or not, it’s less of a “Captain America” restaurant and more of an “Avengers” restaurant, as all the theming inside features an unbelievable amount of Avengers heroes (and villains) from the Marvel comic books. There are characters in the Diner that you would not believe, including The Black Knight, Wonderman, and Baron Zemo. This place is ready for next year’s slate of Marvel films as they already have Ant-Man, Quick Silver and the Scarlett Witch on the walls. Another nice touch is a giant Thor picture in one area while his hammer can be seen “cracking” a window directly across from him.
While kids are busy picking their jaws up off the floor staring at all the Marvel characters around them, adults can enjoy the scenic view which includes Hogsmeade village, Mythos, and more. Legitimately one of the best viewing locations in the entire park. Food quality wise, both the Fantastic Four Cafe and Captain America Diner in Marvel Superhero Island are among the worst in either park. However, the Marvel brand couldn’t be hotter right now and you can not beat that view, so in the end I have to count it higher than places with better food offerings such as Breadbox, Comic Strip Cafe, and Monsters Cafe.
# 4 – Red Oven Pizza Bakery (CityWalk)
Red Oven Pizza Bakery was the first of the new restaurants that were introduced in CityWalk’s Phase Two to open, and it was a home run right out of the gate. With a solid selection of great tasting pizzas (and for a reasonable price) Red Oven also has the option for “delivery” to the various outdoor bars along the CityWalk waterside. And because the on-site resorts are so close to CityWalk, I personally enjoy getting a pizza to go and bringing it back to my hotel room. With several vegetarian options (including the fantastic Pear & Fig pizza) and pizzas that are big enough for 2 or 3 to share which only cost $14-$16, Red Oven is exactly what a “theme park” pizzeria should be. We’re looking in your direction Pizza Planet and Boardwalk Pizza Window…
# 3 – Circus McGurkus Cafe Stoo-pendous (Islands of Adventure)
Don’t laugh, Circus McGurkus Cafe Stoo-pendous is legit. To start off, this is a theme park restaurant that has a ride (the High in the Sky Trolley) running through it. Say what you will, but one of the places I desperately want to eat at over in Disneyland is the Blue Bayou because it overlooks the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction. Hey, you’re in a theme park, how can you beat that?! During slower times of the year, the Oh the Stories You Will Hear show and meet ‘n greet also take place within the restaurant. Think of it as dinner theater for the younger set.
Circus McGurkus is colorful and whimsical inside, while the food tends to be towards your standard counter service options, just done well. Our favorite dish is the fried chicken platter with mashed potatoes and corn on the cob. There’s also a Coke Freestyle station along with a Dippin’ Dots, two things I really enjoy that you can’t get inside any of the Walt Disney World theme parks.
# 2 – Mel’s Drive-In (Universal Studios Florida)
In a word, Mel’s Drive-In is charming. Based off the George Lucas film American Graffiti, Mel’s has a wonderful setting that takes you right back to the early 1960s complete with a classic car collection out front. Inside, the cast members, decor, and music are all themed to that era. While the menu is not exciting, it does have fantastic milk shakes and even better root beer floats. The seating area is deceptively big inside, so don’t be scared off if there seems to be a lot of people ordering ahead of you.
Extra points are awarded towards Mel’s during Halloween Horror Nights, when the neon lights are changed to read Mel’s Die-In.
# 1 – The Leaky Cauldron (Universal Studios Florida)
Inexplicably, Universal counts the Leaky Cauldron as a table service restaurant on its dining plan, but guests still order and pay for the food ahead of time, like all other counter service restaurants. The only difference is that a Team Member brings you your meal, so we’re gonna count this is a counter service. Theming? Off the charts. The scale of the actual “leaky cauldron” needs to be seen to be believed. This restaurant took everything that was great about the Three Broomsticks over in IOA and somehow made it better. The Food? One of our favorite editions of the Saturday Six was the one running down the exclusive foods and desserts inside the Leaky Cauldron. Bangers and mash… cottage pie… banger sandwich…toad in the hole…it’s one item after another that taste incredible and that you can’t get anywhere else on property (not even in the Wizarding World.) It’s perfect.
HONORABLE MENTION: Hot Dog Hall Of Fame (CityWalk)
When Hot Dog Hall of Fame was first announced, it was dead last on the list of restaurants I cared to visit. I mean, it’s just hot dogs. Instead, Hot Dog Hall of Fame became a wonderful surprise. It doesn’t hurt that I have been a baseball fan my entire life (a reason I am always drawn towards Casey’s Corner when I go to the Magic Kingdom), and I appreciate the appeal of setting up the ordering process like a baseball diamond (even the order/pick-up windows are referred to as “bases.”) Where I was completely won over came in the form of the bleacher section (which is made up of seats from actual MLB ballparks) and the mustard bar (which carries different mustards from various cities across the US). I’ll admit that I’ve always been fascinated as what a “Dodger Dog” tasted like, or what exactly the dogs were like from the ballparks in Chicago and Detroit. Hot dogs are synonymous with baseball in the way that popcorn is tied to movie theaters. and being able to try the various types of dogs brought back a lot of memories of watching baseball games.
Another nice surprise was the inclusion of the large screen “jumbo tron” outside the restaurant that plays baseball games (and even had World Cup soccer matches in the summer). If this TV will have NFL games, NBA, or the Olympics during their seasons, CityWalk might have stumbled onto something really cool.
That’s our list, but before we go, who is up for my theme park “ice bucket challenge” video featuring the Universal Orlando Resort and a Disney MagicBand?
So there you have it: the Top Six Counter Service Restaurants at the Universal Orlando Resort. See you next weekend for the latest edition of the SATURDAY SIX, where we are going to take a peek at what else is out there in the theme park corridor outside of Universal and Disney. If you had fun, be sure to check out The Magic, The Memories, and Merch! articles, or, for your listening pleasure, check out Pardon the Pixie Dust podcast.
Special thanks to crack staff photographer Brandon Glover for his invaluable assistance in this article.