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.
Once you arrive, you’ll step into California Grill’s sleek environment.
You’ll encounter the bar first, with its circular shape echoed by the ceiling and lighting above it.
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.
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.
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.
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??
Table settings are minimally smart and stylish, with signature California Grill napkins laid at every seat.
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.
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.
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.
Check out the card below for even more information on each of the selections.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Anything key lime usually piques my interest, so we also went for 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!
But dinner isn’t the only reason you come to California Grill. Come for the food, but stay for the fireworks!
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!