My Disney Top 5 - Walt Disney World Restaurants My Family Would To Like Be At Right Nowby Chris Barry, contributing writer
Welcome back to another Disney Top 5. As always, I hope all of you are safe and well. As I sit and write this in the relative peace and quiet of my sunroom, I'm well aware of a very troubled world right outside my very door. I grew up within the New York City limits and don't live all that far away from it right now. To watch my hometown suffer through the pandemic over the last few months, slowly claw its way back towards opening and then have it shut down each night lately due to civil unrest has been surreal to say the least. One can only hope that positive change is on the horizon and that some good will ultimately come out of all of this.
So the question then looms once again, "Is this really the time to be writing silly, happy little articles about Walt Disney World?" I asked myself that very same question when it came time to write an article back when the pandemic began. It's hard to believe I'm already forced to ask that question again so soon. After all, I'm not a political writer. I'm not a news reporter or current events columnist. So, is there a place for what I write about amidst the current madness of the world? The answer, of course, once again, is an emphatic, "Yes!" When times are tough there may be no better opportunity to write about the simple joys in life and the things that bring us all together. It's those things that unify us as people and cross invisible societal boundaries. Music. Art. Nature. Fun. Love. Family. These things are universal and help us to achieve that peaceful and escapist state of mind that we as human beings need to get by.
If you've read my articles here on MousePlanet over the last dozen or so years—and, as always, I wholeheartedly thank you for your support if you have—you have hopefully noticed that my work here is usually pretty personal. Sure, I count down the things I love about a theme park or which Disney collectibles reside in my home, which on the surface may seem pretty superficial. But if you scratch that surface just a little, you'll see that I'm ruminating on a lot more than just a cartoon mouse, roller coasters and shelves full of trinkets. My articles tend to draw on the whole corny, but very real concept of Disney magic, how much it's needed in life and how much of an impact that magic has had on my family. During difficult times, we turn to what makes us happy. Whether that's a walk in the park, a sporting event, live music, a film, a meal, or a family vacation together in your favorite spot, these are the things that get us through it all. And if you can't be doing those things—like during a global pandemic perhaps—it's the yearning for those things that helps you remember the happiness, the peace and, yes, as corny as it sounds, the magic that you miss. So, yes, it's OK& to talk about what you miss at Walt Disney World, or skiing, or baseball, or whatever it is that makes you who you are. As a matter of fact, it's more than OK. It's downright necessary to remember a time before the madness and that there will be a time after the madness to revisit all the things you missed.
One of the things that we all miss right now is the simple act of going to our favorite local restaurants to sit, be with each other and share a good meal. I can't tell you how much I'd like to be sitting in my local pizzeria, pub or burger joint talking with friends and family, laughing and breaking bread. Nothing fancy necessary. At this point, I'd be just as happy at the classic All American Hamburger Drive-in here on Long Island as I would at the world famous Peter Luger's Steakhouse. It's funny how much you take these places for granted that you drive by every day. So, considering what I write about, and considering how much I'm missing spending time with my family at Walt Disney World, I thought it was time to combine the two. I wanted to write about the restaurants I'd like to be sitting in at Disney if I were able to "genie blink" myself there right now. But I thought I'd ask my family for their picks this time. There's 5 of us so it's a perfect fit for a Top 5 column. We're all missing the simple act of going out to eat with each other and we were kind of looking forward to hopefully doing just that at Disney World real soon and who knows when that's actually going to happen. So, let's see what the clan said with my Top 5 Walt Disney World restaurants that my family would like to be at right now. These are in no particular order. I mixed up the five names and randomly pulled them out of a hat for placement on this list.
