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Guest Review: California Grill at Disney World’s Contemporary Resort

Join us in welcoming guest author Corey Patterson with his first review on the Disney Food Blog. Corey starts off at the top of the world with his experience at the California Grill. Take it away, Corey!

Location, location, location. Every one knows these are the three most important aspects in a successful property. However, in the case of California Grill in Disney’s Contemporary Resort, the food outshines even the outstanding location and takes top billing.

For a few years, I had heard that if I couldn’t eat dinner at Victoria and Albert’s (which is on my bucket list), then California Grill was a great alternative. So, when I attended a recent conference in Orlando, I made sure that eating at the top of the Contemporary was on the agenda.

And, I must say, after my first Cali Grill experience, I would wholeheartedly agree with the high praise.

Atmosphere

As we arrived at the Contemporary Resort, we were a little unsure of how to get to the restaurant. But signage and friendly cast members quickly pointed out the reception desk on level 2. We checked in and were whisked away in the elevator to the 15th floor at the top of the Contemporary Resort.

Check In Desk

I purposefully made our reservation at California Grill at 9:20 so that we were sure to be there during Wishes, but I was still surprised to see the restaurant so busy at that late hour. I most likely underestimated the crowds for the week and really shouldn’t have been shocked since WDW is getting busier as summer approaches.

Since we made a reservation, we walked right in and didn’t wait more than 10 minutes for our table (which was enough time to grab something from the awesome bar!). A very nice young lady named Sam greeted us when our table was ready and made it a point to explain everything about the restaurant (such as the location of the Terraces and the restrooms,) and even slowly walked us by the open kitchen on the way to the table so we could witness the magic happening there.

Open Kitchen

While Sam was wonderful, we were a little disappointed when we learned she was seating us in the “Wine Room” at what seemed to be the back of the restaurant. While very nice, very secluded and very quiet compared to the rest of the restaurant, we were unable to see the Magic Kingdom from our table. This was a HUGE mistake on my part. I will now make the mental note (and you should too) to always request a table near the windows overlooking Magic Kingdom.

I will note that the wine room did have a view of a different part of Bay Lake, and Sam mentioned we should be able to see Epcot (and Spaceship Earth, in particular). But we could never really pinpoint Epcot and it was dark, so we couldn’t really enjoy the lake view. This deflated me just a little, but it wasn’t anything a good meal couldn’t overcome.

Wine Room

Around 9:50, an announcement was made that Wishes would be starting soon and encouraged diners to move to the Terraces on the top of the Contemporary resort. The front terrace was decidedly more crowded, but we chose it anyway and had a great view of Wishes.

Now, the Disney folks could have just allowed guests to move out on the terraces and enjoy the amazing view of the fireworks, but I was extremely excited to learn that Disney had placed speakers all along the top of the hotel that allowed guests to hear the music and dialogue of the show, just like you were in the parks! How on earth had I missed this?? Anyway, I was really excited to experience Wishes the way Disney intended. It was a great surprise!

Fireworks View from Terrace

Before I get to the food (which is a major part of the Disney Food Blog), a quick note about our server, Saad. Saad was from Morocco and had been at the California grill for a few years. He told us his story of how he came to America, worked at the Morocco pavilion at Epcot, moved to the Grand Floridian, and ultimately landed at California Grill.

He has been working at the World for over 25 years. Then he pointed out another server who had been with Disney since 1972…that’s 40 years! It was awesome to hear about his passion for Disney and about his journey. Oh, and his service was fantastic! He pointed out several items and timed our appetizer and entrees around the fireworks so that our food didn’t get cold. Brilliant!

Eats

Now…the food.

As I mentioned at the start, after the great service, fantastic location and amazing fireworks, you would think the food would be anti-climactic. Au contraire, mon frère!

Before the fireworks show, we chose to indulge in the Cheese Board. This was the best choice I have made in a WHILE. There were five cheeses and they ranged from having mild to robust flavors (the Bleu Cheese was outstanding…but really strong). The “Lamb Chopper” cheese was smooth and creamy and might be my favorite cheese I’ve tasted.

Each cheese was “paired” with small palate-cleansing additions such as figs or pear gelatin. By far, my favorite of these “pairings” was a very small bowl of honey just off of the comb (not pictured). The chefs even left a little of the comb in the honey and it was quite simply one of the best things I have ever tasted (even if I am prone to superlatives!). And don’t tell the etiquette police, but we found ourselves using our fingers to ensure we got every last drop. It was amazing.

