With the Seven Seas Lagoon behind you, the lush Florida tree line off in the distance and the Magic Kingdom right in front of you, it’s hard to argue that any Walt Disney World restaurant offers a better view than California Grill. That could be enough of a reason to dine here, but there’s so much more to the experience.
Lauren and I managed to make a reservation during our honeymoon trip to Walt Disney World and our dinner at California Grill still comes up as one of our favourite overall dining experiences that Disney has available.
Disney’s Contemporary Resort is home to a couple of the more recognizable restaurants available at Disney resorts. While The Wave…of American Flavors may be a little more accessible and Chef Mickey’s may draw a bigger crowd, California Grill is hands-down the best restaurant at the Contemporary (in our humble opinions).
The restaurant used to be the “Top of the World” nightclub/restaurant, including a “Broadway at the Top” dinner show. It opened alongside Walt Disney World, October 1st, 1971. Once it closed for an almost 2-year refurbishment, the “Top of the World” name was retired, until it was given to a lounge opening at Bay Lake Tower. In the meantime, California Grill made its debut May 15, 1995.
California Grill is the only signature restaurant at the Contemporary resort. It’s only open for dinner each day, as well as a weekly brunch on Sundays.
There is a dress code in effect, and while we have never known California Grill to strictly enforce the minimums, it’s a good idea to follow them anyway. You can find the dress code here.
Often described as fusion cuisine, the menu at California Grill frequently offers a blend of American and Asian flavours, drawing inspiration from the fusion of those cuisines that can be seen in Californian restaurants.
California Grill is located up on the 15th floor of the Contemporary. Once you check in all the way down on the 2nd floor, a Cast Member will escort you up, using an elevator that is reserved for the exclusive use of restaurant guests.
Once you have reached the restaurant, you’ll be greeted by California Grill’s extensive wine collection before you walk in to the large open dining area. The main dining room features floor-to-ceiling windows along the perimeter that give guests a beautiful view overlooking the Seven Seas Lagoon and the Magic Kingdom.
The main dining area is home to an open “onstage” kitchen, which allows you to see the chefs at work. Chefs rolling sushi are situated right up at the front of the kitchen to be on full display, while the grills and stovetops are located a little further back (you know, to keep the heat away from the guests).
A long, curving bar also sits in the middle of the room for guests who are looking for more of a lounge atmosphere.
Towards the far end of the restaurant is a more subdued room that feels like an addition, or is more likely closed off for special events with larger parties. Lauren and I were seated in this room. While I definitely appreciated the view towards the back of the resort, overlooking the tree line, I think we really missed out on a table in the main dining room.
The décor inside California Grill fits in nicely with the whole Contemporary Resort feel, classic and modern elements brought together. The tables have bright white linens and are paired with wooden chairs for the classic elements. The carpet beneath you is a combination of red, yellow and orange colours in a leaf-motif. In the main dining room, the lights overhead look like molecules, with a bulb at the end of every branch. While it’s possible they don’t represent anything, I like the idea of molecules, since it reflects the fusion of the cuisine that takes place here.
California Grill is a signature restaurant at Walt Disney World. That always means that guests are likely looking at a higher price point for dining here.
There is sushi available on the menu, with rolls ranging from $20-30 USD range. Appetizers are around $15-20 USD and entrées fall in between $35 and $60 USD. Obviously, the low end of that range is the plant-based dishes and the higher price point is for the more expensive meat and seafood dishes on the menu. At the end of the meal, desserts are in and around the $15 USD mark.
Suffice it to say, a meal at California Grill is a splurge, there’s no doubt about that. Even sharing an appetizer and dessert, a dinner for 2 will set you back $150+. I don’t say that to dissuade you from dining here, it’s just important to know the kind of meal you’re embarking on beforehand. Unless money is no object for you, a dinner at California Grill is something to be budgeted for.
Guests who are using the Disney Dining Plan will require 2 table service credits here. For those using the DDP+ or the Deluxe Dining Plan, it will require 2 credits.
Depending on what you order, it can be worthwhile to use your Disney Dining Plan credits for this meal, but our general rule of thumb is that signature dining is always better to pay out of pocket. 2 credits are a lot to use for any one restaurant when you could get two full meals out of them at other restaurants.
Annual Passholders and DVC members are currently eligible for a 10% discount on food and non-alcoholic beverages at California Grill. Tables in Wonderland holders are eligible for a 20% discount on both food and any beverages.
The all-important reason why you would choose to dine here at California Grill…the food. Sure, the location is beautiful and the view is impressive, but when you dine at a signature restaurant, you’re expecting the food to be exceptional.
There is something to note here at California Grill…the menu changes seasonally. While the changes may not be major, you can’t expect to see the same items on the menu from one trip to the next.
What you can expect is that the menu will showcase ingredients and dishes that reflect the “international, melting-pot culture of the Golden State” (Disney’s words, not ours). Take from that what you will, but when we think back on our time at California Grill, we think of the bold, fresh flavours that each dish offered us.
As always, for the most up-to-date menu, you can find it here on Disney’s website.
California Grill does have a wood-burning pizza oven in the back of the onstage kitchen. There is usually one or two seasonal artisanal hand-formed pizzas on the menu.
There is always hand-rolled sushi available on the menu, as well as sashimi. While the rolls themselves may change seasonally, you can always expect some take on the traditional California roll. It would be stupid not to include the one type of roll associated with the restaurant’s namesake.
