Time to check in on one of Walt Disney World’s most popular signature dining spots — California Grill.
Located atop Disney’s Contemporary Resort, the Grill has become nearly as well known for its stellar views as its market-inspired food. And those two factors can make this a tough table to book.
My last visit here, however, when the restaurant had just reopened after an in-depth refurbishment, was somewhat disappointing. At the time, I chalked it up to the kitchen having an off night; after all, I had enjoyed incredible dining here many times before.
I decided it was time to check in again. So we booked an early Advance Dining Reservation (ADR) on a recent visit, and up we went.
If you’ve never visited California Grill, then there’s one thing you should know: you don’t just head to the 15th floor. Your journey actually starts on the 2nd floor of the Contemporary where you check in. Even if you’re just heading to the first-come, first-served Lounge, this is your first stop.
You’ll then be escorted via a private elevator to the 15th floor. In this way, staff act as gatekeepers for the popular spot. If left unattended, it would get pretty busy up there, especially around Wishes-at-Magic-Kingdom time.
Once you make your way upstairs, a bank of Wine Fridges greets you straight ahead.
You walk through the Lounge and Bar to get to the restaurant’s main seating area. That sounds as though these are different spaces; they aren’t. Basically, with the exception of a few private dining rooms, the restaurant features an open floor plan, accentuating the sweeping views and retro-meets-modern vibe.
If you find yourself without an ADR, there’s still hope. You can sit in the Grill’s Lounge and order from the menu, or just enjoy Drinks, Sushi, and Appetizers. Be forewarned, though: it’s not uncommon for this area to reach capacity as the night goes on. Here at 5PM, though, it was pretty bare.
Wrap around to the main seating area, and you see that nearly every table commands an excellent view of the surrounding landscape, including Magic Kingdom and the Resorts situated around Seven Seas Lagoon.
Seating varies here and includes both tables and chairs and booths.
There are also a selection of tables that mix banquette and chair seating. Note that white tablecloths and cloth napkins are the norm here, lending to the upscale air of sophistication.
Booths are somewhat unique in that they are located in the middle of the floor. That means that you can enter from either side, and there will be traffic on both sides of your table, similar to what you find at Jiko. While this isn’t necessarily bad, it does mean that your booth won’t be as secluded as you might like.
But the view outside of the windows isn’t the only thing you have to look at.
The well-orchestrated, professional hustle and bustle that’s happening behind the counter in the on-stage kitchen can be fascinating as well.
Although we will focus today on the food here, the sweeping, panoramic vistas certainly bear mentioning. You can see for miles!
And that’s one of the biggest draws of California Grill — this view, especially when it comes to seeing Wishes. If that’s an experience that you’re after, I recommend that you book your ADR to coincide with the fireworks show. But rest assured — even if you eat earlier (as we did), you can still come back to take in Wishes from the viewing platform outside of the restaurant.
Time to check out the menu items we tried during this visit.
I have my favorites, and you’re going to see them during our journey. But Chef Brian Piasecki and his staff also like to change things up seasonally…sometimes even weekly. So I’d like to think I’m offering you a glimpse of the best of both — classic and new.
However, note that on my last visit I changed up my order — getting chicken instead of the always-amazing filet. Not a good idea. I didn’t make the same mistake this time. 😉
We began by taking a look at the Grill’s extensive Drink Menu. You’ll find interesting cocktails with an emphasis on classics, although they’re often reinterpreted with fresh flavors.
We’ve enjoyed the Sake Martini on a previous occasion, and can definitely recommend this beautiful drink to start off your meal.
This time out, my husband decided to enjoy an Innis & Gunn, a Scottish Beer. In addition to a fine wine list, beer and cider drinkers will find several excellent options to choose from. And we’ve enjoyed Innis & Gunn for the last couple of years at the Scotland Booth during the Epcot Food and Wine Festival, so we knew this rich, oak-matured beer would be a winner.
Nothing on the cocktail list was speaking to me tonight, so I decided to enjoy another classic, a Long Island Iced Tea. It was strong and tart — perfect.
That wasn’t stopping us from checking out the Wine List, however. And really, if you’re a wine drinker, you have to give it a once over. While the emphasis here is California Wines (natch), you’ll find an incredible — and lengthy — list of wines from all over the world, available by the glass or bottle. I love this, since it makes pairing with different courses a cinch, and allows everyone at the table to enjoy the wines he or she likes.
And I did actually order a glass to go with dinner! Because how better to enjoy this wonderful view? 🙂 (Yep, that’s right. If you’re keeping track, that’s my second drink of the night. )
The Menu at California Grill isn’t as long as the one at your local Denny’s. But pay attention, because every dish is multifaceted with lots of components. And if you don’t understand something, be sure to ask! The wait staff are well accustomed to explaining the ins and outs of the menu.
After we made our choices, we began our meal with complimentary Bread Service. Breads are baked fresh for the California Grill, and include Rolls and Focaccia. The bread came with a small plate of salted Butter.
In short order, our appetizers began to arrive. My husband, as usual, opted to begin with an Artisan Romaine Salad, the Grill’s upscale take on a Caesar. Baby Romaine Hearts (no babies or hearts were harmed in the making of this salad) are topped with Boquerones (marinated anchovies), Sun-Dried Tomatoes, and Brioche Croutons. The salad is lightly dressed with a flavorful Roasted Garlic Dressing. He enjoyed the fresh, sharp flavors and beautiful presentation.
As I prefer a soup to a salad (you guys know this about me by now), I gave the Caramelized Spring Onion Soup a try. The soup was pureed to a velvety smooth consistency, and was supposed to be served with Marinated Jumbo Lump Crab Meat, which I requested be left off. A garnish of Spring Onion Oil further intensified the flavors, and a Crouton topped with Gruyere gave a nod to traditional French Onion Soup.
