Brunch at the California Grill 

Walt Disney World has a surprising number of high-end, high quality restaurants for a theme park. Victoria and Albert’s is considered one of the best restaurants in the country. Seriously. Across Seven Seas Lagoon in the Contemporary  is the California Grill, another bucket list eatery famed for food and fireworks viewing.

Last year the Grill started serving weekend brunch. Busy Bumble and I thought this would be the perfect chance to experience this restaurant without the dinner price tag. It was still very expensive, but this stands as the best dining experience we’ve had at WDW to date.

The Restaurant

Get reservations early. Spots get taken quickly so the moment your window opens grab a reservation. We managed to get an 11am spot which puts us a little closer to lunch, but it was the only open slot.

If you’ve never been to the Contemporary there are a few way to get there: bus, Monorail, and car. To get there by bus you’ll need to travel to a theme park, water park, or Disney Springs then transfer to a Contemporary bus. This could take a while, so give yourself at least an hour for transit time. To get there by Monorail take a Monorail from either the Ticket and Transportation Center, Magic Kingdom, or Epcot, and make sure to take one that goes to the hotels. By car you can either drive up to the Magic Kingdom toll plaza and stay to your right where they’ll let you through, or go my preferred way: head towards Fort Wilderness from Epcot Center Drive (you’ll need to exit and get to Bonnet Creek Parkway: follow the signs for Port Orleans Riverside and French Quarter). Take Bonnet Creek Pwky to Vista Boulevard, which leads to World Drive past the toll plaza and all the cars headed to the parking lot. This is a faster and more scenic way to get to all four Magic Kingdom area resorts.

Self parking is included with your reservation. Just let the Cast Member at the entrance booth know you’re dining at the California Grill. I wouldn’t recommend thinking you can leave your car here and go to the Magic Kingdom, though. When we went there didn’t seem to be anyone checking but policies change without warning and a parking ticket from the Mouse is not a good souvenir.

The revamped interior of the Contemporary reflects more modern decor rather than the 70s and 80s designs of the past. This seating area near the front desk and escalators up makes for a nice place to relax before or after your meal.

You’ll be checking in above the lobby check in area, near the Concourse level. Follow the signs to find the host podium. After you check in a Cast Member will send you up the elevator to the top floor. Once there you’ll check in again with another Cast Member before being seated.

The restaurant went through a renovation a short while ago. While we’ve never seen the old look we did like the bright, open design that’s there now. The decor is modern but elements embrace the resort’s 1970s origins. I can imagine it’s lovely at night but during the day you feel bathed in air-conditioned sunshine.

The restaurant’s layout is very open, with a show kitchen on the far side of the dining room. For brunch the jazz trio made their home right where you enter.

Despite the elegance of the place brunch is a casual affair. Some people show up dressed nicely but just as many diners are in shorts and flip-flops. This is about the only time you can eat here dressed like that. While there isn’t a dress code like Victoria and Albert’s you can feel uncomfortable having dinner here in your day clothes from the park.

The atmosphere is competed by a jazz trio. I love jazz in all its forms, but imagine my surprise when I heard the familiar strains of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” West Coast Jazz meets Nirvana? I’m game. It only got better when they played “Blackhole Sun” (RIP Chris Cornell) and “Another One Bites the Dust.” I know at least one table near us also recognized the music and it’s such a kick to hear something so un-Disney for a change.

The Food

When we were seated we were immediately offered a mimosa. Why yes, I will have one, thank you kindly. Our seat had a great view of the dining room and all seats can look out through the floor-to-ceiling windows with views of the Seven Seas Lagoon and the Magic Kingdom.

Brunch is a little different here. There is a sizable buffet (fruit, charcuterie, sushi, make-your-own yogurt parfaits, and more) but you’ll also put in an order for an entrée. The entrées range from breakfast-y to more lunch-like. Busy Bumble opted for shrimp and grits while I ordered the pancakes. Your server will wait until you inform him/her that you’re ready for your entree before putting the order in with the kitchen. This means you can leisurely explore the buffet without your table getting crowded.

You’ll start off with some tender biscuits and breads, but the real star is the buffet. This was probably my second plate: fresh pineapple, some cracker bread, California rolls with real crab meat, brown sugar ham, a little California cheddar, some deviled eggs, and a shot glass of yogurt parfait (Greek yogurt, strawberries with basil, blueberries, and fresh honeycomb).

The food is stellar. This is not popcorn and turkey legs (although those are good too). The sushi was superb. I’m always wary of sushi from somewhere that isn’t Japanese or known for seafood. While I’d heard the sushi was good at dinner I was still skeptical. I come from a metro area with plenty of options for great sushi. Would this compare? I was happy to find the sushi was fresh and flavorful. Busy Bumble and I had sushi in Atlanta that didn’t contain a drop of rice vinegar and it threw us. What was this? Americanized sushi? The California Grill’s sushi had great sushi rice, fresh ingredients and choice condiments (yuzu soy sauce anyone?)

While I don’t have any pictures of our entrées I can report that was because we ate those too fast to take a picture. The shrimp and grits had plump shrimp in a slightly spicy broth full of veggies over creamy grits. My pancakes were fluffy and generously sized (my plate barely contained them). Topped with Maine blueberries, sweet cream butter, and real maple syrup: heaven.

Just when we thought we couldn’t eat any more a dessert tray came out! Tiny cookies and sweets! It was a good thing they were small since I may have overindulged.

You mean there’s more? Our meal ended with vanilla and hazelnut macarons, house-made toffee, linzer tarts, madeleines, and jewel-like truffles: dark chocolate orange, and white chocolate lemon. 

The View

An incomparable view of the Magic Kingdom. This gives you a sense of how big the park and its structures are. In the distance you’ll be able to see some of the Disney University buildings and other backstage buildings inaccessible and unseen by guests.

One of the big draws of the place is the view: it really is something spectacular. You are free to go out onto the viewing deck and have a look. Better yet, you can use your receipt to get access here later in the day so you can watch the fireworks! This is great since dinner reservations are so scarce. Just show your receipt to the host downstairs and you’ll be allowed up. Give yourself some time to get up there and get situated. There are no seats so you may need to elbow your way around to get prime viewing.

A view of Seven Seas Lagoon with the Polynesian and Grand Floridian across the water. Kids love watching the Monorail and ferry boats making their ways back and forth from all destinations.

While the price tag was steep (let’s just say it is in the double digits getting close to triple digits) I would do this again. It was an incredibly relaxing and enjoyable coda to our vacation. Fine food, choice music, singular atmosphere, and exceptional customer service make the California Grill a classic that you need to try at least once.

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