Bringing back a Hollywood landmark lost to time, Disneyland invites guests to step back to the 1930s and dine with sophistication in the Carthay Circle Restaurant. Standing an impressive 12.5 feet taller than Sleeping Beauty Castle at 89.5 feet tall, the Carthay Circle Theatre draws all eyes and attention down Buena Vista Street, serving as the new focal point of the theme park. But as striking as its outside is, it’s the restaurant’s stylish interior design and strong flavors that have Disney fans raving.
By the look of the exterior and the name of the Carthay Circle Theatre, guests might at first glance believe there is a major movie house located inside. After all, the historic building Disney’s Imagineers carefully recreated inside the “new” Disney California Adventure theme park is modeled after the theater in which Walt Disney premiered “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” on December 21, 1937. A simple but stunning fountain is the centerpiece to Carthay Circle, mirroring the shape of the Carthay Circle Theatre itself.
Side marquees indicate to guests that the large building is more than a theater, but actually the home of the Carthay Circle Restaurant.
The executive chef for Carthay Circle Restaurant is Disneyland Resort veteran Andrew Sutton, also the executive chef of the award-winning Napa Rose restaurant at Disney’s Grand Californian hotel.
Those familiar with Napa Rose will find a twist on a similar theme inside Carthay Circle Restaurant. “I think they’re very distinct,” said Sutton. “In my opinion, this one’s much more southern California. The flavors are driven more toward that style. The appetizers are built more to share. It’s built a little bit more family-esque.”
Some Napa Rose veterans were pulled to helm the kitchen of Carthay Circle. “I was lucky in a sense that we had a crew that was just bubbling with talent and I needed to almost split them so the timing was perfect,” explained Sutton. “And if there becomes a little competition between the two that’s nice and friendly, I’m okay with it. I think that’s kind of fun. It usually builds to a better product for the guests.”
Stepping inside, the “Snow White” premiere night theme continues, as if guests are entering the event’s after-party. Reproductions of the evening’s program, tickets, and other ephemera are framed near the entrance.
Immediately inside, guests are presented with rich reds, browns, and shades of gold that color the entirety of the restaurant, creating an upscale, but relaxed feel. In any other location, guests might feel the need to get dressed up to dine at such a luxurious restaurant, but inside the Disney California Adventure theme park, only the staff needs to dress the part, while guests are free to enter with T-shirts, shorts, and flip flops. Regardless of attire, the atmosphere of the Carthay Circle Restaurant that will make patrons feel they’re part of a special occasion.
The Walt Disney Archives has a small area inside the restaurant in which they will be rotating various exhibits over time, beginning with a set of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” Courvoisier cels.
Though the upstairs dining room is the main focus of the Carthay Circle Restaurant, the downstairs lounge is equally inviting, requiring no reservations and offering small plate food and full drink menu and bar. But even those not hungry or thirsty will find enjoyment lounging on its many cushy seats.
Those with reservations will make their way to the upstairs dining room, either by stairway or elevator.
At the top, the sense of dining among Hollywood royalty continues through large black-and-white pictures lining the wood paneled walls featuring Walt Disney and a variety of Academy Award winners.
Rows of glasses arranged around the main dining room gives guests dining at the Carthay Circle Restaurant the impression they’ve stepped into a party that’s already been going on for hours.
The restaurant features a few secluded dining spaces as well as many outward-facing tables, giving every party a level of privacy. It’s easy to forget you’re dining inside a theme park while enjoying the quiet comfort of the Carthay Circle Restaurant.
Whether eating in the upstairs dining room or in the downstairs lounge, the Carthay Circle Restaurant menu offers a variety of unique tastes with a strong flavor profile that is guaranteed to excite even the most picky palate.
When asked to make a recommendation off his new menus, Chef Sutton at first replied, “That’s like chopping up your children. I can’t do that.” He went on to suggest the watermelon salad, calling it the restaurant’s “signature salad,” also adding, “Make sure you try the duck wings and the biscuits. Sample, play, and have fun.”
So on its second official night of operation, June 16, 2012, I did just that. Rather than ordering a filling entree, I opted for a special drink, two appetizers, a salad, and a dessert, sharing it all with a couple friends.
My meal began with a Wildberry Lemonade, described as an “All natural lemonade with flavors of blackberry, strawberry, raspberry, blueberry with a spritz of purified sparkling water, topped with wildberry fruit foam.” ($4.50) This thick, robust drink is strong in flavor, prominently featuring all of these listed fruits, particularly raspberry and blackberry.
Dinner in the Carthay Circle Restaurant main dining room comes with fresh, crusty and salted butter, both good but not worth filling up on.
