A visit to the California Grill at Walt Disney World has always been special since its opening in 1995. On Monday September 9, Walt Disney World will improve upon this upscale restaurant staple as it reopens a “re-imagined” version of the California Grill with a new menu, new decor, and enhanced wrap-around views all set to impress even the most discerning guests.
Stepping off the elevator high atop the 15th floor, guests are immediately presented with a new sense of playful sophistication, greeted by a host table surrounded by hundreds of bottles of wine. Just beyond is a wide, open dining room featuring incredible floor-to-ceiling windows offering breathtaking views overlooking the nearby Magic Kingdom theme park. The dinner-only dining presented by the new California Grill provides a level of comfortable sophistication coupled with a nearly perfect array of appetizers, entrees and desserts that emphasize freshness.
Video: Re-imagined California Grill tour with chef, manager interviews at Walt Disney World
Disney is calling the new look of the California Grill “mid-century modern,” a throwback to design sensibilities from 1933 to 1955 that was popularized in the 1950s and ’60s.
The gentle yellows, greens, blues, oranges, and browns complement the existing decor of Disney’s Contemporary Resort, paying particular attention to pull in inspiration from legendary Imagineer Mary Blair, most famous for her design on “it’s a small world,” whose work can not only be seen throughout the hotel but now also inside this restaurant – including a few candid photos of the woman herself. It’s a nice nod for Disney fans. Even the carpet evokes a Mary Blair design.
Guests dine while looking out over the Magic Kingdom, easily able to see Cinderella Castle and Space Mountain in the foreground with Big Thunder Mountain and Splash Mountain in the distance. The California Grill now also features two outdoor platforms on the north and south sides of the building, offering even more opportunities for Walt Disney World views reaching as far as Epcot, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and Downtown Disney.
In the evening, the sun sets with a golden glow over the Magic Kingdom, bathing the restaurant in bright light – perhaps too bright for some diners. But those looking for a show can stay until dark to enjoy one of the best views of the Magic Kingdom’s nightly fireworks spectacular.
The view of the fireworks is wonderful from both inside the restaurant and out, accompanied by the music piped in from the park over a brand new, much improved sound system. The staff says they generally witness (and often help out with) at least one marriage proposal each evening at the California Grill, just as the fireworks begin to burst. It’s a perfect opportunity for couples.
The California Grill emphasizes freshness with “farm to table” mentality. Chef de Cuisine Brian Piasecki has created an all-new menu featuring bold flavors that all complement each other well, combining new twists on favorites with completely new offerings, all prepared in front of guests in the open kitchen alongside the dining room.
In celebration of the restaurant’s grand reopening, Disney threw a grand gala last night to which I was invited to sample a large portion of the new menu. It all began with a beautiful double rainbow curving above Disney’s Contemporary Resort, appearing just in time to mark the occasion filled with mixing, mingling, and even a bit of live music – a bit of a throwback to the “Top of the World” days before the location became the Contemporary Grill.
After a few opening remarks, chefs prepared many of the restaurant’s new signature dishes live in the kitchen and at cooking stations, ensuring the utmost attention to detail of each sampling.
The menu itself changes regularly, depending on which fresh ingredients the restaurant receives each day, but the overall dish concepts largely remain the same.
It’s tough to pick favorites from the new California Grill menu as almost everything was spot on delicious through and through. Accompanying my thoughts, the pictures below are a combination of Disney’s official food photos as well as a few of my smaller plate samplings from the grand reopening event. Normal portion sizes are certainly larger than some of the tiny tastes seen below.
The pre-dinner lavender focaccia is delightful, soft and aromatic. For appetizers, the Three-Meat Signature Meatballs are perfectly moist and hearty with a kick from the included harissa. And the Duck in all its Glory is an enjoyable head-to-tail presentation of sausage, rillettes, prosciutto, and pate, with each presentation offering its own twist on the same bird, accompanied by strong (and sometimes sour) mustards as well as sweet and tangy onions and pickles. (Please pardon my tiny plate packed with duck charcuterie delights pictured below, though note that I did devour it all.)
Among the must-try entrees at the new California Grill is the Oak-fired Filet of Beef that simply melts in your mouth, served with a particularly heirloom tomato risotto that’s creamy and vaguely reminiscent of pasta with tomato sauce, though much lighter.
Roasted Squash Ravioli is perfect for those looking for something a bit lighter or for vegetarians – or for anyone who simply wants a burst of flavor in every bite. They’re served al dente, offering a little bit of bite before enjoying smooth sweetness inside.
Pork Two Ways is a little hit or miss, with the lacquered pork belly absolutely perfectly prepared as a delightful combination of sweet and tangy with juicy rib-like meat cut with a generous helping of delicious pork fat. But its accompanied grilled tenderloin is a little chewy and dry. The goat cheese polenta served with the pork is stunningly smooth while the mushrooms pack a brilliantly savory punch.
Speaking of pork belly, California Grill is now introducing a new emphasis on sushi, including a particularly unique Pork Belly Nigiri which is a huge mouthful of the above-mentioned meat atop dense yuzu rice smothered in spicy teriyaki – delicious though tough to fit into one bite. The Shrimp Tempura is crunchy wrapped in rice with apricot and a sweet orange drizzle. And the standard California Roll is every bit as as fresh tasting as it should be.
Sushi lovers may want to experience the California Grill’s spin on a chef’s table with their Omikase experience, a 12-course menu that includes a tasting of the restaurant’s freshest dishes, fish and otherwise.
Finally, there’s dessert, a delectable array of sweet treats, many of which are fun and playful. Among the best are the Banana Fritters, lightly fried balls similar to a churro but with less crunch and more softness inside, served with a bruleed marshmallow, all on a stick. They’re dangerously addictive.
A trio of tiny desserts called the Sundae Sampler offers three themes: creative, playful, and classic. It comes with a small Strawberry and Basil Custard, which mostly tastes like fresh strawberries, a Caramel Corn treat that is smooth with a little crunch, and a small Coke float with perfectly fresh vanilla ice cream served with a tiny Coke bottle.
Those looking for the richest dessert experience should not miss the Chocolate Pudding Cake, extremely dense and layered with salted chocolate and Nutella filling accompanied by fresh whipped cream, an incredible marshmallow bite, and meringue kisses. It’s a chocolate lover’s paradise.
Those looking to pair all this food with drinks will find no shortage of selections as the California Grill has hundreds of wines to choose from.
Appetizers range in the $12-$20 range and entrees from $32-$49, so a dinner at the California Grill is not inexpensive – but worth every penny. The staff is incredibly knowledgeable and friendly, able to answer any questions about the food and especially helping to make wine pairing recommendations. Around 20 of the servers also have a basic sommelier education.
No one will leave California Grill disappointed, with so few low points in the cuisine that they’re barely even worth mentioning. Every dish lives up to its description and the freshness of ingredients shines through each bite. Combined with stellar views of the Magic Kingdom and surrounding Walt Disney World resort and the updated, re-imagined California Grill reopens as a near-perfect success.
More photos of the updated California Grill at Disney’s Contemporary Resort: