October 2006 Disney World Restaurant Reviews

BY MIKE WARING – JANUARY 2007

During our October 2006 trip to Walt Disney World, our primary focus was on the small bites offered as part of the Food and Wine Festival in Epcot. But all snacks and no meals make Mike a crabby guy, so we decided to visit a couple or three restaurants for sit down type meals. (Although eating while standing up is the natural way of doing things, preferably over a sink if one can arrange that. Now there’s a restaurant concept that would probably make millions – all the place settings would be over a sink with a flat screen TV mounted directly in front so you could watch the game. I’m so gonna be a gillionaire!)

In any case, since we were staying at an Epcot resort we decided to try a couple of places in that area of the property that we’d always wanted to sample. At least, I had always wanted to sample them. Mary was not quite as enthusiastic because two of the restaurants are buffet style (she’s not a fan of buffets, to put it mildly) and one serves German food (another non-starter with Mary). But wait and see below.

On this trip we hit Cape May in the Beach Club resort for their clam bake supper. We also tried Biergarten restaurant in Epcot, something I’ve been meaning to do for a long time. We had a full-service lunch at Liberty Tree Tavern in the Magic Kingdom and made a visit to an old favorite, California Grill in the Contemporary resort. We had lunch at Fulton’s Crab House at Downtown Disney. And finally, after eating much too much over the course of a week and in the mood for something simple, we tried out Beaches and Cream at the Beach Club.

Fulton’s Crab House

On our first day in Orlando we checked out Fulton’s Crab House in Downtown Disney. We actually hadn’t made any dining plans that day, because we had appointments here and there and we decided to grab a bite wherever we happened to be at lunch time. Conveniently enough, that happened to be Downtown Disney. We considered Raglan Road briefly, because our previous visit had been so enjoyable and they do have Boddington’s beer on tap. But it was a hot day and we were in the mood for something a little lighter and cooler.

It was unseasonably hot for October and the thought of chilled seafood and cold beer seemed like a marriage made in heaven. Well, I suppose one could argue that beer and seafood is heavenly any time, even during a blizzard in January. As a matter of fact I will indeed make just such an argument. But it’s time to move on.

I’d never been to Fulton’s before, though Mary had visited once quite a while ago. For the uninitiated, the restaurant is located in an old paddlewheel riverboat anchored in the lake adjacent to Pleasure Island in Downtown Disney. The interior is cool and a bit dark, reminiscent of seafood houses on the East Coast, with lots of wood and brass accents.

After taking the drink orders, our server informed us that the restaurant currently had stone crab claws available, though only on the dinner menu. But as a special favor to us he’d check and see if any might be procured for true connoisseurs of the crab. We are merely amateur connoisseurs of the crustacean but we decided to go for broke. He showed Mary the dinner menu and she approved the selection without giving me any appreciation of the cost. Fortunately, though I had never eaten stone crab claws before, I was aware that they were very expensive and thus somewhat prepared for the sticker shock at the end of the meal.

So be warned, a dish of cold marinated crab claws (which we shared) came to $39. Still I think it was worth it – I’ve always wanted to try stone crab and when the opportunity presented itself I jumped. And I was happy. I know they’re probably not the best stone crab claws in the world but I came away with a satisfied smile. There is a little pain in the tush where my sadly deflated wallet resides, but it was still worth it.

Mary had the lump crab club sandwich because, well, there’s no such thing as too much crab. The sandwich was decent, though Mary, in the interests of watching calories and making room for more crustaceous goodness, picked the crab off the bread and ate it plain. I settled for the Caesar salad and made up the difference in crab claws. The salad was fair, nothing to write home about. Oh wait, I am writing home about it!

Overall, I would have to say that it was an enjoyable place to lunch on a hot and muggy day. I understand that the crowds can be significant at night and table waits in excess of an hour are not uncommon. I would probably not be in the mood for that — the food is decent but pricey.

Cape May Café

We attended the Cape May Café clambake dinner buffet on our first night in the Beach Club Resort. I’d been looking forward to this for some time due to the fact that:

1) it’s a buffet,

2) it was recommended by Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher, the wine writers for the Wall Street Journal who go to Walt Disney World every year,

3) it’s seafood, and

4) it’s a buffet.

