Ultimate Restaurant Review: California Grill
My family picked up a tradition a few years ago, and I can’t really explain how or why it happened.
Whenever we visit Walt Disney World, we always save our best meal for last. It’s a kind of celebratory sign-off after a wonderful vacation.
Ordinarily, we go with Be Our Guest, but it wasn’t available this time. So, we went with our back-up option.
Here’s my review of California Grill, one of the most famous restaurants at Walt Disney World.
About California Grill
You don’t have to know much about Disney to have heard about California Grill.
This restaurant sits atop Disney’s Contemporary Resort and famously provides an inimitable view of Magic Kingdom’s fireworks presentations.
Disney categorizes California Grill as a Signature Dining experience, and it’s irrefutably that.
Many fans pick California Grill for one-of-a-kind events like proposals, honeymoons, birthdays, and anniversaries.
In fact, I fell into one of these groupings the last time I visited the restaurant.
My wife and I spent our 10th wedding anniversary at the restaurant, where a delightful server offered us free champagne.
He watched expectantly, waiting for us to sip. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I’m not a drinker.
So, California Grill currently holds the title of the last place I had a sip of alcohol.
We sincerely appreciated the sentiment and loved our seating area that night. It came with more privacy than the main dining area.
Our meal at the time impressed us both, and we relished the experience so much that we’d waited to visit again until our 15th anniversary.
That was supposed to be back in May, but…yeah, pandemic.
Those who want to dine at California Grill must do a bit of homework. You’ll need an Advanced Dining Reservation here, as it books quickly.
The Check-In Process and Getting Seated
When you dine at California Grill, you get treated like royalty.
The check-in experience is also unlike any other. As I said, the restaurant resides on the top floor.
However, you check in on the hotel’s second floor. You’ll walk past the lobby customer service stations and back to the escalator.
You’ll know that you’re in the right place when you see The Wave… of American Flavors, the eatery most often compared to California Grill.
Once you ride the escalator, you’ll find the check-in desk on the second floor, near the conference rooms.
Right now – and maybe from now on? – you don’t check-in with a cast member. Instead, you click the notification button in My Disney Experience.
This technology is quite new, but I’m head over heels in love with it. Cast members must ask for all members of the park to stand at the station.
Otherwise, they won’t put your name on the list. This requirement causes problems when people want to use the restroom or wander a bit.
When the customer controls the process by tapping the button, it’s much less aggravating.
We sat on some nearby couches – you’ll find plenty on the second floor – and waited about 10 minutes before the hostess called our name.
At this point, we received the special treatment that comes with a California Grill meal.
The cast member took us on the elevator that leads to the rooftop restaurant, the one you may only board here.
When we arrived, a smile crossed my wife’s face as the hostess escorted us to our table.
We were a party of four this time, but we received a table right beside the one we’d had last time, a lovely bit of Disney magic.
The Dining Experience
This vacation felt different from most in that my wife and I haven’t been around, you know, people a lot during the pandemic.
We both work from home, but we traveled with two different parties. We were saying goodbye to one of them on this particular evening.
So, the mood was a bit melancholy, but our companions were excited. They’d never dined at California Grill before.
They gazed with awe at the floor-to-ceiling mirrors, the ones that provide a view of Tomorrowland and Cinderella Castle.
As we settled in, we snacked on bread while awaiting our appetizers.
Our friends wanted a shareable that would evoke some conversation. We picked A Selection of Farmhouse and Artisanal Cheeses.
This appetizer comes with five different and wildly different cheeses, along with some crackers. Some of them would be a bit too strong on their own.
I highly recommend this shareable for a group setting, as everyone debates their likes and dislikes.
The four of us finished every bit, which means that our collective likes were…all of them.
I wasn’t as enamored as others, a trend that would continue throughout the meal.
I quote an old SportsCenter phrase a lot: “Bring me your finest meats and cheeses.” I’m always left a bit cold by a cheese plate without meats.
The real star was the bread, though. The dipping accompaniment was an olive oil compound that’s so good I’d remembered it from five years ago.
That stuff’s the real deal.
I faced a quandary when I ordered my dinner. I’d already had the Pork Tenderloin at The Wave earlier in the trip.
The restaurants share ingredients, and I didn’t want to order the same thing at California Grill.
Folks, I made a rookie mistake and overthought it, as I treasure the Pork Tenderloin here. I actually bought a Disney cookbook for the recipe.
Instead, I ordered a Pepperoni Pizza, which is like going to Paris and eating at McDonald’s (which I almost did once before common sense kicked in).
I’m allergic to onions and am not crazy about real tomatoes, both of which factor heavily into the dish. So, this one’s 100 percent on me.
The rest of my party, the brains of the operation, ordered much smarter. And they were rewarded with some exquisite cuisine.
Our companions ordered Braised Beef Short Rib and Plant-based Pasta, with my wife choosing the vegan dish as well.
Again, we cleaned every plate (except mine), and our kindly server tried to bring me something to make up for the food allergy I’d neglected to mention.
California Grill takes care of its guests.
As for the plant dishes, our two health nuts raved about the flavors. My wife described her vegetables as “bursting with flavor.”
Meanwhile, I eyed the short rib, hoping for a bite or two.
However, I could tell by my friend’s look that there wouldn’t be any left for me…and there wasn’t.
In short, all the entrees crushed our expectations, save for the one unforced error on my part.
We still hadn’t gotten to the best part, though.
Plant fans, you should pay attention. California Grill sells a dessert called Plant-based Blueberry Donuts, and it’s a perfect 10 dish.
I’m told that the blueberries provide the perfect accompaniment, pushing the flavor over the top.
Our companions grabbed the Apple Cinnamon Crème Brûlée, which these pictures don’t do justice.
This plate of food dazzles with its appearance, but its taste will warp your brain with pleasure.
Order a dessert when you visit California Grill, y’all.
Overall, our meal took about 90 minutes, which is what we wanted. We all knew that when it ended, our Disney trip would come to a close.
So, we lingered as much as we could, which our incredibly thoughtful server encouraged.
When we received the check, I was surprised by the amount, as I’d expected to pay $100 per person based on our prior experience.
We spent only about 60 percent of that this time.
Still, I have a split opinion on the meal. Mine…wasn’t anything special, although I bear the blame for most of it.
Everyone else loved their meal so much that they debated whether we should make this the new go-away meal instead of Be Our Guest.
If we do that, I’m getting the pork (or beef) tenderloin next time.
The one thing that I’ll say is that California Grill feels less unique without fireworks.
Until Happily Ever After returns, you may find better value at The Wave. I’m in the minority here, but I enjoyed that meal more, at least this trip.