Cheese Plate

In addition, Saad brought a hearty basket of Bread and Salted Butter, which was an amazing addition to the appetizer portion of our meal.

Bread and Butter

For the “First Course”, my buddy selected the Sonoma Goat Cheese Ravioli while I chose the Steamed “Big One’s” Mussels. I was pretty sure he made the better choice after we ordered, but I was still looking forward to the mussels.

Once everything arrived, we found that the Ravioli was a great balance of pesto, sun-dried tomatoes and the goat cheese (which wasn’t overpowering). Delicious.

Sonoma Goat Cheese Ravioli

The Mussels, which had been suggested to me by a Disney Imagineer (via Twitter), were amazing and more than plentiful. I mean, the dish was huge. There were almost 20 mussels that were bathed in beer, Chorizo, and buttercup squash.

Initially, I wasn’t a huge fan of the flavor of the mussels as they were very salty and “ocean-y”. However, once I paired the mussels with the chorizo and the accompanying grilled sourdough, they took on a whole new flavor and I found myself wanting more after they were gone. Great recommendation, Jason!

Steamed “Big One’s” Mussels

For the second course, my buddy decided that since it was now “Soft Shell Crab Season”, that he should try that. I, on the other hand, was starting to get really stuffed (did I mention the Mussels dish was a LOT of food?) and didn’t want to leave in a food coma, so I reverted back to the first course menu and chose the Crispy Rock Shrimp Salad.

The Crab was pretty good, but the crust didn’t have a ton of flavor for me and we were undecided about the citrusy sauce that came with the dish. To be honest, the crab wasn’t that memorable.

Soft Shell Crab

The salad, however, was outstanding! I’m a huge fan of mixed greens and the combination of citrus, onions, wasabi cream and soy reduction was super-flavorful, but didn’t overpower the dish.

I actually expected to have a lot more heat with the wasabi, but it was just right. In addition, the shrimp were adequately crispy, yet were very soft. It was a fantastic choice and, after tasting both, I unilaterally decided that I won that round of ordering!

Crispy Rock Shrimp Salad

Overall

Now, I do have one negative thing to say about California Grill. I was too full to order dessert! This rarely happens and I am very disappointed with myself. Let me apologize to you, the reader, and I can assure you, it won’t happen again. In fact, I made the vow to make up for it with a Kitchen Sink next time I’m at Disney.

All in all, California Grill lived up to my expectations. With an unparalleled location, great food and Wishes fireworks (with music!), California Grill will be hard to beat. However, I am more than willing to try! (Victoria and Albert’s…you have been served notice!)

Thanks to A.J. for letting me write this review! Your suggestions were great and your excitement is very contagious! See you real soon!

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23 Comments

  1. Amber says:

    I have to agree that the food at California Grill is amazing! I surprised DH with a birthday dinner here 3 years ago and we simply loved it! We were also seated in the back of the restaurant and went out to the terrace to watch Wishes (What a great view). When we arrived back to our table – we were surprised with glasses of champagne with a Happy Birthday message in chocolate! Like you – we had an amazing server who did a great job timing our food around Wishes.

    Great job on your review!!!

  2. Christa says:

    I had two less-than-stellar experiences at Cali Grill over the years, but I gave it another shot in February. CG redeemed itself with that meal!! I’ve been to V&A’s twice, and nothing really compares to that, other than Napa Rose in DL, but CG is definitely a top-notch restaurant, something you would not have heard me say in January. People laugh at me when I say it, but I love going to WDW for the amazing food options available in one place. Another favorite is Artist Point at the Wilderness Lodge, but it’s still no Napa Rose. I, along with my traveling companions, were blown away by our meal we had at Napa Rose earlier this month. We really can’t stop talking about it!

  3. jodifur says:

    I used to love California Grille. It was, by far, my favorite restaurant in all of Disney. But the last time I was there I had such a horrific experience I can not force myself to go back. The service was awful, the manager was a nightmare, the food was not even good, and I could go on and on. I know every restaurant has an off night, but with so many restaurants in Disney, I just can’t bring myself to dine there again. It is sad, because it is such a pretty space.

  4. Alan says:

    It’s funny how things fall off one’s radar. I can’t remember the last time we ate there. It may have been when it was Top of the World. With all of the growth at WDW some of these old favorites slip away. I guess that is what happens when there is so much choice.

    This review is great and reminds me try some of the old favorites.