5 - Samantha - Les Halles Boulangerie-Patisserie, Epcot's France Pavilion, Early Morning
My 21-year-old daughter took some time to think about her choice and her response was very specific not only to place, but to time. One of the things that always blows me away about Walt Disney World is that even after being there so many times, year after year, there are always new discoveries. And so it was that two summers ago on my 50th birthday trip to the Yacht Club with 27 family members and friends, someone discovered that the France pavilion's little gem of a counter service restaurant opens for breakfast before the rest of World Showcase. The Future world section of Epcot opens for the day at 9. The bulk of World Showcase opens a full two hours later at 11. Norway opens at 9 as well and guests flock there for its super popular princess breakfast. But there's a little known breakfast scene happening on the other side of World Showcase. Les Halles opens at 9 also and you can only get there by walking through the closed Canada and UK pavilions, so most people just don't know or don't bother.
Les Halles Boulangerie-Patisserie opens at 9:00 am ahead of other food service locations at Epcot, which makes it a good choice for breakfast. Photo by Donald Fink.
Several times on that birthday trip we got ourselves over to France around 9:00 AM for croissants and coffee and essentially had it to ourselves. Walking into World Showcase that early, with nobody else around, pulling some tables together and having a delicious fresh French breakfast outside was my daughter's number one choice and I can't agree with her more. It's hard to beat walking over the bridge from the UK into France essentially by yourselves. There's not much more I'd rather do than wake up tomorrow morning and take that walk with Samantha for some croissants and decadent hazelnut creme filled beignets.
4 - Me - San Angel Inn, Epcot's Mexico Pavilion, Seated Along the River, Dinner
I have to say. I've had some hard lists to pick through over a dozen years or so of writing this column, but this one may have been the hardest because I'm only giving myself one choice instead of five. Years ago, I wrote an article about my Top 5 Dining Experiences in Walt Disney World and I included the San Angel Inn on that list. I got pretty slammed by the readers, enough that I had to write a justification follow up piece that same month. All these years later, I still stand by this choice. The San Angel Inn has what I would refer to as the most unique setting of all the World Showcase restaurants. Yes, it's totally Disney fabricated. The river is part of the ride. The volcano isn't real and it's perpetually nighttime in there even if it's time for lunch. But who cares? Disney pulls off a pretty realistic and downright magical setting inside the Mexico pavilion.
The San Angel Inn inside the Mexico pavilion pyramid provides me with the most perfect dining atmosphere in all of Walt Disney World. Photo by Donald Fink
I've had plenty of authentic Mexican food here in New York and in California and despite its naysayers, I think the San Angel holds its own. We've had so many great moments here in this restaurant with just the five of us, with friends, and with extended family members that it'll always be on our go to list. Where else can the kids finish dinner and you can just say, "Sure. Go off and hop on the ride and we'll watch you float by, while we finish our margaritas." Give me a table over by the river, a mango margarita, some Tacos de Vegetales or the Mole Poblano and I'm pretty happy. My wife and kids agree. Let's go. Now.
3 - Diane - Biergarten, Epcot's Germany Pavilion, Dinner
In America, it's hard to find anyone that's 100% anything. My wife, Diane, is 100% German in every way. Her parents were born there. Most of her family members are over there. Her connection to her German heritage is one of the strongest and most endearing aspects of her personality. It's so who she is. So, it was no surprise when I posed this article's question to her that she replied, "...the German place!" No big shock there. Years ago, we stayed in a picture postcard perfect Bavarian inn in the Alps on a vacation. The sight of Diane sitting on a wooden bench, out in the gardens behind the inn, sipping that amazing Austrian coffee gazing out at the Alps is an image that I'll never forget. You've never seen someone so in their element. That is, until you see her strolling around World Showcase and the Germany pavilion comes into view. I get a giddy look in my eye when I enter the Magic Kingdom. It's painfully obvious. Diane gets that look in her eye when we hit the central platz of the pavilion and she is surrounded by Bavarian architecture and music. She might as well be overseas. On my aforementioned birthday trip, one of our first meals together was at Biergarten. The food is delicious and there's plenty of it to be had. The same goes for the giant liters of German beer.
Proof of me dancing at the Biergarten in July 2018 with my lovely wife Diane. Photo by Samantha Barry.