Expect a soup and salad option on the appetizer menu. There can also be some sort of cheese plate or charcuterie board.
Lauren and I shared a Sonoma Goat Cheese Ravioli in a tomato-fennel broth with crispy mushrooms, basil and olive oil. While it was only 1 single ravioli, it certainly was a big one. It made for a fun shareable plate between the two of us. Plus, since we both love goat cheese, it was a winner for us.
This particular dish has made its way back on the menu consistently, so keep an eye out for it.
California Grill will almost always have an assortment of proteins to choose from on the entrée list. There of course will also be a plant-based option, which at the present is a Plant-based Truffle Selezione Pasta. You can also expect a selection of seafood options like fish, lobster or scallops. Rounding out the menu will be chicken, pork and beef dishes. A pork tenderloin dish is a regular mainstay, but Disney will frequently tout the Oak-fired Filet of Beef as being the pièce de résistance on the menu.
Lauren opted for a Chicken and Dumplings dish with peas, zucchini, tomatoes and artichokes along with a creamy sauce.
I chose the Grouper with an herb gnocchi, golden cauliflower, warm tomato vinaigrette and a green garlic pistou.
Both of our entrées made the entire dinner worth it. They were both a beautiful combination of flavours, with it all feeling fresh and exciting on the palate. The dishes were inventive and showcased great ingredients without anything being too overpowering.
On the dessert menu, expect a rotation cavalcade of dishes throughout the seasons. That being said, cheese lovers may prefer the artisanal cheese plate that frequents the menu.
For Lauren and I, we chose to share a dessert. We went with the California Beignets, filled with a vanilla custard, cinnamon sugar dusted on top and a blackberry-lemon grass sauce for dipping. I’m a sucker for anything fried and sugary, so this was right up my alley. The blackberry-lemon grass sauce had just enough tartness to make these a delight.
Happily Ever After
One of the biggest draws for California Grill is the fact that there are outdoor observation decks alongside the restaurant on the 15th floor. Guests in the main dining room will get a great view of the Magic Kingdom. If you choose to make a late dinner reservation, you may even see the Happily Ever After fireworks from your table. For guests at other tables, or for guests from earlier reservations in the evening (with a valid receipt), there are two outdoor viewing areas. The music is piped in through speakers, so you aren’t in jeopardy of missing out on that aspect of the nighttime spectacular.
The only element that is hard to see are the projections on Cinderella Castle. Apart from that, you’ll see the rest of the show without any trouble. In fact, the view from the Contemporary really gives you a perspective of how large the fireworks are and how far away they are launched from the castle.
Obviously, I wouldn’t recommend dining at California Grill just for a chance to see the fireworks from a unique perspective, but it is an absolute bonus for what turns out to be a spectacular dining experience.
Lauren and I had a really great experience at California Grill. We certainly wish we had been seated in the main dining room, but we’ll know for next time to request a table there. Regardless of where we were sitting, we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. The service was on point and the menu provided such good choice.
As much as I enjoy a good steak, the other entrées on the menu were so appetizing, that I couldn’t help but deviate from my usual tendencies. Lauren’s dish was recommended by our server, so I’d encourage anyone to go in with an open mind and maybe take a step or two out of your comfort zone.
Before our reservation, I had California Grill on my list of fancier restaurants at Walt Disney World. It certainly has the upscale feel to it and it definitely earns its signature status, but it does seem much more accessible after having dined there. We don’t consider ourselves to be fancy people, so if there’s a particularly posh or overly classy restaurant, we sometimes feel out of place. We didn’t feel out of place at California Grill. If anything, it felt a little more relaxed, opening us up to fully enjoy our evening.
I will admit that seeing Happily Ever After from the top of the Contemporary resort was part of the draw for me (have to get those fancy photos, right?), but after seeing it from California Grill, I don’t think I need to see that angle again. I missed being right in front of the castle and feeling like the fireworks were all right within my field of view, instead of seeing them spread out, coming from different areas.
A Happily Ever After view is secondary to this whole review. At its heart, California Grill stands on its own as a brilliant restaurant. While I couldn’t see this being a regular reservation for us (as much as we’d like it to be), I think it’s a great option when you have something to celebrate or you just want a fancy night out.
While California Grill is open mostly for dinner, there is “Brunch at the Top” served on Sundays. We had a chance to experience the brunch and in comparing the two, I’d say stick with dinner.
Disney Dining QUIPS – California Grill
(2 table service credits on the DDP)
Quick – A fusion of cuisines that can normally be found in California, the California Grill is a signature dining restaurant 15 stories up in Disney’s Contemporary Resort.
Unique – Sushi Rolls and fusion cuisine on the menu. Panoramic views of the Seven Seas Lagoon and the Magic Kingdom from the floor-to-ceiling windows around the outside of the main dining room.
Impressions – A mixture of contemporary designs with classic signature restaurant service. The décor is intriguing, but not enough to be memorable.
Palate – A seasonal menu means that dishes come and go throughout the year. In general, California Grill is a showcase of fresh ingredients and innovative flavour combinations to go one step further than your typical fine dining.
Skip or Stay – For the food alone, you should stay at California Grill. It is a splurge, so take that into account. If you aren’t visiting the Magic Kingdom, stay for the fireworks you can see from the outdoor observation deck.