This one was fine, but not great. The flavors were there, but it just didn’t capture my attention. I’ve had several soups at Cali Grill that were super wow, so when I get a dud — or a relative dud — I’m a bit annoyed. I know what they’re capable of. ;-D
California Grill also makes deft use of its oak-fired wood grill for all kinds of dishes, and we’ve enjoyed their Flatbreads in the past. They often change with the seasons, however. So what we show you may not be available the next time you dine there.
The Chili-Coffee Rubbed Pork Flatbread was quite good. Think of the best smokey-sweet barbecue flavor that you’ve ever enjoyed, and you’re getting the idea about this one, which also featured Washington Red Pear Butter and amazingly flavorful Jack Cheese. It was the perfect sweet/salty combo, but taken up, like, a thousand notches.
While we enjoyed all of these new-to-us dishes, there was no way I could pass up ordering one of my favorites — the Sonoma Goat Cheese Ravioli. I have enjoyed this dish time and again, and it was just as delicious and full of flavor as ever. I know it doesn’t seem like much when you see it on the plate here, but it is, in fact, very much indeed.
But let me take a moment here to share an overall negative of our meal. The service. I’ve had great service at California Grill, and I’ve had so-so service at California Grill. But I’ve never had straight up bad service here. And that was my experience on this visit.
What I encountered is something I would have expected at a MUCH lower price point restaurant. For example, when I asked that the ravioli be cut in half and brought on two plates so that my husband and I could split it, I was immediately told no. I mentioned that I’d had this done time and time again, and could he please go and ask someone in the kitchen if it was at all possible. He walked away for about 2 minutes, then came back and said no again. The rest of the evening followed suit. For the amount on the bill, the service was just plain bad. Maybe it was just an off night for this guy, but if it had been my one-and-only visit to California Grill, he would have made me truly regret my decision to spend that kind of money. OK, off my soap box now.
Soon, our entrees began to arrive. As I mentioned, I had learned from my previous visit, when I had ordered the Chicken, not to stray from what I like! And here, I like — no, love — the Oak Fired Filet of Beef. Dude, it’s ALWAYS good. And it was.
On this visit, it was served with a Florida Heirloom Tomato Risotto and Tomato Butter…which was awesome, but it was waaaaaaaay too robust to pair with the filet. The flavors were IN. TENSE. That risotto could easily have made a fantastic entree, but pairing it with the filet simply overpowered the steak.
How gorgeous are those tomatoes, though?
As I am wont to do, I ordered a side of the risotto simply to have as another dish since I LURVE risotto, but I pretty much took three bites and was done. Amazing. But suuuuuuper rich.
But, again, garnished with those uber fresh tomatoes. I love it.
My husband also went with a classic — the Bison Strip Loin. I say classic because Cali Grill will often have a bison dish on the menu, but it changes up regularly.
The dish is served with Extra Virgin Olive Oil Potatoes and Baby Brussels Sprouts that are pan-roasted with Cherrywood Bacon. A Huckleberry Veal Jus provides a sweet counterpoint.
And this thing? Truly out of this world. Did you READ what’s IN this? EVERYTHING on this dish worked. It was just perfect. We both quickly decided that this was the winner of the night and commenced fighting for every bite.
Although we had enjoyed a bountiful table of treats, we weren’t passing on Dessert.
Desserts tend to be pretty interesting and labor-intensive here, so I looked forward to trying some unusual things. We began with the Peanut Butter and Peach Jam on Cinnamon Toast. Baked Florida Peaches (whaaaa???) are served with Peanut Butter Gelato and Cinnamon Sugar Gaufrettes. (If I’m not missing my mark, yep — those are fancy Potato Chips.) A thick Peach Jam and a sprinkle of Chopped Peanuts completed the comfort food-leaning dish.
This one was good, but weird. It tasted as weird as it sounds. The flavors and textures didn’t really mesh, but the peaches were fantastic. Oddly, something in the gelato and jam felt gritty. I wish they’d just brought me a big bowl of those peaches. ;-D
For our second dessert, we had to give the Sundae Sampler a try. It reminds me, of course, of the Trio of Concession Sweets at Flying Fish Cafe. And, yes, that’s the fabric of the banquette behind the sampler. Why? I won’t get on my soap box again, but let’s just say that our server was being less than helpful when I requested the shade be drawn on the window so we weren’t bombarded with direct sunlight.
The sampler comes with three mini desserts, which are takes on Ice Cream Treats. You’ll find a colorful Banana Split.
The Reverse Root Beer Float wins the prize for cutest dessert ever, with its tiny soda bottle and glass.
And the Frangelico Toffee offered two bites of rich, caramel flavor.
While desserts like this are more about visual impact to me than anything else, it’s clear to see that a lot of work went into each component. It’s a great choice if you’re looking for just a couple of bites of sweetness to round out your meal.
California Grill is…sort of…back.
It’s good. The quality and innovation are there. Still, you are paying a premium to dine at California Grill. So it’s fair to expect that each and every visit would be more of an experience than just a stop to fuel up, and you expect the service to be top-notch.
I can still recommend going, but be prepared that they seem to be having more “off” nights than I’ve ever before experienced with them. I’d say that half of our dishes were great (flatbread, goat cheese ravioli, bison) and half of our dishes were really just hum-drum. And with the bad service, it made us give this experience a solid B-.
With two not-the-best experiences back to back, here’s hoping my next one hits it out of the park! 😉
Will you be dining at California Grill during your next visit to Disney? Leave a comment and tell us your thoughts about this classic Disney dining spot!