If Walt Disney World dining establishments competed for superlatives, California Grill atop Disney’s Contemporary Resort would vie for several titles.
Best Dinner View? Best Sushi? Most Likely to Knock Your Socks Off? Yup — it would make a strong case for all.
And, in truth, we’ve included Cali Grill in lots of our lists, including 56 Must-Read Disney Dining Tips, where we tout that view, and 36 Things You Didn’t Know You Could Do at Walt Disney World, where we highlight the extraordinary sushi.
One of the more exciting (and for some disappointing) aspects of dining at California Grill is its ever-changing menu. The intent is to adapt to local availability of ingredients — seasonality, in other words. And what that means for this signature restaurant is that the dishes you have one night may very well be absent from the menu the next.
But it also means the dishes on the menu are always high-quality and seriously fresh. And that’s why we keep going back — because there’s always something new (and thankfully always a couple of old favorites, though they might look a little different).
One of the most compelling reasons to make an Advance Dining Reservation at California Grill is the atmosphere and the view. Let’s start with the former. The interior design is clean and fresh, featuring some pops of color and so fun lighting.
Seating is at booths and tables, and the wall of tall windows means there is tons of light here during the daylight hours and lots of glittering views at night.
Table settings have a simple elegance to them, with a candle, modern plates, and stark white linens.
Because this is a signature dining experience, there’s an expectation for a little something extra. These exclusive napkins are one nice touch.
The views are pretty epic, as Walt Disney World goes. This is what you see during the day…
But at night? During Happily Ever After? Outstanding views of the fireworks (limited views of the projections) with the soaring music piped in for good measure. It’s a spectacular way to watch the show, whether you cozy up to a window or step out onto the balcony.
Of course, all the views in the world wouldn’t be sufficient to earn California Grill its high marks. The food also needs to be top-notch. And fortunately for us, it often is.
Because the menu changes frequently, the choices on my visit this past week will likely vary widely from your visits. But some items — like the Oak-Fired Filet — see changes only to the accompaniments and so become beloved perennial favorites for guests.
We started with a drink — the Twisted Mai Tai. It was a beautifully fruity drink that was light and refreshing. It was delicate enough not to weigh us down before a large meal, but it was flavorful!
The meal begins with some rustic sourdough bread. It’s served warm with herbed oil.
The complex dipping oil is packed with flavor from sun-dried tomatoes, chives, and spices.
I went with a much-loved (and for good reason!!) appetizer: Sonoma Goat Cheese Ravioli. The bright red broth is a clarified combination of tomato and fennel. Topping the large ravioli are crispy mushrooms, micro-basil, and crumbled goat cheese. Floating around the dish is Arbequina Organic Olive Oil.
Every component of the Sonoma Goat Cheese Ravioli is perfectly balanced with the others, and so each bite is a satisfying, transcendent experience. (No, really.) This is a must.
Want the recipe for this guest-favorite? See the Sonoma Goat Cheese Ravioli recipe here!
We also selected an Artisanal Hand-formed Pizza — The Farmer. This is a combination of house-cured pancetta, roasted garlic, sweet onion-olive agrodolce, soft-cooked egg, arugula, and aged pecorino. This was…OK. I know a lot of guests lament the loss of the BLT pizza here, and I’m not sure this is a great replacement. Eggs-on-things is super trendy now, I know. And everyone wants that yolk shot for their Instagram. But…this one fell flat for us. The flavors weren’t there, and the dough seemed stale and too-chewy.
The California Combination Roll was our next choice, and this is a great way to try a couple different types of sushi. The first is a roll consisting of jumbo lump crab meat, avocado, and cucumber. The second features luscious shrimp tempura. My dining companion ordered these and loved them!
The Black Grouper is a beautifully plated dish — and lovely to eat as well! The star is the perfectly cooked grouper, which is topped with saffron strands and sits atop herb basmati rice. It’s accompanied by cashew chutney, bok choy, baby shiitake mushrooms, rock shrimp, and kaffir lime-coconut nage (basically a flavorful poaching liquid). This was delicate but absolutely packed with flavor!
