Disney World’s California Grill Dining Experience
We have been to Disney World many times and no visit has been complete without an evening at the California Grill, located on the top of the Contemporary Resort. The Contemporary Resort is one of the two hotels (the other was the Polynesian) available at Walt Disney World when it opened in 1971 and I think it was 1972 when I stayed there on my first visit. This restaurant was originally named the Top of the World Restaurant and has undergone many renovations of decor and menu over the years. Our last visit was in 2011, prior to the last renovation.
When you get to the Contemporary Resort you go to the second floor where there is a check-in stand for the restaurant. You will be escorted onto a private elevator and taken up to the 15th floor. While on the elevator and at the check-in podium they remind you of the fireworks time for the evening and to come back with your dinner receipt if you want to view the fireworks from their observation deck later that night. The California Grill does have a dress code: Men may wear khakis, slacks, jeans or dress shorts and collared shirts. Sport coats are optional. Women may wear Capri pants, skirts, dresses, jeans or dress shorts. Not permitted are tank tops, swimsuits, swimsuit cover-ups, hats for gentlemen, cut-offs, torn clothing and t-shirts with offensive language and/or graphics.
Reservations are not required for the California Grill but are certainly suggested. The place is always busy, not the least of the reasons why is that the Contemporary is right next to the Magic Kingdom and is the next stop away on the tram. But you never need a reservation to sit in the lounge area. This is a first-come, first-served spot with several tables right next to the huge windows with a view of the Magic Castle, the Grand Floridian, and a frequently stunning Florida sunset. The lounge area has shrunk considerably since we were there last with the prior lounge space transformed into more dining tables but you can always sit at the bar. The complete dinner menu is available from both the lounge and the bar as well as in the restaurant.
The California Grill is rated as one of the best, if not THE best, restaurants in Walt Disney World depending on what review you read and when it was written. The menu runs $37 – $49 for entrees and about half that for appetizers. You can buy wine by the glass from the dinner menu and there is also a separate huge wine menu where you can purchase your wine by the bottle. Nothing is inexpensive here, but with a Tables in Wonderland card you get 20% off your bill (includes alcohol). Be aware that this card also automatically adds an 18% gratuity for your waiter. Not that we wouldn’t have done that anyhow, but it is good to know to plan your expenses.
Poached Pear Artisanal Hand Formed Pizza – red-wine poached Asian pear, Olli prosciutto, red onion jam, Fontina, Asiago, Parmesan, Meyer lemon, arugula, fresh cracked pepper ($17)
New Moon Roll Hand Rolled Sushi – Maine lobster, avocado, barbecue eel, rice pearls, Gochujang Dragon Sauce ($26)
We had a delightful evening at the California Grill as we took our time, ordered one thing well after we had finished the last, and watched all the people and the sunset from our table at the window. The food was delicious and our server was friendly but rather scattered and busy. My only issue with this visit is that it was my husband’s birthday – we were both wearing our Disney birthday pins and I made sure the waiter knew that it was exactly Tom’s birthday, not next week like mine is – and there was no offer of a birthday cupcake at the end of our dinner. We were there last on his birthday in 2011 and I have a photo of the great birthday cupcake we were surprised with on that visit. Quite a disappointment and I’m not sure if it was the waiter or part of the change with the newest chef, but a delicious meal and fun evening all the same.