Mary didn’t have any bullet points assembled and thus lost out on her proposal, which was apparently to eat an ice cream sundae based dinner. A daring and innovative concept but – no bullet points, so sorry.

The restaurant is situated off the main lobby of the Beach Club and is open to a busy public walkway, so the noise can be considerable. There’s also very little subdivision of the main dining room. The upshot is that it can be quite deafening at the height of the dinner rush. The décor is the same as throughout the Beach Club – kind of an idealized version of New England beach resorts from the turn of the century. White, pale pink and sky blue predominate.

The menu didn’t offer any real surprises. The overall concept is “New England seafood feast” and it delivers pretty well. I would have liked lobster with the buffet, but then I also want Santa to bring me a Harley and we know that isn’t going to happen anytime soon. There are a couple of soups to start: clam chowder, as one would expect, and tomato bisque. Following that are the usual assorted salads, cole slaw and the like.

For the non-seafood lovers there are ribs, carved roast beef, pasta, and spuds — both steamed and mashed — corn on the cob and a veggie medley. On the seafood side are steamed clams, steamed mussels, a sautéed or fried fish du jour and steamed peel and eat shrimp. The kids aren’t left out – they can select from the usual assortment of bland, salty stuff such as mini hot dogs, mac and cheese and chicken fingers.

The desserts at Cape May are unremarkable. There are small individual portions of items like key lime pie, cookies, brownies, chocolate cake, flan, cheesecake and such. I skipped dessert so I’d have room for one last helping of mussels.

Overall, it wasn’t the best seafood I’ve ever had, but it was pretty decent. The mussels and clams are steamed fresh right in the middle of the buffet line, so if you schedule things right you’ll be grabbing the goodies straight from the steaming baskets. I thought it was worth the money and I enjoyed it quite a bit. But then I love clams and mussels. The rest of the items on the buffet are of so-so quality and this made Mary sad because she is allergic to bivalves, so no clams or mussels for her. If you’re not a real fan of seafood and especially clams and mussels, I would recommend giving this restaurant a pass. There are better buffets at Disney World for those who aren’t totally enamored with mussels.

If you do want to go, make sure that you have reservations. This restaurant is quite popular and even with prior reservations we did have to wait around 10 minutes. I would imagine the wait on a typical night without them is probably significant, if you can get in at all.

California Grill

Ahh, the California Grill. It’s been a long time. Actually something like six years to be exact, because the last time we ate at the California Grill was on our honeymoon, and though I had to take my wedding band off to read the inscription, I was able to do the math in my head to figure out we’d been married six years. And they say we guys always forget anniversaries.

One thing had kept us from a return visit over the intervening years and that was the fireworks aficionados. Or as we referred to them — oh, wait, family site, can’t use those particular words. Let’s just say “the rude people.” See, long ago the California Grill had acquired a reputation as the best place to enjoy the fireworks. And it is true that a better place would be hard to find. So every evening as the time for the fireworks approached, the entire restaurant would fill up with people there for only one purpose — to see the fireworks and all else be damned.

So imagine dining on a delectable and fairly expensive meal of California/Asian cuisine, gazing out the huge windows at the lovely view of the Magic Kingdom below, and smack in the middle of it, several dozen people come and cluster around your table, knocking glasses over and such so they can get a view of the fireworks show. The noise level from all those people, most with multiple cranky children in tow, was hard to believe. After a couple of meals ruined by this type of experience, we decided in the future to take our business elsewhere.

Fortunately, there have been some changes since our last visit. The restaurant is still located high atop the Contemporary Resort, and it still has an awesome view of the fireworks over the Magic Kingdom. But now you can actually eat a meal in peace without fear of being trampled by hordes of fireworks fans who aren’t actually dining in the restaurant. There are no visitors allowed in the restaurant now. You have to have a reservation and you have to present yourself to the reception desk on the third floor of the hotel. Once your reservation is confirmed, you will be allowed to go up in the private elevator.