On the night before my birthday, Diane had trepidation about even heading into the restaurant. About 7 months earlier, her mom passed away. If you think my wife is German, you should have met her mom. This was her first foray into something so authentically German and it was tough for her. She almost didn't make it in. And then once the band, Oktoberfest Musikanten, got started, and we all got up and danced—a first for me at Disney—the night turned into a celebration of her heritage and she was thrilled to be sharing it with us all. It was one of our all time favorite nights on any vacation and we could sure use to replicate the happiness level from Biergarten that night right about now.
2 - Casey - Crystal Palace, Magic Kingdom, Breakfast
As fate would have it, the luck of the draw narrowed down to my twin 17-year-old boys, Casey and Alex. The boys are inseparable so it was no big surprise when their names came out of the hat last. I was fairly confident what my son Casey was going to say when I asked him for his choice. When he was a little boy, Winnie the Pooh was a big deal for him. Actually Pooh and his pals were pretty big with all of us in this house. The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh was the first Walt Disney World ride we took my daughter too when she was four and the same went for my boys a few years later on their first trip. After a morning in Fantasyland, we would make our way over to the Crystal Palace to have breakfast with that silly old bear and his pals. One visit was all it took to guarantee that we would be dining at the Crystal Palace on every trip going forward, on some trips, multiple times. The breakfast is top notch. It's hard to beat the omelet station and don't even get me started on the breakfast lasagna. It's one of the best things I've eaten anywhere.
Pooh flanked by Alex on the left and Casey on the right at the Crystal Palace on our most recent trip there last fall. Photo by Chris Barry.
My guys still get a kick out of having some Mickey waffles and taking pictures with their old friends. We were there for breakfast on my 50th birthday and I couldn't help but reminisce about being there with my kids as 4-year-olds and now here I was with them as teenagers. The time had passed but the Crystal Palace has never lost it's charm and its special place in this family's history. What I wouldn't give for the five of us to be sitting there right now, having a hearty breakfast and waiting for Pooh, Tigger, Eeyore and Piglet to make the rounds.
1 - Alex - Garden Grill, Epcot's Land Pavilion, Dinner
Just like it was no surprise that Casey would pick the Crystal Palace, I was pretty sure that his twin brother, Alex, would pick the Garden Grill. To him, it's probably more about the memories than the food. Although he swears that they have the best Mac & Cheese anywhere on Disney property. I've told him that it's probably the same Mac & Cheese that's served everywhere else at Walt Disney World, but he's had it everywhere else and says the Garden Grill is hands down the best. Aside from the delicious Mac & Cheese, the food is quite good here. It's an "all you care to eat" meal, so expect a bottomless platter of food to appear as often as you'd like. The beef is excellent. The stuffing is great and the fish is always fresh and changes depending on when you're there. Sometimes, they claim, the Tilapia comes from downstairs in the Living with the Land attraction as do the ingredients in the salad. The best thing on the menu may be the dinner rolls. I'm a bread fan and an even bigger fan of really good bread and these rolls are practically perfect, as is the Berry Short Cake for dessert.
Casey, Farmer Mickey and Alex back in the day at the Garden Grill. Photo by Chris Barry.
But, as I said, our Garden Grill experiences are more about the memories. When the boys were young, I took them on a "boys only" trip to Disney. We were there for 8 days together and our favorite dinner was that night at the Garden Grill. Being there as the restaurant slowly turns its way through the different scenes in the Living with the Land attraction, meeting Mickey, Pluto and Chip and Dale together all made for a perfect night that we think about often. I'm spending so much time with them now that school is shut down and we're sequestered at home that it would be pretty amazing if we could magically transport ourselves to the Garden Grill for some characters, scenery and some awesome Mac & Cheese.
