Review: California Grill at Disney’s Contemporary Resort

On my recent visit to Walt Disney World, my husband and I made it a goal to carve out time for a date night at California Grill.

If you love signature dining at Disney World, then you probably know the Grill well. Perched atop Disney’s Contemporary Resort, the spot has Disney history on its side. After all, Top of the World, which originally occupied the fifteenth floor, dated all the way back to Disney World’s opening. California Grill opened as its replacement in 1995, and brought with it a new emphasis on market fresh ingredients and California fusion flavors.

It was more than just another new Disney restaurant. It, along with Victoria and Albert’s, paved the way for a more refined dining experience at Walt Disney World.

My recent experiences have been a little uneven, however. (Even California Grill isn’t immune to the Disney restaurant curse of inconsistency.) So it’s always good to check in on an old favorite. After all, this was our first visit after the departure of Chef Brian Piasecki, so we had to see what was happening in the kitchen. And that view makes it easy to take a chance with the Grill.

Let’s head to the second floor.


Why the second floor you ask? Because if you want to go California Grill, your journey begins here. You’ll check in at the podium before you’re escorted to the elevator that takes you to the fifteenth floor.

Second Floor Check In Desk for California Grill

Second Floor Check In Desk for California Grill

Once you arrive, you’ll step into California Grill’s sleek environment.

Entrance and Wine Fridges

Entrance and Wine Fridges

You’ll encounter the bar first, with its circular shape echoed by the ceiling and lighting above it.

Bar 2 California Grill


Beyond the bar is the Grill’s spacious and comfortable lounge, where you can meet for drinks and small plates on a first come, first served basis. Actually, you can order from the full menu here. Keep that mind if an advance dining reservation proves to be elusive.

California Grill Lounge

California Grill Lounge

As you head to your table, take in the details of the dining room. The decor is mid-century modern, a lovely mix of past and future. Don’t you love the lights? It’s as if they took the spirit the original space and breathed fresh air into it.

You’ll find tables and chairs as well as booths. The striking carpet includes motifs created by celebrated Disney artist Mary Blair.


Seating at the Beginning of Service

Table for Two

Table for Two

But one of the hallmarks of the California Grill is the vast exhibition kitchen. It received a remodel at the same time as the rest of the restaurant a while back, and the gleaming stainless facade complements the rest of the dining room nicely.

Lighting California Grill

Kitchen View in the Evening

In the old days (you know, prior to 1993), there was a floor show here. But why do you need entertainment when you have views like this??


View from Window Seating

California Grill Sunset

California Grill Sunset

Table settings are minimally smart and stylish, with signature California Grill napkins laid at every seat.

Napkins California Grill

California Grill Signature Napkins

I think it’s time to take a look at what they have to offer.


Fans of the Grill know that in the past, they’ve done a decent job of striking a balance between offering fresh, new dishes and maintaining a few signature items. We found lots of new items this time, however. This is probably due in part to a new chef, as Chef Brian Piasecki left his position at the helm earlier this year for another Disney culinary role. Now, you’ll find Chef Dennis Thompson in the Grill’s chef de cuisine role.

Menu -- Click to Enlarge

Menu — Click to Enlarge

You can always count on at the Grill to offer a delicious assortment of Flatbreads prepared in the oak-fired oven. But the varieties change constantly, so there’s always something new to try. This time out, we chose the Rotisserie Chicken Flatbread, a combination of Roasted Chicken, Tomato and Corn Salsa, Pepper Jack Cheese, Queso Fresco, and Spicy Crema. The serving is big enough to share between 2-6 people as an appetizer, or could easily be a meal for one.

This was — as I’m finding more and more often with Cali Grill flatbreads — one of the best parts of the meal. Honestly, the mix of flavors here was amazing, and I could easily have had more of that spicy crema. If this is on the menu on your visit, it’s highly recommended.

Rotisserie Chicken Flatbread

Rotisserie Chicken Flatbread

I also wanted to see what was new on the Chef’s Selection Cheese Board, so we ordered that as well. They include, from left to right: Landaff, a mild cow’s milk cheese; MT TAM, a soft, triple cream cow’s milk cheese from California; Cremont, a cheese from Vermont made of a combination of goat and cow’s milk; MiticaSardo, a semi-hard sheep’s milk cheese from Sardinia; and Smokey Blue, a cold-smoked blue cheese from Oregon. The cheeses are served in typical Disney fashion with Nuts, Honey, Dried Fruit, and Pate de Fruit — and never, ever enough Crostini. Always feel free to ask for more.

The servings of cheese on this plate have always been, and continue to be, tiny. It’s maybe two bites per cheese. Personally, I’d much rather they serve me larger portions of three cheeses instead of minuscule portions of five.

That said, I was pleased to see a couple of new cheeses here. Those who are Disney restaurant cheese plate veterans will often see the same cheeses over and over on various plates, and it gets a bit tedious. This one had some new to me options that were enjoyable.

Cheese Plate

Chef’s Selection Cheese Board

Check out the card below for even more information on each of the selections.

Cheese Descriptions

Cheese Descriptions

The Grill also manages to offer a Caesar Salad without sounding behind the times — by calling it something else. The Artisan Romaine has been around for a while, indicating it’s a guest favorite (and those of you who are DFB long-time readers know that my husband nearly ALWAYS gets a Caesar). You’ll find Baby Romaine, Roasted Garlic Dressing, Boquerones (Spanish White Anchovies cured in Vinegar and packed in Oil), Sun Dried Tomatoes, and Brioche Croutons.

This was nicely plated, large, and served its purpose.

Artisan Romaine Salad

Artisan Romaine Salad

I nearly always order the soup at Cali Grill. I’m still hoping they’ll make another homerun like they did with the potato soup a hundred years ago (like, back in 2009). This time it was the seasonal Florida Sweet Corn Bisque. The soup was garnished with Jonah Crab, Pickled Corn Salad, and Shiso (most easily described as a Japanese Herb in the Mint family).

It was very good. (It’s rare that a Florida Sweet Corn dish isn’t good.) The flavor was fresh and strong, but it lacked in creaminess and an ideal texture. It wasn’t something I had to return for like the Hacienda de San Angel Crema de Elote. Seriously, if you haven’t had that yet, you need to git er done.

Florida Sweet Corn Bisque

Florida Sweet Corn Bisque

Our entrees arrived soon after we finished our appetizers. Neither of us could resist ordering red meat options — primarily because we enjoy a good steak, but also because Cali Grill quality can be variable with these.

We tossed a coin and my husband ended up with the Wagyu Beef Strip Loin.

Wagyu Beef Striploin

Wagyu Beef Striploin

The Steak, which was sourced from Snake River Farms, was accompanied by Celery Root Puree, Spring Vegetables (Asparagus the night we dined), and Truffle Emulsion.

This was quite good, but, again, nothing that I need to return for. Texture was fine, temperature was a bit cold, but the flavor was flatter than I would have hoped. Perhaps it needed a bit more seasoning or marbling to be ideal for me.

Wagyu Beef Striploin -- Up Close

Wagyu Beef Striploin — Up Close

I chose to stick with one of my California Grill favorites — the Oak-Fired Filet of Beef. The petite steak was Mashed Potatoes, Asparagus, and a Red Wine Reduction. This was a definite departure from the way the filet had been served in recent years, when it’s been accompanied by Florida Heirloom Tomato Risotto and Tomato Butter. Personally, I like the switch. I always thought that the flavors of the tomato risotto, while fantastic, were way too intense for the delicate flavor of the filet.

This was good as well, but as you can see it was a bit overdone and dry on the outside. Not something you want to deal with when you’re paying these prices.

Oak Fired Filet

Oak Fired Filet

Since this was date night, we had to treat ourselves to a little dessert, of course. We noticed a few items that we’ve seen before; but there were plenty of seasonal flavors in the new options, and that’s the way we decided to go.

Dessert Menu -- Click to Enlarge

Dessert Menu — Click to Enlarge

Our first selection was the Plant City “Strawberry Shortcake”. And if you know Disney, then you know that when you see a classic in quotation marks like that, you can expect anything but the standard presentation.

The dessert actually had a few different components. They included, from left to right, Strawberry Compote, a Strawberry Mousse Timbale, and Orange Scones sandwiched together with Vanilla Bean Ice Cream.

Plant City "Strawberry Shortcake"

Plant City “Strawberry Shortcake”

The inside of the Mousse Timbale revealed Sliced Strawberries, Bavarian Cream, and a Crumb Crust.

This was a lovely and unexpected dessert. Very light, and unique. The addition of Bavarian Cream was fun, I thought.

Plant City "Strawberry Shortcake" -- Strawberry Mousse -- Inside

Plant City “Strawberry Shortcake” — Strawberry Mousse — Inside

Anything key lime usually piques my interest, so we also went for No-Sugar Added Key Lime Cheesecake.

No Sugar Added Key Lime Cheesecake

No Sugar Added Key Lime Cheesecake

The individually-portioned cheesecake was encased in White Chocolate flavored with Lime Zest, and the cheese filling included a ribbon of Blueberry Jam. The whole thing was built upon a Shortbread Crust, and was accompanied by a Passion Fruit Puree.

I LOVED this. I usually don’t go for the no-sugar-added option, but, like I said, Key Lime and I go way back. And I was SO glad I chose this option. The white chocolate shell was unexpected and delicious. The tart dessert accompanied by the sweet jam was a great combo. And, of course, the shortbread was a win. I intended to only have a bite or two, but I couldn’t stop!

No Sugar Added Key Lime Cheesecake -- Inside

No Sugar Added Key Lime Cheesecake — Inside

But dinner isn’t the only reason you come to California Grill. Come for the food, but stay for the fireworks!

View of Fireworks from California Grill

View of Fireworks from California Grill

And if you’re dining earlier in the evening, don’t worry — you can always return later in the evening for the show. Be sure to do this at least once, because the vantage point is pretty special.


California Grill is kind of legendary for a reason. Guests who have been traveling to Disney for years will probably be interested in seeing it for nostalgia’s sake. Guests who enjoy a fine dining option will likely prize it for the seasonally-driven menu. But regardless of your level of love for Disney history or cuisine, a trip to the fabled fifteenth floor to view those fireworks is definitely worthy of a place on your Disney bucket list.

On this visit, it was once again “hot and cold.” Sadly we haven’t had a home run visit to Cali Grill for years now, and every visit offers some great options and some “I paid HOW much for that?” options. But the view, and the knowledge that we’ll likely have at least one or two amazing dishes, keeps us coming back.

So, as always, I say go for it. California Grill continues to be a winner for excellent service, beautiful views, interesting decor, and decent food. But if you’re wondering, as we often are, what you should choose between Citricos, Narcoossee’s, and Cali Grill, we often navigate toward Narcoosee’s if we’re wanting truly great food these days.

Will you be making a trip to California Grill on your upcoming visit? Let us know what you’re looking forward to the most in comments below!


  1. says

    I had heard a lot of hype for the California Grill at the Contemporary Resort. So last year my husband and I delayed our anniversary celebration and booked a reservation for our trip last October. Granted, it has a lovely ambience but we were not impressed. My husband ordered a steak and it was very small and nothing comes with it and I ordered the scallops over some sort of sweet potato mixture. Honestly, we didn’t care for our meal at ALL. My scallops were underdone and his steak was so so. We left paying $150.00 for a meal that we didn’t enjoy. Maybe our taste buds are just too pedestrian! If you are a foodie, then by all means book a reservation. Honestly, we come to Disney for the entertainment and rides. Food isn’t our only reason. We are just as happy with Blaze Pizza! Mangia!

  2. Jennifer says

    We love California Grill! We have never had a bad meal and it is our go to spot every visit. My only issue is that there are so many things I like I need to make two trips! My plan for our next trip is to go to the lounge one time for just sushi, which is amazing, and then another time for a reservation for dinner. Thanks for the review!

  3. Mike V says

    When you’re talking complete package of food, ambiance and service this ranks at the top of all dining spots in the World for us.
    That said the menu is becoming quite repetitive. I’d like some more creativity, specifically on the sushi menu, sure the options are spot on, and my favorite Yoshi special was taken off, but the current menu has been about the same for years.
    We passed this most recent time because we splurged for V & A, but next year we’ll be back!
    Thanks for the review

  4. Lisa P says

    I agree with the review almost entirely. The oak fired fillet has always been very good for us although I’m also happy they ditched the risotto as well. As far as the Wagyu beef goes, I don’t like it when they precut the steak – it gets cold fast.
    The problem for us seems to be overall. We used to go to the Cali Grill on nearly every visit. It was our special night out. But then it became crazy busy and loud with kids running all over the place. It started to feel like an overpriced cafeteria. The last two times we were there there’re even kids in the wine room. One time, we were there we were sitting next to a family of about eight people with a kid in a highchair on the end. The floor surrounding the kid’s highchair what’s covered in refuse, mostly broken up goldfish and green beans, directly in front of us. It looked gross. The family didn’t seem to care and the server did nothing to clean it up. I don’t know technically whose responsibility it is, but but as a mother I would never let that happen. What I mentioned it to our server, I was told they can’t say anything. That’s not what I call fine dining.
    One time, my husband and I thought we would share a caesar salad and a cheese plate for an appetizer and when they brought the cheese plate over and we saw the portions we both started to laugh. I agree that fewer cheeses in larger portions would be appropriate, particularly if you wanted to share. The last time we both got the filet, my steak was pretty small, but my husband’s was even smaller and I knew he would go away hungry and he is a man with an average appetite, and after spending fifty bucks?. So the last time, I went with my daughter and we just got some apps (they use to have very good mussels!) and drinks just to take in the view, but gone are the days when I spend $200+ for 2 people here.

  5. Allie B says

    I am probably part of the minority here as I loved that heirloom tomato risotto. I even had them re-create it as a side dish at my wedding in WDW. I am glad they kept the Goat Cheese ravioli though. I love that too!

    Lisa P – I don’t think you should be mad at people for bringing their kids to dinner, WDW is primarily known to be a family vacation destination. They should not be running around that is the parent’s fault, and its sometimes impossible to see every bit of food a child drops on the floor. Perhaps CG should try to seat families together and couples /adults only groups separate. I think they might do this at STK, I do not recall seeing any children on the 1st floor but saw them on the 2nd floor.

  6. Chris says

    We will definitely not be patronizing CG. I simply refuse to reinforce Disney for lackluster dining, just for the sake of nostalgia.

    Negative. That ship has already departed.

  7. oj says

    “My husband ordered a steak and it was very small and nothing comes with it”

    Obviously this is not the case, as stated in the review.

    We enjoyed everything we had at CG a year ago. Scallops, tuna, everything. And my favorite, the iced tea served with simple syrup.

  8. Lisa P says

    Allie B- Of course people should bring their kids -I do and supervise as well, especially with servers carrying heavy trays of hot food. And Geez, I know anybody can spill some stuff on the floor, but this was a real mess in what supposed to be signature dining hall. A manager agreed and adjusted our bill, or I doubt we would have gone back.
    Haven’t been to STK -we prefer Narcoossees.

  9. WW says

    @ Lisa P — My husband and I used to love CG. However, we had the same issue you described during our last visit, which was nearly 2 years ago. We had to ask to be “re-seated” a few times because of some wild kids and the parents who had no idea how to get them to decently behave in public. We understand WDW being a place where you expect to have tons of kids around. However, a find dining restaurant is not a park where your kids can scream and run around as they please. Since that evening, we have decided to spend our couple hundred dollars elsewhere with not many wild kids and non-functioning parents. Narcoossee’s has become our new favorite.

  10. Matt says

    I have eaten at C.G. a number of times and I swear everything was so much better prior to the remodel a few years ago. One of my most memorable meals there was 10 years ago. Another – in 2009 and 2011. The last time we went in April it was just so lackluster and “blah”.

    That said, we LOVE sitting at the bar and having a drink (or three) with appetizers and chatting up the fantastic bartenders. I can’t recommend doing that enough!

  11. David Johnson says

    Five of us ate there the Wednesday before Memorial Day. Three adults and two teenage girls. Maybe we just hit the right combination of staff but it was marvelous. A true gentleman as a waiter (wish I could remember his name). The charcuterie plate was brilliant, we actually ordered a second. We also had the wagyu beef and the tenderloin and both were perfect! My wagyu appeared to be fattier than yours (so better) although I agree serving it the way they do does cool it down quickly. The server’s pick of a malbec was perfect with those…and TiW makes it even better! Anyway that’s my two cents worth…

  12. Lynne S says

    We go to CG on the first night of our Disney trip every time (2-3 times/yr) We have never had anything, but amazing food and service. I took my nieces 2 weeks ago and it was such an amazing night. We had Katy as our server and she was excellent. Everyone loved their meals. I also had the cheese platter and did not feel like it was too small and I shared it with my niece. I have another reservation in 6 weeks and I can hardly wait. I need to order something new, I always get the duo of pork and the cheese platter.

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