So there are no more lookie loos, which is a nice change in my opinion. Also nice is that you can arrive a little early and zip up to the top to have a drink in the bar. The bar has shrunk considerably from what I remember, because there’s no longer a need to accommodate a couple of hundred people hanging out waiting on the show. Part of what was previously the lounge appears to have been converted into additional seating for restaurant patrons.

We enjoyed a leisurely cocktail while we watched the sunset, which was spectacular. The décor is what I like to refer to as California Pizza Kitchen. If you’ve been to one of those, you’ll be familiar with what the California Grill looks like, though it is considerably more upscale. Our table was finally ready (a little late but no matter) and we were seated against the windows with a really nice view of the Magic Kingdom.

I was actually considering requesting another table more in the middle of the room to avoid the aforementioned trampling, but changed my mind and decided to see what would transpire. And as events proved, it was the right decision. When the fireworks started a few children got up from their tables and went to windows to watch, but they were well behaved and quiet. So we were able to enjoy the show in peace, though there was apparently a problem with the music that night – the fireworks soundtrack is normally piped in, but that evening we didn’t get to hear it.

The menu seems to have survived the intervening years well and has most of the highlights we remembered. There are flatbreads (think very crispy thin crust pizzas), and sushi to start and salads and soups for an appetizer or a first course, depending on how hungry you might be. We both went with sushi which was uniformly excellent.

We both skipped the first course which consisted of a soup, a salad and several appetizers that really sounded quite nice, but we wanted to race directly to the main course. In the future, if it’s still on the menu, I’m sure I could be tempted by the “Peeky Toe” Crab salad or the Sonoma Goat Cheese Ravioli, but alas the digestive system is of finite size. I’m waiting for medical science to get off this kick of curing cancer and start working on really important issues like increasing digestive system capacity.

The main courses include several seafood dishes, one of which was tilefish — something I hadn’t seen before on a menu. There was the obligatory beef course and a pork tenderloin and for Mary, gnocchi with truffles and wild mushrooms. I think that might have been the fastest perusal of a menu I have ever seen in the time I’ve known her: Mary loves truffles. I went with the aforementioned tilefish, which was excellent — a little more excellent than Mary’s dish, since she felt the truffles were understated to the point of being nonexistent.

For wine drinkers, the selection at California Grill is very good. Of course, as one would assume, the focus is on California wines. We had a hard time making a selection but we finally ended up with a bottle that we enjoyed very much. Disney has trained a lot of its wait staff to be sommeliers and most of them are pretty competent at it, but they often lack the depth of knowledge you’d expect from a full-time sommelier. Our waiter was a case in point. We requested that he send over the sommelier and he said it wasn’t necessary, as he was trained as a sommelier. But when we asked some specific questions about certain wines, he had to go and ask someone for advice.

At this point I’d recount the dessert menu, but a funny thing happened on the way to dessert. We didn’t quite get there. Oh, we got the menu and we looked over it, but both of us were kind of in the mood for cheese, and there was nary a hint of cheese or cheese-like products on the menu. We were surprised, having remembered an exceptional cheese plate from our long-ago visit, but this time – nada. I prepared to go with coffee, as sweets are not my usual post meal selection, and Mary was ready to console herself with something from the menu. There were some nice sounding items like Banana and Butterscotch Buzz and a goat cheese cheesecake with strawberries.

When the waiter came to take our order, we commented on our dejection over finding no cheese, and he responded that on the contrary, there was a cheese selection and it was on this separate menu right over here that he hadn’t given us. What?!? (I eventually dropped my plan to request that the manager fire the offending waiter on our way out, but only because the offerings so saturated my palate with cheesy goodness that I felt nothing but contentment and good cheer towards my fellow man.)

Having consumed too much at this point (that darn capacity problem again), we were forced to settle for only three of the cheeses offered instead of the full five. We were thrilled to find they had Humboldt Fog on the menu, something we think may be the single greatest cheese in the world. The cheeses came with the usual accompaniments and made an excellent conclusion to a very good meal.

I would rate our experience at California Grill as “very good” as opposed to “excellent” because although the quality of the food and the setting are outstanding, the service wasn’t outstanding. Our waiter was a little stretched and had a couple too many tables to allow him to devote enough time to each guest.

