Disney World Restaurant Reviews
BY MIKE WARING – JANUARY 2006
On our most recent trip to Orlando, we decided to try several restaurants we’d never visited before. We also went with tradition with one dinner at Artist Point at Wilderness Lodge. As usual, Artist Point was superb.
The restaurants included Teppanyaki Dining Room in Epcot; Raglan Road at Pleasure Island; Earl of Sandwich at Downtown Disney; Trails End Buffet at Fort Wilderness campground; Boma, the buffet restaurant at Animal Kingdom Lodge and finally, last and certainly least, Rainforest Café at Animal Kingdom.
I wanted to go with an all-buffet theme for this trip, but Mary shot that down. We agree on many things, but buffets are one of the issues on which she’s been intractable over the years. The phrase “all you can eat” does not cause her heart to quicken or her pulse to pound. Indeed, I’ve found her normal reaction, a grimace indicating something like gastrointestinal distress, inexplicable.
Mary believes that buffets usually consist of overcooked dishes that have been sitting too long on steam tables and that the food itself is usually bland. I think she lacks a spirit of adventure, the desire to try new things, and an inability to appreciate the opportunities that abound when food is served in seemingly unlimited quantities and with many forms of starch. So I had to be content with only getting to try two buffets on this trip.
One of the newest dining venues at Walt Disney World, Raglan Road can be found in the Pleasure Island complex. Raglan Road replaces the old jazz club in Pleasure Island. I liked the jazz venue but have to agree it did not seem as well attended as other clubs on the property. And when offered a choice between a mediocre jazz club and an Irish pub, well, it’s not going to be that hard to figure which way I’ll jump.
Raglan Road is an idealized depiction of an Irish pub, if someone built one brand new today so it wasn’t caked with a century’s accumulation of smoke and stale beer. It’s so new and shiny it squeaks. It’s also pretty attractive. There’s the apparently now obligatory gift shop just inside the entrance selling cheesy Irish tzotchkes. Inside the restaurant proper there’s a huge wraparound old-fashioned-looking bar. The restaurant itself is broken up into a number of different seating areas, though the lack of high partitions between the areas mean that the noise level is fairly high. That’s fine by me. I expect a certain noisiness from my pubs.
There is a plethora (I love using that word and try to fit it into as many articles as I can get away with) of seating options at Raglan Road: large and small tables, booths, stools at the bar and my favorite, seating in comfortable wingback chairs, one of the things I love about pubs. The barstools have low backs so they are a little more comfortable then the usual and a bit harder to fall out of. Not that that happens much to me, mind you. Just noting.
Raglan Road is a restaurant that is modeled on a pub, rather than a pub that serves food. The distinction is important as the latter serves food as an adjunct to alcohol, so quality is not always the primary objective. The menu at Raglan Road is based on the cuisine of Kevin Dundon, one of a new breed of Irish chefs who are apparently revolutionizing Irish cooking. Personally I’ve always thought Irish cuisine was fine as it was – who doesn’t like unlimited quantities of potatoes, leeks, and butter?
In any case the menu was certainly interesting and we were somewhat torn over what to order. We eventually settled on the Dalkey Duo for starters. This is basically battered and deep fried cocktail sausages served with a mustard sauce. Now I’m sure you’re sitting there reading this and saying to yourselves, “oh sure, deep fried sausages, really, now how good can that be?” Well, that is, the two or three of you who haven’t yet succumbed to massive arterial blockages. The other 6 billion are probably going something like “ewww, deep fried sausages.” Well, I’m here to tell you, if you can survive the experience without a stomach pumping or a little action with the defibrillator paddles, they’re damn good.
After a starter like that, the entrées were bound to be a little disappointing. I mean – deep fried sausages, man – how can you top that!?! And in my case the entrée was somewhat disappointing. I had Kevin’s Kudos, which supposedly is the signature dish of the aforementioned Irish chef: oven roasted pork loin with an Irish mist glaze served with creamed potato and braised cabbage. I’m not sure what an Irish mist glaze is – the pork loin (or “bacon” as the menu states) was a bit sweet and a bit smokey. I thought it was pleasant, but nothing to write home about. The potatoes were excellent. The cabbage was also quite good, but the portion size was more on the order of a garnish than a side dish. I was quite disappointed as I love braised cabbage. On the other hand, I know my affections for certain dishes aren’t shared by everyone. Though they should be. I demand that everyone like the things I like! No, erase that, it only means less for me, so not a good idea… on with the reviews.
Mary had a fish dish so good that I won’t describe it in depth, because I don’t want you people going there and ordering it so often that it ends up depleting the fishing stocks and causing a collapse in the ecosystem. Or because it was on the menu that evening and I didn’t take notes (possibly distracted by my discovery that they had Boddingtons on tap) and I figured I’d just look it up later on the website. As it happens, there doesn’t appear to be any listing for the dish Mary had. We’ve discussed the possibility that perhaps the pub managers recognized her and gave her a personalized menu with dishes not available to the general public. But then why didn’t I get such a menu? It makes no sense.
In any case, Mary had a fish dish of some sort. It was a firm white fish with a buttery sauce that was almost beyond compare. I think there were leeks too. It was much better than my meal. I spent the evening risking fork impalement by snatching morsels from Mary’s plate. If you see a white fish dish on the menu, I’d order it.
We had pondered just wandering out after we finished dinner and taking in Adventurer’s Club, but while we were dining we had noticed that they were setting up a table near the bar, upon which they were placing many small glasses filled with scotch whiskey. It turned out that our timing was good and they were offering free tastings of Famous Grouse scotch. Mary has a bit of an affinity for scotch that unfortunately I don’t share. I don’t want to imply that she’s a souse or anything. She rarely drinks more than a fifth of whisky a night. And seven or eight beers as chasers. Not nearly the drinker I am, in any case.
We might have passed it by, but it was then that I discovered they had Boddington’s, so I patted Mary on the shoulder, told her to have fun and settled into the bar to sip a pint or two and listen to Irish folk music. I believe we both reached a state of bliss in short order.
If you like pubs (like I like pubs) I think you’ll have a fine time at Raglan Road. The food ranges from passable to quite good. It can be a little pricey, with starters ranging from $9-13, though the higher priced ones are often billed as appetizers for two. Entrees start at $11 and top out at $29 for a ribeye steak. Later in the evening it can become a little loud and there is live music, but for me that’s part of the charm of a pub and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
I have to confess, I’ve actually sometimes wondered why someone didn’t take advantage of the name and title Earl of Sandwich and develop a dining venue around it. Well apparently someone finally has, and it’s the descendants of the original family.
The Earl of Sandwich is a counter service shop specializing in, by a remarkable coincidence, sandwiches. When we visited one weekday at lunch, it was quite busy and one look at the menu explains why. The prices for the sandwiches are $4.95 each. For all of them. Salads are a dollar more. The restaurant was filled with people in business attire since it’s probably the cheapest lunch option in the area by far. And as soon as more people learn about it, it’ll probably be even more crowded.
The sandwiches are good and filling, if not truly exceptional. There’s plenty of choice, starting with the signature hot roast beef sandwich and encompassing chicken, ham, clubs, tuna melts and even the Hawaiian BBQ, consisting of barbeque ham in an unholy combination with pineapple and Swiss cheese. Anyone who eats the last mentioned item deserves to smolder in the gently smoking potholes of heck for not quite an eternity, but a long, long time.
For the price, this is a lunch deal that really can’t be beat – that is, if you don’t mind the crowds and the impersonality of a counter service restaurant. I recommend it highly if you just want a quick and tasty lunch.
Mary and I had probably made at least three reservations at Teppanyaki over the years and yet had never actually eaten there, for one reason or another. I suspect, though she denies it weakly, that we had been diverted primarily because Mary was not a fan of Japanese food. But our trip to Japan a couple of years ago cleared up her misconceptions about Japanese cuisine and she was actually eager this time to try the restaurant out.
That is, until we got a call from my sister the night before we were to visit Teppanyaki, to tell me that my father had passed away. It wasn’t unexpected and he’d been fading for days before peacefully passing, but we were understandably a bit morose. Mary didn’t feel like going out that night, but I reminded her that in the Waring family we have one constant, and that is we never skip a meal unless a civilization-destroying comet crashes into the Earth. That hasn’t happened in a while now (65 million years at last count) and thus I prevailed upon her to accompany me and raise a fork in Dad’s memory.
Upon arriving at the restaurant we were pretty surprised to find it quite crowded, with perhaps 30 or more people waiting for tables. We only waited for 10 minutes before being seated, so our reservation proved quite useful this time. Teppanyaki, for the uninitiated, is basically the same concept as Benihana’s restaurants. Everyone is seated around a large metal grill. You will be sitting with other guests unless your party is around 8 people or so. A cook will come out and prepare the food right on the grill in front of you. Usually there’s a little showmanship involved in flipping the food, cutting the meat and shrimp and seasoning all of the ingredients.
The food is simple and the selections are fairly limited: steak, chicken, shrimp and scallops and combinations thereof. The meals also include grilled vegetables, udon noodles and rice, along with a small salad. You can also order appetizers, primarily sushi. By the way, we learned that you need not feel limited by the sushi offerings that appear on the menu. Just ask to order sushi or sashimi from the sushi bar located in the same building and they’ll be happy to give you an order form.
Overall, the food is lightly seasoned and pretty much as fresh as one can hope for – it’s not going to dry out under a heat lamp for 10 or 15 minutes. If you relish complex sauces or complicated preparations, you will be disappointed. On the other hand you get a little show with your meal and if you like meeting new people it can be a lot of fun. The chef, like at Benihana’s, will exhibit his mastery of sharp implements and salt shakers (don’t ask – go and see) and slice and dice like a late night infomercial.
Such fun doesn’t come cheap. Dinner ranges from $16 for a vegetarian entrée to $30 for the steak and scallop combo. However, everything except drinks is included in the meal so the pain is somewhat mitigated. We both enjoyed the experience and would certainly try it again.
Now we move on to the buffet portion of the evening’s entertainment. The first buffet restaurant was actually Mary’s idea. As I mentioned at the start of this article, Mary is what we buffet fans call a negativist. She starts throwing out rational objections to buffets, like the fact that many foods don’t age well in a steam table, or that other people are picking over the food you’re eating, or how could one person manage to put that many things on a single plate. In short, she frequently takes the fun out of attending buffets.
So this trip, when she recommended we try the Trail’s End buffet at Fort Wilderness campgrounds I was initially suspicious, fearing some sort of trap. But Mary assured me she was serious and that she had gotten a number of emails from readers stating that the buffet there was a good deal and we should try it out.
Surprised by her acquiescence in agreeing to go to one buffet restaurant, I immediately pushed for the all-buffet trip. I extolled the virtues of a Disney World trip devoted totally to buffet restaurants. Alas, Mary hadn’t quite taken leave of her senses as I had hoped, and she refused to go to more than one additional buffet. (And that was only because I offered up Boma in Animal Kingdom Lodge, one of her favorite resorts.)
Because we were booked up almost every evening, we decided to try out Trail’s End for lunch. As it turned out, for the purposes of trying out the restaurant, this was probably the best choice. The restaurant is next door to the Hoop-De-Doo Revue. On first look Trails End is large and commodious. On second look it’s apparent there isn’t nearly as much seating as one would think. A good part of the building is taken up with an attached bar.
All three meals are offered daily. The lunch and dinner menus differ only in that there are several additional offerings for the evening meal. Lunch includes soup of the day, chili, a salad bar, fried chicken, barbecue of the day, sandwiches, pizza and daily Chef’s specials. Dinner has all that and also includes shrimp, hand carved roasts, and a Fresh Catch of the Day. (The menu doesn’t specify if this is seafood or roadkill and we thought it best not to ask.)
In any case, we liked the lunch and think it was pretty good overall. For $13 per person, it’s not dirt cheap but on the other hand for an all-you-can-eat meal at Disney World, that’s a pretty good price. The food quality was decent. I liked the sandwiches and the pizza. Mary was pleased with the venison stew (that day’s Chef’s special) and the salad bar. The food was basic, with nothing especially spicy, but it was well prepared and there was, of course, as much of it as you wanted.
One observation though: we were a bit surprised that there was only one buffet line, considering the size of the place. Also, unlike many buffets, service takes place along one side of the counter only. That means that everyone who is eating there will have to use the same line. Lunch was pretty quiet so this wasn’t a problem, but at dinner it might be frustrating if the place is busy and you only want to get a second helping of something – we imagine the line can get quite packed. If it were us, we would probably eat dinner after the initial rush is over but before the majority of people come back from the parks.
Instead of waiting to get into the restaurant during busy times (and since most people at Fort Wilderness already have their own accommodations) there is also take-out available from Trail’s End. Several options are available, including fried chicken dinners with all the fixings, pizzas, and nachos or wings. Or nachos and wings — a well balanced meal.
Our other buffet on this trip was Boma at the Animal Kingdom Lodge. Besides Artist Point (which is always on our agenda when we visit Orlando), this is the only restaurant on this trip that we had tried before. I had dined at Boma before, but only for breakfast, so dinner was something new. It took some effort to get Mary in the restaurant because she kept veering off towards Jiko, the place next door which is one of her personal favorites. I eventually got her inside and seated, and we finally got a chance to peruse the buffet.
And a nice buffet it was too. There’s pretty much everything you could want and if you’re even slightly adventurous there’s plenty to choose from. Many of the dishes are African-inspired or -influenced, or they’re sitting next to dishes that have spices that might be construed as African in origin. There really isn’t anything that would be too unusual for anyone who has eaten somewhere besides McDonald’s.
I won’t go into the list of things we ate, because it would be too long and because I can’t remember the names of all the dishes. Suffice it to say that there really wasn’t anything I didn’t like and some things that were downright pretty darn good. A basic rundown follows: various breads, six or seven salads including mixed field greens, four or five different soups and stews, six vegetable side dishes (most of which would be acceptable to vegetarians), chicken, steak, seafood and hand carved roasted meats of various types. There’s also the usual stuff for the picky children in all of us, like chicken tenders and mac and cheese. Desserts are also varied and most people will find a number of things that appeal to them.
We liked Boma but it is a bit expensive: $26 for adults and $12 for children. If you aren’t an adventurous eater, we think you could probably do better somewhere else. If you like to try new dishes and you have a hearty appetite, there are definitely worse places to go than Boma.
The last restaurant we tried at Disney World on this trip was definitely our least favorite. Mary is of the opinion that it may be her least favorite in all of Orlando. I’m a little more torn: I think Bongo’s Cuban Café disappointed me more, because I was so looking forward to it. Rainforest Café didn’t disappoint me quite as much since my expectations were much lower when we entered.
We had avoided Rainforest Café in the past because of indifferent reviews and also because we really haven’t been very happy with most theme restaurants like Hard Rock, Planet Hollywood and the like. I’ve always considered them overpriced and the food mediocre at best. The theming is usually over the top and the noise level is usually way too high to enjoy a meal — that is, if the food were actually any good.
In the present case, Rainforest Café did not surprise us in any way. It was much too loud, it was crowded, the décor was distracting and frankly silly, and the food aspired to mediocrity. The wait for a table was not quite as onerous as I feared, but we did have a reservation. (I must give them credit for some efficiency, because this was on a day when the park was fast approaching critical mass. It was a Saturday and a preview for the new ride, Expedition Everest, was underway. The number of people trying to get in to ride Everest was well beyond anything we’ve ever seen at Animal Kingdom in the past.)
We were seated somewhere in the dim recesses of a cave-like room lined with fake foliage and fake Animatronic animals. And water. Lots and lots of water. Too much water. The noise from all the waterfalls attempted mightily to overcome the noise from the fake thunderstorms and fake animals screeching. Tried and failed. The smell of the chlorine misted into the air from all the splashing water was an immediate turn-off for us, as far as appreciating any culinary efforts the kitchen may have attempted. (And failed at, but more on that later.) Seriously though, the aroma of chlorine is so strong in this restaurant that we wonder about the lungs of the wait staff. Prolonged exposure to that much chlorine cannot be good.
We started with something that should have been relatively innocuous and it had a hard time even making that grade. The “Big Blue Crab Delight” (basically crab dip) was bland and only vaguely crabby. I’m much more crabby than the dip was and that’s on one of my rare good days. It was served with stale tortilla chips.
For the main course I had “Nile Shrimp Enbrochette,” which was some sort of shrimp stuffed with crabmeat and cheese, wrapped in bacon, fried and then covered with a gloppy sauce. It was actually unpleasantly rich and I was unable to finish more than half of it. Mary ordered “Maya’s Mixed Grill,” consisting of ribs, chicken and shrimp. The shrimp was the high point of the platter (being average) and the quality went downwards on a death spiral from there, with the ribs mushy and flavorless, the chicken chewy and downright nasty.
We decided to admit defeat at that point and skipped dessert, figuring we just wouldn’t like anything they had to offer. On the other hand, the gift shop was somewhat less noisy and crowded and had a calming influence on me after the meal. Most of the merchandise offerings were less than interesting, so we had no problems making a beeline for the exit without any detours.
Our lunch at Rainforest Café may just possibly be one of the least appealing meals we’ve had on Disney property. Younger folks may like the place better than us old fogeys. (Most kids sitting around us seemed to like it, though Mary describes the whole experience as “the definition of sensory overload.”) I have a hard time imagining that people really enjoy it, but the place is usually packed. If you absolutely have to dine there, we recommend you pick something as simple as possible – maybe a burger. Anytime the cooks have a chance to dress something up, you can pretty much count on the quality going downhill.