  5. Julie says:

    Hands down, California Grill is my top choice in Disney Dining. There’s not a single thing on that menu I wouldn’t order, which leads to one problem: how on earth do you choose?! I will admit to having a little inconsistency among the staff, with some good waiters and some that are not up to the standards set by such a nice place. However, with food like theirs, I can overlook it. If you’ve ever been disappointed by dishes you’ve selected, try some of these: Triple Cheese Flatbread, Spicy Kazan Role (some of the best sushi I’ve ever had), any of their soups, and one of their signature dishes, the Grilled Pork Tenderloin. I have a hard time ordering anything but the pork since it’s so delicious, but last time I ventured out and had duck two ways. It was so extraordinary I was beside myself. The duck came roasted with cherries, but also confit, and the confit was stellar. It needed no sauce to complete it. The duck was soft and buttery with an amazing saltiness from its preparation. I’d order this again in a heartbeat! If you still have the stomach space, their chocolate molten cake is always a winner and they often change the preparation based on the season. I was there around Christmas and we had white chocolate peppermint bark and peppermint ice cream with it, brought to the table quietly so as not to interrupt as Wishes dazzled the sky. Now I’ve never tried V&A’s, but I think CG is as close to dining perfection as Disney has!

  6. Christa says:

    Julie, you must try V&A’s. It’s an experience that anyone that loves food as much as it appears you do should have.

  7. @Amber Thanks! It was a blast doing the review and taking the pics for it. I bet the champagne and chocolate was a cool surprise, though. I will need to go back for a special occasion (and not just a conference…).

    @Christa Napa Rose is on my list for next time we go. I hear nothing but good things about it. Glad you enjoyed it!

    @jodifur Maybe dessert and fireworks (so you could enjoy the view) might be a good way to ease back into the Cali Grill routine. Obviously, I wouldn’t know if dessert was good because I was too full. I’m so disappointed with myself…

    @Alan Thanks! Let me know when you get to go back to CG. It was awesome!

    @Julie I think that is why I so conflicted during dinner. I don’t get to eat there often…why can’t I try everything? I didn’t even get to the sushi (which the imagineer suggested). But I guarantee I will try that cheese plate every time I go there. Ridiculous. (In fact, so ridiculous that we ordered a cheese plate the next night at Flying Fish…it was great too!)

  8. Julie says:

    @coreypatterson we always do a shared appetizer for the table and then our own, which helps me choose when the menu is so wonderful that it becomes a painful process- I know whatever I get will be wonderful but I hate to neglect everything else that calls my name. One time we split a flatbread, another time a sushi to share. Or sometimes you’ve just got to do both- I know, life is hard isn’t it ;). The spicy kazan role wasn’t even too spicy but had incredible flavor. Even the family member who doesn’t like sushi enjoyed this one! I’d definitely recommend a sushi plate on your next trip. The cheese plate will be on my short list for the future! Thanks for the great suggestion!

  9. CraigInPA says:

    I envy someone who has been able to take advantage of being able to see Wishes from the Terrace. Every time I’ve been at CG during fireworks, it’s been so windy out there that my wife and I just couldn’t take it. We had to retreat inside to watch through the windows.

    The food at CG is very well prepared and presented, as it should be at a signature dining experience. My wife once made the choice to have the Mussels for an appetizer. Like the author, she loved them. Also like the author, by the time she had finished the entree, she was full.

  10. Catie says:

    I’m glad you had a positive experience at California Grill! My experience last month was not quite as good, I was thoroughly disappointed with the food, and the restaurant was super loud and crowded. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I definitely didn’t get it. I won’t be back anytime soon, which is unfortunate as I wanted to love it but it just fell short.

  11. Abby says:

    Oh, I love the Wine Room! I actually prefer it to the main dining room because it’s so much quieter and I enjoy the terrace for fireworks anyway…the last two times I ate in the main dining room I was surprised to find a lot of families eating with small children, which I thought was odd for the California Grill after 9pm. :/

  12. Ron says:

    We went with children who had food allergies. The chef was extremely accommodating and creative. Great review Corey.

  13. Jason says:

    This is still one of our favorites. My son is 4 and has been here 4 times. My wife and I have been going here for the last 11 years, and have always been very happy (of course we have always had the same server too). We were just there on Friday, and we will be back very soon. Nevertheless, it is nothing like V&A. V&A, especially the Chef’s Table and Queen Victoria’s Room, is one of the best dining experiences you could possibly ever have.