Along with Citricos, Jiko, and Artist Point, we think California Grill is one of the “big four” of restaurants at Walt Disney World. (We put Victoria and Albert’s in its own category because it really is a different dining experience from the others.) We have sometimes been less than perfectly thrilled at one or another of the big four, but they are consistently the best of the dining options available on property.

Biergarten

Biergarten is one of the few major restaurants in Epcot that we haven’t previously tried. I’ve always been willing to try it because, well, beer and sausage – what’s not to like? But Mary has always tried to inject logic into the proceedings, pointing out that large quantities of beer and sausage in the middle of a hot, muggy day in central Florida are not likely to be well received by the ol’ tum-tum. With all the other restaurants available, it wasn’t actually a bad argument.

But finally the day had come, one that Mary dreaded. We were going to sample the ample offerings of the Biergarten buffet. For one price, unlimited sausage and fixings. Though I don’t think Germans call them fixings. But they should. The only drawback I could discern was that the beer was not similarly unlimited and it really should be, for the sake of symmetry.

The restaurant is set up like a German beer garden (biergarten, get it?) and the seating is all family style, meaning you’ll share a table with others unless your party is big enough to occupy an entire table by itself. No problem, we were seated with a couple who told us they came to the restaurant every time they were at Disney World (to which Mary, sotto voce, asked me “why?”) and they were able to give us the lowdown on what was good and not on the steam tables. One thing that immediately went in my “good” column was the humongous tankard of beer. I could have sat there all day, and probably would have if I tried to finish the entire tankard.

As one might expect, the menu slants somewhat heavily to meat products. There’s sauerbraten, roasted chicken and roasted pork. There are German sausages and bratwurst. (What differentiates the second from the first is something that causes me to wake at night in a cold sweat of confusion.) Something called a beef roulade finishes off the meat offerings. Along with the copious meat, there is an equally copious offering of potatoes – three ways at least by my count. Some salads round out the offerings, including both Wurst salad (sliced hot dogs), which even I wouldn’t touch, and herring salad, which I most assuredly would, to Mary’s abiding distress.

The desserts are the usual buffet offerings – uninspired and not tempting, at least as far as I’m concerned. I tried a bite of Black Forest cake but it just didn’t appeal. Mary tried several items and didn’t get past the first bite of any of them.

While we were eating, the entertainment started up. I could call it a polka band but that would be inaccurate. It’s obvious that the music is a little more authentic than that but I find it easier to think of them as a polka band and leave it there. The music is rollicking and fun and they have audience members join in a mock commemorative German royal wedding of some sort. I really wasn’t paying that much attention because I was trying to see how much of my tankard I could drain before Mary declared she’d had enough and demanded we leave. Still – meal with entertainment – hard to beat if you like that kind of thing.

So overall, I thought it was all right. If you’re a big eater and especially a big eater of German sausages, this could be an attractive venue for you. Me – I could pretty much take it or leave it. The beer was good, the food was mediocre and the entertainment is an acquired taste. It helps if you grew up in areas of the Midwest where lots of Germans settled. For Mary, I’m pretty sure this was close to her idea of what the lowest circle of Hell is like. Buffet food, nay, German buffet food, and polka music. I don’t think she could get out of there fast enough. So I seriously doubt that there will ever be a return trip the Biergarten.

We were able to have lunch at the Biergarten on a walk-in basis with no wait at all, during a busy October day during the Food & Wine Festival. So if all else fails and you don’t have reservations anywhere, this may be an option.

Liberty Tree Tavern

We’ve been working our way through the restaurants in the Magic Kingdom slowly over the last couple of years. It’s no secret that I think that the culinary offerings in the Magic Kingdom are so-so at best. If all you want is a quick burger or turkey leg – sure, no problem. For something a little more substantial and especially more interesting, it wasn’t high on my list.

On this last trip Mary made reservations at the Liberty Tree Tavern for lunch. I agreed because she’s my wife and I have to love and honor her, or she cuts off the beer. Plus I had to write this review and I could just have made something up but then I’d lose the million dollar book contract and well, it’d be all downhill from there, with me eventually fetching up living on the beach in some Third World hellhole, cadging money from Swedish tourists and ?.wow, head rush!

So, enthusiastic about Liberty Tree Tavern I was not. My expectations turned out to be ill-informed and ultimately inaccurate. As it turned out we had a very acceptable meal in the Tavern. The décor is as one would expect, faux New England Colonial with dark wood floors, dark wood beams, dark wood fireplaces, and so on. I thought it did the job without being terribly kitschy. The restaurant is popular, as one might expect, since it’s both air conditioned and a place to sit down and relax on a hot, busy day. I’m not saying you can’t get a table as a walk-in, but the odds are against it.

The menu was a surprise. Oh it had the lame menu item names like William Penn Pasta and Colony Salad. But the offerings were very much a notch above what I expected, like crab cakes on fire roasted corn succotash and pot roast braised in cabernet. We weren’t terribly hungry the day we dined at the Tavern, so we skipped the starters and went straight for the entrees. Mary had the Colony Salad with apples, pecans, smoked cheddar, and grilled chicken tossed with a honey shallot vinaigrette. She pronounced it quite good. I seconded the motion after filching some of the salad while she wasn’t looking.

I had the Pilgrim’s Feast with turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes and gravy. The turkey was actual hand sliced turkey which was moist and flavorful. The mashed potatoes tasted homemade and not reconstituted and even the gravy was good. Overall, it was one of the better turkey dinners I’ve had in a restaurant in quite a while. We finished up the meal with the Butter Griddled Poundcake with ice cream and warm pecan caramel sauce. Mary wasn’t able to give her opinion on the dish as her mouth was full, but I am confident she approved.

I think the Liberty Tree Tavern will go on our list of places to have lunch on Magic Kingdom days, instead of our normal procedure, which involves jumping on the monorail to eat at a resort restaurant. It’s certainly one of the better meals we’ve had in the Magic Kingdom and we would recommend it highly.

Beaches and Cream

On our last night of the trip we were pretty much burned out on big restaurant meals and wanted something simple and fun. Thus we turned to Beaches and Cream in the Beach Club Resort, because we were staying there and because they have ice cream. Unlike my dear wife, I am not a subscriber to the belief that ice cream is the perfect food, equally appropriate for all culinary occasions. But I will confess that on rare occasions, an ice cream sundae does sound inviting. So we found ourselves joining the usual queue for a table.

The drawback with Beaches and Cream is that it was originally designed as a small diner for casual snacks. The popularity of the place far outweighs the amount of seating available, especially since Ariel’s has been closed for a long time and the dining choices for the combined Beach/Yacht Club complex are inadequate. Disney really needs to get another casual dining option installed in the former Ariel’s to handle the load, and soon.

But back to Beaches and Cream. The offerings are pretty much what one would expect from an old time soda fountain: burgers, dogs, chicken sandwiches, that kind of thing. There’s also chili, salad and onion rings available on the side. We recommend getting an order of rings, which are better than the fries supplied with the sandwiches. We both had burgers and they’re perfectly adequate if nothing particularly special. What is special is the ice cream dishes. These run the gamut from single scoop sundaes (which are not on the menu, but we ordered them with no problem) to the Kitchen Sink, which as the name implies is everything and then some. Bring a large family group if you’re going to try and eat that monster.

We each had an ice cream sundae and we enjoyed them a lot. Beaches and Cream does something unusual, or at least so it seems to me, an ice cream novice. They put the sauce both under and on top of the ice cream scoop in the glass. Most places put the ice cream in the dish and then pour the sauce over it. Anyway, I liked the Beaches and Cream method, with sauce on top and on the bottom. The flavors are much better distributed this way.

As I mentioned above, if you’d like an ice cream sundae but don’t want the huge twin scoop version featured on the menu, ask for a single scoop sundae. Although they aren’t listed on the menu, they’ll be happy to dish one up for you. The single scoop is substantial and they do reduce the price vs. the double scoop version.

For a casual meal with an excellent ice cream dessert, you could do worse than Beaches and Cream. Just come armed with the foreknowledge that you’re going to have to wait quite a while for a table.