The restaurant’s appetizers begin the flavor journey through Sutton’s unique take on southern Californian cuisine with no disappointments. Ginger Grilled Pork Satay with Green Papaya slaw and Mango Raita ($16.00) arrives on skewers, perfect to split among three people. Trimmed into bite-sized cubes, each piece of pork is expertly prepared, charred every so slightly for a crisp outside texture, and covered with a tangy and sweet glaze.
But the stars of the appetizers are the Signature Fire Cracker Duck Wings with Soy, lime and Sriracha Chili sauce ($12.00), one of Sutton’s recommendations. Juicy dark meat is coated in a light, crispy, and flaky fried skin packing a kick that builds in heat as more is eaten. The Sriracha can be blamed for that, in a good way. One wing won’t light your mouth on fire, but eating a couple will leave lips tingling, worth every succulent bite.
Sutton’s other recommendation, the Summer Watermelon Salad ($12.00) is far more cooling. Fresh, crisp watermelon is accompanied by cucumber, gypsy peppers, lime mascarpone and honey sherry vinaigrette, creating a light salad that’s refreshing to the last morsel.
Two nights prior, at the Buena Vista Street grand opening party, Chef Sutton was personally serving samples from the Carthay Circle Restaurant menu.
Included on that one plate were the Vietnamese Twice Cooked Beef Taco and Roasted Moroccan Lamb Meatballs from the downstairs lounge menu and Crispy Gorditas, an appetizer upstairs.
The Vietnamese Twice Cooked Beef Taco arrives with with fresh Pineapple-Mint Salsa, but the salsa does little to calm the heat in the beef, offering strong flavors throughout. Roasted Moroccan Lamb Meatballs are best when coated with the supplied creamy Tzatziki, otherwise surprisingly mild in taste for a menu with otherwise bold flavors. Crispy Gorditas are topped with portobello mushrooms, poblano chile, Queso Fresco and Pepitas and offer savory and spicy flavors with each small bite.
Entrees available at the Carthay Circle Restaurant vary with lunch and dinner menus and include Grilled Lamb Rolitini, Korean Pulled Pork Sandwich, Grilled Rib Eye, Santa Maria Braised Port Pot Roast, Grilled Jamaican Jerked King Fish, Angus Burger, Cavatelli Pasta with Tuscan style Braised Lamb, Colorado Rack of Lamb, among many other options. Prices are roughly $20-40 per entree.
A variety of desserts includes one that caught my eye called “Peaches In All Their Glory,” featuring Peach and White Chocolate Mousse Cannolis with fresh Grilled Peaches and Peach Sorbet. This sweet dish features surprises throughout, with each peach preparation unique on the plate. I thought the grilled peaches were my favorite part until I tried the sorbet, which was even more enjoyable.
But the best dessert is available for those dining at Carthay Circle Restaurant late in the evening, with an outdoor balcony available with a great view of the Disneyland fireworks across the esplanade. Balcony dining tables are also available by special request, overlooking Carthay Circle and the Red Car Trolleys periodically passing through.
Video: Disneyland fireworks as seen from the Carthay Circle Restaurant balcony
After dark, the Carthay Circle Theatre and Restaurant is light up in grand style, with upward lights and a glowing nearby fountain adding to the classy ambiance of Buena Vista Street and the “new” Disney California Adventure theme park.
Chef Sutton calls the Carthay Circle Restaurant “an enhancement of the whole park experience,” not only adding fine dining to the park’s food options but also giving guests a chance to “do dinner and a show,” catching World of Color (or fireworks) after dinner. Those ordering an appetizer and entree or an entree and dessert will even receive a special World of Color Fastpass to cap off the evening.
Moreover, the new restaurant offers Sutton a chance to further his own creative culinary endeavors at the Disneyland Resort. “It also gives me that playground downstairs where it’s more of that small plates,” said Sutton. “For me as a chef, and as I’m developing [the menus], I kind of have the Napa Rose, I have Carthay Circle Restaurant, I have the lounge, so it gives me more avenues to really explore the opportunities of food.”
Though I skipped ordering an entree on my first experience in Carthay Circle Restaurant in favor of sampling a few (delicious) smaller dishes, even the relatively high prices won’t keep me away from regularly returning to try more in this unique restaurant on my next trip to Disney California Adventure, not only adding fulfilling food options to the park but also continuing the greater story that builds upon rich Disney history and heritage throughout Buena Vista Street, all part of the much-applauded transformation of Disney California Adventure.
More photos from the Carthay Circle Theatre and Restaurant: