Here’s 6 Reasons Why You Must Eat at California Grill
In October of 1971, much of what you know of Walt Disney World didn’t exist yet. Magic Kingdom was the only park open at the time, and the other two completed constructions were accompanying resorts. One of those properties, the Contemporary Resort Hotel, had a strong selling point, though. Guests could ride to the top of the A-frame building and gaze across at Cinderella Castle across the way.
Over the years, Disney found several ways to maximize this inimitable view. Restaurants and bars have opened and closed, but one constant has remained. Guests love to look at Magic Kingdom from the top of what we now call Disney’s Contemporary Resort. And the anchor business there is a restaurant with rare cachet in the theme park industry. Today, let’s examine the enduring appeal of California Grill.
Dinner and a Show
In the days of disco, back when adults willingly did something called The Hustle, the trendiest restaurant at Walt Disney World was a dance club called Top of the World. This was the place where people in awful bellbottom pantsuits could shake their groove thing (yeah yeah) on hideous shag carpet. I shudder at the thought of it, but there was a time when Top of the World was the clear cut choice of the elite when they sojourned to Magic Kingdom.
Top of the World also hosted Broadway-style shows starting in 1981. The appeal of this establishment wasn’t its slew of guest performers, though. Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure Phyllis Diller was thoroughly entertaining back in the day, but people didn’t head to the Top of the World to watch her show. They wanted to peer out from the glass-enclosed eatery and see Disney after dark.
Even though Top of the World is long gone, the premise hasn’t changed. That panoramic view of the Most Magical Place on Earth will still take your breath away. Disney understands this basic trait of human behavior. It explains why they can charge whatever they want for a restaurant on the 15th floor of the Contemporary. And they do.
California, Here We Come
In May of 1995, Disney filled the void left by the closure of Top of the World. Like disco (and basically all of the 1970s), it went out of fashion quickly. With a giant empty space on top of the hotel closest to Magic Kingdom, park planners chose to repurpose the restaurant. California Grill opened to the public that month, and it’s generally credited as leading to the foodie renaissance at Walt Disney World.
Prior to California Grill, nobody knew that they could eat delicious food at a theme park. It was borderline unprecedented to see a menu of haute cuisine at Walt Disney World. Even the priciest restaurants were glorified steakhouses that served overpriced, chewy beef. California Grill represented the first time that Disney took a cue from Las Vegas with regards to enticing customers. The results fundamentally altered the business model of the Parks & Resorts division.
What’s the Big Deal?
You’ll feel like Disney royalty when you dine at California Grill. This restaurant doesn’t even let the little people in the door. Oh no. When you want to eat here, you need special elevator access. You’re going to the penthouse, and only the cast members keep the sacred penthouse keys on their person.
To reach the top floor of the Contemporary, you must check in on the second floor. There, you patiently wait your turn until a table opens on the top floor. When it does, the cast member takes you onboard an elevator that only makes one stop. You board on the second floor and exit at the top of the world…but we don’t call it that now.
Once seated, you may experience a bit of culture shock. The prices at California Grill are…excessive. I’ll share the anecdote in a bit, but the last time my wife and I ate there, our meal cost $150…plus tip. It was totally worth the money to us, but your mileage may vary. This restaurant does accept the Disney Dining Plan; however, it’s a Signature Restaurant. You’ll pay two Table Service entitlements to eat here. Generally, that’s not the best use of your credits, although California Grill is so expensive that it’s potentially a rare exception to that rule. A lot depends on what you order.
Happily Ever After Indeed
Before we discuss the food, let’s talk about the key selling point of California Grill. When you eat here, you get to watch the Happily Ever After fireworks show at Magic Kingdom from the restaurant. Since you’re 150 feet up in the air, you’re basically looking right at the fireworks. Disney’s done something smart here, though.
You don’t have to eat at the restaurant around the time of the fireworks to see the show. As long as you eat at California Grill that night, you have the right to return. This is true even if you eat the special Sunday Brunch.
When the time comes for Happily Ever After, you’ll go out on the adjoining deck and watch the show. This is sometimes superior to eating during the show. Many of the tables don’t face the giant glass windows that offer a view of Cinderella Castle. We had a better view of the fireworks at Illuminations the last time we went.
I’ll add one pro tip to this. You can order food at the bar, and the bar is first come, first served. You can ask the kindly cast member on the second floor if space is available at the bar. If they say yes, you can eat at California Grill without having an Advanced Dining Reservation. That’s a big deal since this place definitely operates at full capacity most nights.
Pork Two Ways. That’s all you need to know about eating at California Grill. Someone at your table has to order Pork Two Ways. At times, this isn’t actually available on the menu, and we’re currently in one of the infuriating periods when Disney does this. A viable alternative exists, though.
Order the grilled Pork Tenderloin instead. It’s Pork One Way, and it’s the BETTER way. This succulent dish will make your mouth water for days afterward as you contentedly lick your lips in remembrance.
I’m reducing a complex menu to a single dish, and that’s unfair. Almost everything at California Grill is insanely tasty. The charcuterie comes in several styles, and while I favor Pork Belly Rillettes, the Linguiça Sausage and Duck Liver Pâté are extremely well-regarded. A safe bet is to order the A Selection of Farmhouse and Artisanal Cheeses appetizer as a sampler for your table. The Handcrafted Charcuterie provides a combination of several savory meats, so it’s a good choice, too.
I find several of the entrees at California Grill unoriginal. What I mean by that is that the options won’t surprise you. The selections include generic restaurant staples such as pork chops, beef filets, rib eyes, and various fish.
Rather than selling strange and exotic cuisine, the staff at California Grill elevates well-known recipes through technique and creativity. Simply stated, your pork tenderloin tastes nothing like their pork tenderloin, and that’s true even if you follow this online recipe precisely. I say from experience that you may have the ingredients, but you lack the culinary skill of the geniuses at California Grill.
You’re going to want to drink at California Grill. The wine pairings here are arguably the best on the Walt Disney World campus. Since its inception as Top of the World, this restaurant space has prioritized alcohol in its business model. Today, you can imbibe some of the finest grapes of your life, and a couple of them were specifically chosen to blend perfectly with that juicy pork tenderloin.
I’m not much of a drinker, and even I had some bubbly last time. Admittedly, that was because of peer pressure, though. It was my wife and my anniversary. The very thoughtful gentleman serving us our meal brought us a special glass of champagne to celebrate. It was free, and he excitedly looked at our faces, anticipating our happiness in drinking their finest alcohol.
Since I don’t drink, the look that registered on my face was, “Well, this is awkward. Do I really have to drink this?” I hadn’t had a sip of alcohol in like two years prior to that moment and nothing since then. Even so, the champagne was delicious and the gesture pure Disney magic. That’s the kind of thing that happens at California Grill each day.
That anecdote also reflects my overall opinion of California Grill. It’s a wonderful place that exemplifies the majesty of Walt Disney World. It’s also brutally overpriced. My family saves this place for special occasions such as major anniversaries. It’s not in our regular rotation of 12-15 restaurants we must eat at each visit. If it were cheaper, it almost assuredly would be, but that would also make it less magical. It’s the conundrum of California Grill. I wholeheartedly recommend it, as long as you can comfortably afford it.