I think people visiting for the first time are always pleasantly surprised when they get to Walt Disney World and realize that the dining experiences offered there are extremely diverse and most of it is really top notch. You can get your classic theme park food, but you don't have to venture too far to find delicious food and drink all throughout Disney property. Those not in the know can't believe it when I say that one of the single best meals I've ever had in a restaurant was at Walt Disney World. How could that be? Is that even possible? Yes. I grew up in New York. I've traveled all over. I've eaten plenty of excellent and unique food in plenty of unique and excellent places. But my wife's 40th birthday at the California Grill on top of the Contemporary still stands as one of the all time best dinners of my life. Excellent quality food. Impeccable staff. Expansive wine list and a knowledgeable sommelier that helped us pair with our food throughout. Let's not forget the dimming of the lights and the piping in of Wishes, the Magic Kingdom nighttime fireworks show at that time. What a wonderful family memory that night was.
As you can see, these aren't the classic Walt Disney World restaurants that the bulk of fans rave about. There's no 'Ohana—we have always been shut out of this fan favorite at the Polynesian, even the two times we stayed there. Nobody chose Le Cellier in Canada—mostly because, once again, we've never been able to get in. We've been to Chef Mickey's many times and had some wonderful experiences there, same goes for the Cape May Cafe at the Beach Club. I was real close to putting down Artist Point at the Wilderness Lodge, my all time favorite Walt Disney World restaurant, but it's gone. I haven't gotten the chance to visit its replacement, Storybook Dining at Artist Point but it can't possibly be the same. There's so many other favorites; Kona Cafe, Citricos, Tangierine Cafe, Be Our Guest to name just a few. But, obviously, these are the ones that jumped off the page to the five of us and each of them seems linked to a distinct memory or special feeling. That's really what the purpose of this article was; to get the family to remember good times and special moments we've had at the Disney restaurants before all of this craziness happened and to keep the hope alive that things will get better and we'll be able to revisit those memories and continue to make new ones sooner than later.
That's all for this time. As always I'd like to hear what you have to say. Click on the link below and share your choices of which Disney restaurant you'd like to magically go to right now if you were able to. Stay safe and I'll see you net time with another Disney Top 5.
Here’s where my boyfriend and I would love to be dining ( in no particular order):
1. Boma at Animal Kingdom Lodge for dinner after cocktails at Victoria Falls Lounge
2. Chef Art Smith’s Homecomin’ at Disney Springs for dinner after cocktails at the bar (Sweet Tea and Moonshine)
3. Il Mulino at the Swan for dinner after cocktails in the lounge
4. Shula’s at the Dolphin for dinner after cocktails at Phins
5. Yachtsman Steakhouse at the Yacht Club for dinner after cocktails at the Crews Cup
I'm just glad you recognize the restaurants of WDW as being of good to great quality! I have an ongoing discussion with a gentleman on another site, who feels that I must have very poor taste because I'll post something good about a WDW restaurant. I think it just comes down to he's a snob, and nothing in WDW can compete with the great places around the world that he enjoys. The California Grill is probably one of my favorite restaurants on the planet, and it's nice to read that I'm not alone in my praise!
Picking one to magically go to right now is tough, but being the carnivore I am , I'd have to give it to Le Cellier. The steak options, the great sides, the pre-meal bread offerings, the atmosphere, it's all been good for me. There are still other steak-focused restaurants I'd love to try (only other one I've been to was Yachtsman's Steakhouse one time - also loved it), but Le Cellier was one of my first WDW (might have been THE first) sit down meals, and I think I've done it a total of 3 times now. (for my first few trips, I only did quick/counter serve before I explored sit down meals at all - no turning back now! )
If I was to pick a top 5 for others in contention (in no particular order):
I know I kept it to sit downs, seemed too hard to mix in counter/quick serve faves also.
But if I can go back in time, I'd add Gaston's Tavern when they had Pork Shanks for that brief period after New Fantasyland opened.
I sense another theme here carolina...Lots of cocktails!!
And once again...the beauty of WDW...I have not eaten in any of your restaurants!! So many choices!
