When we booked our Walt Disney World honeymoon which came with a free Disney Dining Plan, we knew straight away that we’d upgrade two of our table service credits to one signature dining credit. This is quite a common thing, and something I would highly recommend. It means getting one “higher end” meal while reducing your need to have a table service meal every day – something we struggled with. Choosing the signature dining option we wanted to go with was tricky though. We were torn between The Boathouse at Disney Springs, Jiko at Animal Kingdom Lodge and California Grill at the Contemporary. In the end, we ruled out The Boathouse because the prices there were cheaper and on par with some table service credit restaurants (and since we’d get whatever we chose off the menu as part of the prepaid Dining Plan, it seemed silly), and Jiko was ruled out because we planned to visit Boma and Sanaa at Animal Kingdom Lodge on other days.
See more of our Disney Dining Reviews here (more coming soon!):
I’m really glad we did choose California Grill as this restaurant definitely feels more special for a honeymoon meal. It’s one with a dress code (more about this in a minute), more expensive menu items, and a fantastic view over Disney World – not only Magic Kingdom but you can also spot Epcot, Hollywood Studios and even further afield.
I’ve got to be completely honest here – the Contemporary Resort has never appealed to me at all. I’ve always thought it looks like an airport terminal, and I think the monorail running through the middle of it only adds more to that feel. Despite this, it has some huge positives: the proximity to Magic Kingdom meaning you can walk there directly and the excellent restaurants located there are just two of these. It also helped that it was very close to our resort – Wilderness Lodge – only a boat ride across the lake away.
California Grill is renowned for its west coast style dining – relaxed but very well designed and cooked. The options are fresh and seasonal with global fusion techniques. There is a dress code, however it’s more relaxed than most people expect of a dress code. I was worried as I didn’t have a nice, hot-weather dress that currently fit me thanks to 15 weeks of pregnancy, but luckily the playsuit I wore was acceptable. Basically you just need to look smart, wearing slacks, dress shorts and a collared shirt for men, and a dress, dress pants or shorts, or capris for women. I wasn’t sure where a playsuit fell into these categories, but I think as long as you’re slightly dressed up, rather than denim shorts and T shirts from a full day at the park, you’re good.
The whole experience is a special one from the beginning. You check in at the 2nd floor of the hotel, where you’re taken to a particular elevator where a host takes you up to the 15th floor where the restaurant is located. It immediately feels like an exclusive experience. We were seated at the bar to get some drinks while our table was prepared, but this only took minutes, then were led to a table. We’d kind of hoped for one at the windows to get a close up of the view, but weren’t disappointed by our table that was, in fact, further back. We were told it was one of the chef’s tables as we were closely overlooking the pass for the kitchen. Each section of the kitchen as we passed was explained to us – with the sushi section, the prep areas, the main kitchen and the pastry chefs, where we were seated. As foodies who love all the work that goes on in the background of cooking and creating our meals, this was brilliant. On top of that, we actually ended up with a more panoramic view than had we been seated right at the window. From our table, we could see Magic Kingdom, Epcot and Hollywood Studios.
Our server was super friendly and very experienced. He explained the menu to us in detail, picking out his personal favourites and describing methods of cooking and preparation. Ben picked a California-based IPA to drink while I chose a non-alcoholic fruit punch. I was glad there was a nice non-alcoholic option for me since there was such a choice of speciality alcoholic drinks, I was worried I’d be missing out! These arrived with fresh sourdough bread and a herb sun-dried tomato oil – super tasty!
We started with The Farmer pizza to share as recommended by our server – this was an additional cost to our dining plan, but we loved the sound of it and thought it was worth trying. The pizzas are hand-formed and cooked in a wood-fired oven to order. This one was topped with home-cured pancetta, roasted garlic, a sweet onion-olive agrodolce, rocket, shaved pecorino and a soft-cooked egg. The flavours were very complementary and this made for an excellent appetiser – the base was chewy and well-flavoured – although we didn’t manage to finish it as we wanted to save room for more!
Ben chose the Colorado rack of lamb as his main, served with punjabi aubergine, curried potato samosas, courgette, raita and a lamb jus. His lamb was cooked so perfectly and, even though mine was delicious, I was a bit jealous of his! The fusion of American and Indian spices in this dish worked wonderfully.
I had the oak-fired filet of beef for main – this was served with fried herb gnocchi, tomato-piquillo jam, smoky pickled pearl onions and blood orange butter. My steak was so tasty and was, again, cooked perfectly. It was tender and buttery. I have to admit that I wasn’t all that keen on the gnocchi though – it was nice, but not amazing, and I couldn’t necessarily taste the blood orange in the butter, however the sharp tomato jam and onions worked really well with this.
For dessert, Ben had a (blurry, whoops!) warm pyramid Valrhona chocolate cake with vanilla bean ice cream, chocolate whipped panna cotta and cashew clusters. This was ridiculously good from the bit I tried.
I chose a lighter dessert as I was pretty full with a blackberry-lime sorbet. This was exactly what I wanted after a pretty rich meal as it was sharp and light – an excellent palate cleanser.
The advantages of eating at California Grill aren’t just the wonderful food options though. We booked our meal towards the end of our honeymoon trip and chose a time that we hoped would mean we would be able to see the fireworks at Magic Kingdom from the Contemporary’s 15th floor viewing platform – 7.10pm. We needn’t have worried though as a reservation entitles you to return that evening with your booking to be able to see the fireworks, even if you’ve already had your meal and left.
As it turned out, our timing was perfect and we were able to see the fireworks as we finished up our desserts – excellent after dinner entertainment! Ben and I both agreed afterwards that, despite never having been all that bothered about watching the fireworks anywhere that wasn’t Main Street USA, we’d actually enjoyed this viewing much more than our first one from Magic Kingdom itself. In fact, when we got home and people asked our favourite moments of our honeymoon on separate occasions, this was the one we both picked – I highly recommend the experience of watching the fireworks from California Grill. There were very few people out there, the music was piped through, and you really got a sense of the scale of the fireworks. It was honestly amazing.
Overall, our California Grill experience as a whole was wonderful. The views were spectacular (and I admit, our conversation was partly stilted as I kept gasping “Look at the sunset over there!” and later, “Look! Lightning over there! And THERE!”); the food was really tasty and not too overfacing (as some Disney meals can be); the service was top-notch; and the fireworks viewing experience was amazing. I would highly recommend it to anyone who wants a special Disney meal experience, and we hope to return here again one day.