The Cowboy-cut 19-oz. Rib-Eye Steak is an impressive piece of meat, and its accompaniments are spot-on. Saffron-glazed carrots (super sweet!) provide a bed for the beef, which is topped with triple garlic butter that’s irresistible! This was a good cut of meat and a great steak overall.
The rib-eye is served with aged gouda mac and cheese that’s got a crunchy, broiled top. The flavor wasn’t as strong as I wanted it to be, but, honestly, fancy-restaurant mac and cheese rarely has as much flavor as I’d like. I do give props for choosing mac as a side as opposed to potatoes, though! While I got no beef (ha!) with potatoes, it’s nice to see a different take on steakhouse sides from time to time.
To round out this stellar meal with dessert is essentially an easy choice, and California Grill offers several classic and creative options.
First: Blueberry Crostata. This is a sort of free-hand, open-faced pie filled with sweet, warm local blueberries. It’s topped with popcorn ice cream (!) and popped sorghum. The ice cream was SO delicious — the perfect sweet/salty combo, which you don’t often find on light, fruity desserts like this. Kudos!
At first glance the Warm Valrhona Chocolate Cake might seem the most straightforward, but the combination of components made this something special. Vanilla bean ice cream and chocolate-whipped panna cotta provide some lovely textures, while the cashew clusters add tons of crunch. Getting a bite with a little of each was a chocolate-lovers dream!
But note — this is definitely for chocolate LOVERS. If chocolate isn’t your main squeeze…skip it. There were no complex flavors other than the chocolate in this one.
The final dessert of the meal was a guest-favorite according to the server AND to the diners seated RIGHT next to us (why do fancy restaurants seat patrons so close together? WHY?!). S’mores Bomboloni are basically deep-fried doughnuts filled with banana jam and served with house-made graham crackers and toasted marshmallow ice cream. So much fun to eat, but I’d still take that crostata over this one.
Nosh or Not?
Make that hard-to-get ADR at California Grill if:
- You are interested in an upscale meal in a relaxing setting while on vacation.
- You have a passion for expertly-crafted food and want to see what the World has to offer.
- You and your significant other are looking for a place to have a special meal.
Skip California Grill if:
- You and your crew prefer more straight-forward foods.
- Table service dining — especially at a resort that’s not your own — is just not right for your touring strategy.
- You have kids in tow and don’t want to worry about how they might react to the elegant setting or the long-ish meal (although kids are allowed!).
California Grill is a truly special place at Walt Disney World. Its location and the often spectacular food are why we do think it’s worth the effort to get an ADR here…and pay the high prices. (And we’ve heard tell of folks getting a same-day ADR, so never give up!)
While the food still hasn’t reached the standard we saw in the Chef Brian Piasecki days, it’s still usually excellent. Plus, knowing that you can either see the fireworks during your meal, or return with your receipt during the fireworks and watch from the viewing deck after you’ve eaten, gives a bonus to dining here.
Service here is hit or miss. It really depends on who you get (true of most restaurants, but more so here where the server is such a huge part of your dining with their recommendations and knowledge of the ever-changing menu). On our recent visit, the server was a bit surly and brusque. It affected our meal to be sure, so keep that in mind.
Another thing that affected our meal was the seating. We were seated at banquette seating, VERY close to our neighbors. Usually I request to be seated somewhere else when this happens, but every once in a while I test it out to see if it still bothers me as much. It does. Especially when I’m paying that much for a meal.
If you’d like to experience Cali Grill without making an ADR or feeling like you need to eat a full meal, consider heading to the California Grill Lounge. This is right in the middle of the restaurant, and is first come, first served. You can order from the menu here, or just get a drink. Whatever suits you. This is a hard ticket to get during the fireworks, but it’s possible on non-busy nights.
Finally, California Grill has an exceptional wine list. If you’re a wine fan, be sure to check out what’s offered!