I don't see how people can't see that their dining rises all the way up to top quality. My brother joined me on my 50th. First trip to Disney in his 58 years on Earth. He was so blown away by Artist Point. Never expected that level of food.
And seriously, California Grill...one of my best meals ever. My favorite dinner of all time was at a little place in Antigua. About 20 feet from the calm beautiful waters of the Caribbean. Small. Intimate. Gushing with atmosphere. Gourmet food. Jeremy Irons was at the next table - so yeah - that kind of place. The Coconut Lobster, served in a coconut shell is still probably the best thing I ever ate. But, my meal at California Grill is probably second - if not tied. So, yeah, a Walt Disney World restaurant can reach that level of quality. Not just because I'm a raving Disney fan either.
I do love the Coral Reef. Beautiful room. Great food. I haven't been there for a while. Hope it's still great.
One of these days I need to go to Le Cellier. Not sure I can call myself a Walt Disney World aficionado without making it there. But I ALWAYS get shut out.
Our restaurant habits on WDW vacations are more counter service and character dining with fur characters at dinner time. Occasionally, we’ll eat at a regular table service and very rarely, eat at signature dining restaurants. I wish they would add these highly themed immersive WDW table service and signature restaurants at home where I have the time to enjoy them. Anyways here is my 5 in no particular order:
1. Garden Grill - The food is delicious, I love the views into Living with the Land, excellent service, and fun interactions with Mickey (in his farm clothes), Pluto, Chip and Dale
2. Whispering Canyon - I eat here anytime I stay at Wilderness Lodge. I love the cornbread and “The Land and Sea” skillet. The atmosphere is so fun and hilarious when someone asks for ketchup.
3. Hollywood & Vine - this feels like a fun holiday party all year round with Mickey and Friends
4. Tusker House - delicious diverse menu. We were here once toward the end of the regular dining hours and it felt a fun private party with Mickey and Friends.
5. Columbia Harbour House - being a New Englander, I realize there is far better seafood in Cape Cod, Maine, Boston etc. or even better seafood at Cali Grill or Flying Fish than CHH but I still love this place because of the quaintness of the second floor, the details, and the nautical/20K Leagues background music. We usually enter CHH at lunch or dinner time exhausted and starving but then CHH re-energizes us.
Compliments to your San Angel Inn pick. I love the atmosphere of that place.
1. California Grill, California Grill, California Grill. The only restaurant that compares for me is Canlis in Seattle.
2. Boma, a fantastic mix of so many flavors and textures.
3 Tie between Yachtsman Steakhouse and Brown Derby. We have had incredible service at the Derby and Yachtsman and the food is always good.
4. Skippers Cantina
5. Be Our Guest, for the volume they do it is amazing that it tastes so good.
Great choices! We've had many different character meals over the years at Hollywood & Vine. My kids were obviously big Disney Channel fans and the unique characters they got to meet there made for some great memories.
What you experienced at Tusker House is always one of my best tips for people when they ask me about dining with the characters. We tend to book the latest breakfasts possible at places like Crystal Palace or 1900 Park Fare. Once we were only one of two tables at 1900 towards the end of the shift and we got interactions and photos with multiple characters at once. Something you'd be hard pressed to experience during any peak hours.
Big fan of Columbia Harbor House upstairs as well.
Yeah. it's just hard to beat California Grill isn't it?
I still haven't been to Boma and we've unfortunately cancelled several reservations there that started to just not fir into our plans. Someday...
My only advice on going to Boma is go hungry and pace yourself. Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm
You actually matched three of my top five (Crystal Palace, San Angel in and Biergarten). For my other two (which is hard because there are so many), I'm going to add Victoria & Alberts at the Grand Floridian. The one time I went was probably the best meal I ever had, so for that over the top once in a decade very special occasion kind of thing, it's a great place. For the other, I like the Sci Fi Dine In at Hollywood Studios. The theming is amazing. I could watch that 1950's trailer loop over and over again (and have). It also has great burgers and onion rings.