  14. Audrey says:

    I, too, am happy you had a great experience but am another guest that used to love Cali Grill but won’t be back any time soon. We last ate there in March and were extremely disappointed by everything – by the cocktails (worse I’ve ever had), service, food and atmosphere. At one time, this was truly a signature dining experience that held its own with great restaurants outside the “World.” I just don’t think that’s true any longer, and I wish that were not the case. We travel to Disney often and increasingly find it hard to find the great restaurant experiences of the past. I personally think the Dining Plan has had a very negative impact on food quality and service for the nicer Disney restaurants. Before the DP, it was a much different (and better) experience, IMHO.

  15. David says:

    Had the hand made potato gnocchi a couple weeks ago on the “first course menu” and it was great. We wondered whether we could have also ordered it as a side to our main course.

  16. jodifur says:

    @corey-I really just can’t. Email me at jodi@jodifur.com and I’ll tell you the whole story. i don’t want to clutter the AJ’s blog with it but I will tell you it was appalling.

  17. @CraigInPA I can imagine how frustrating it would be to get to CG and NOT be able to watch the fireworks from the terrace. It was crowded out there in the nice weather though, so I guess there could be perceived drawbacks to every experience.

    @Catie & @Abby Thanks. It was definitely quiet in the wine room and it WAS crowded and with lots of kids in the main room. Maybe the wine room was a blessing in disguise.

    @Ron My daughter has Celiac disease and, during our last family trip, we had the same experience at EVERY restaurant in WDW. The chef at Mama Melrose was especially accommodating and prepared the dish herself. It was awesome. I hate that you have a child with a food allergy (they aren’t fun), but WDW is the best place to take them! Blessings!

    @Jason I’m telling you, any V&A experience will be fine with me. I’m not picky.

    @Audrey That is an interesting take. I have had great experiences with places like Brown Derby and Le Cellier, but I can see your point. The Dining Plan is (and will continue to be) heavily debated. Your point adds an interesting element to that argument.

    @jodifur I will email you tomorrow. I’m sorry you had a bad experience. Appalling is never a word I like to hear in reference to something Disney.

  18. Great review – your insight helps when making dining reservations. THANK YOU

  19. Leslie Whitten says:

    Thanks Corey! We have the “free” DDP for our trip in September and changed our reservations from Citricos to a late dinner at CG based on your review. I may ask for the wine room since you can go out for the fireworks, and I like a nice quiet meal. As others have said, I’m sure nothing beats V&A (been there twice), but since it’s not part of the DDP, we’ll try this. We’re also doing Jiko, San Angel Inn, and Le Cellier (for lunch) while we’re there and would never have done all that without the illusion that it’s all free. Very excited!

  20. Becca says:

    Oh yum! We had such a lovely meal there last time. I would really love it if anyone has a definite answer to my question I’d be so grateful – I can’t seem to find anything on any of the usual message boards! What happens inside the California Grill during Hallowishes?

  21. If you have experienced the Calf Grill located in the Contemporary Resort in WDW and found it to be AMAZING, get ready to be WOWed on your next visit! Stepping off the elevator there is a wall of great wines, making your way into the dining area you will notice how brighter and open the entire area is. This may be due to the newly installed floor to ceiling windows giving you an absolutely MAGICAL view of not only Disney’s property, but also the skyline of Orlando, where the dark wine room was previously located at the end of the open kitchen. Also added, two new observation decks to enjoy the view of the World. Our meal…NO complaints from anyone in our party. Some suggestions: Duck in all its Glory, The shortribs, Pork two ways, but save room for dessert..OMG! The lavender infused homemade bread was so very light and fluffy, we made our server Wendi take it off the table as to not spoil our meal. Speaking of Wendi, her knowledge of the new menu was extremely helpful. If in need of a DELIGHTFUL DINING EXPERIENCE for a special event….Calfornia Grill is my pick in the WDW area! I can’t wait to return to try other delicacies on their menu. NOT PAID FOR THIS REVIEW, been here and experienced exactly what I wrote!!!

  22. Diabeto says:

    This place not good. Food has gone downhill.

  23. Bruce klein says:

    Finally got the chance to experience the California grill and the ambiance is amazing
    The food on the other hand could not have been more disappointing I don’t understand how someone can kill swordfish and chicken
    Many times chefs try to get too fancy with preparation of something which should be so simple

    I am still trying to figure out what in the world the chef attempted to do with the swordfish I ordered and whoever prepped it doused the entire preparation with salt very disappointed

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