The Ultimate Disney Dining Guide

Yes, delicious, grown-up dining actually exists at Disney

There are few better places on Earth than Disney World. Disney experiences of carousing with Mickey and Minnie, flying through fantasylands inhabited by pirates and princesses, and trotting the globe in a single day are hard to trump. But when it comes to eating, true food lovers have long been disappointed. Fast-food standbys like chicken fingers and burgers litter the parks and a mountain of sweets from candy apples to churros to mouse-ear-shaped ice cream bars beg snacking. But take heed, Disney’s culinary scene is changing. Celebrity chefs like Wolfgang Puck and Cat Cora have put down roots in places like Downtown Disney and the BoardWalk, while restaurants in Epcot’s pavilions are stepping up their game. These spots, both on- and off-property, have award-winning chefs in their kitchens and are gaining true recognition. In celebration of a burgeoning dining scene in Disney's world, here is our top 10 list. Ready, set, reserve…

EPCOT CENTER

Epcot Center’s signature restaurant is France's Bistro de Paris, which sits in the shadow of the French pavilion’s Eiffel Tower and proves to be the most sought-after park reservation. Thick French accents float on the din at this bi-level eatery dotted with red leather banquettes and champagne chilling in massive silver buckets. White-gloved waiters serve couples and groups a rotating menu of classic dishes like escargot, duck breast, and lamb tenderloin. And if you’re feeling more like steak frites, head downstairs to more casual brasserie, Les Chefs de France.

Though Bistro de Paris is the most popular, it’s Canada’s Le Cellier that delivers the best overall experience. Booked daily, serving lunch and dinner, and modeled after the wine cellars of regal Canadian château-style hotels, this dimly lit steak and chophouse nestled within Canada’s beautiful grounds is everyone’s favorite spot. "I only make reservations here," said the Georgia visitor seated at the table next to me. Eavesdropping diners from Arkansas and Kentucky agreed. The Canadian Cheddar cheese soup is the don’t-miss appetizer, followed by steak, chicken sausage, or Pacific cod. Wash it down with a Moosehead beer, and make sure to save room for the maple crème brûlée. (Photo courtesy of Flickr/MPR529)

Hands down, Mexico’s San Angel Inn wins the award for most atmospheric eatery. Nestled inside the Mexico pavilion, and set against a gorgeous backdrop of "Mayan ruins," an eternal night sky, and a bustling, colorful marketplace complete with hanging lanterns and adobe buildings, diners are transported to the courtyard of a 17th-century Mexican hacienda. Based on the Mexico City restaurant of the same name, San Angel Inn serves menu items from the original like an authentic tortilla soup, rib-eye tacos, and a kick-ass chicken mole poblano. Need to wait out a table? You can head to La Cava del Tequila for some fine tequila and mezcal varieties. Yes, you’re still at Disney.

Within one of Japan’s elaborate blue-roofed pagodas is Teppan Edo, a restaurant that replicates the Teppan-yaki style of Japanese cooking. The sound of sizzling grills permeates the air as skillful chefs with tall white hats flip and twirl knives and ingredients like fresh shellfish, meats, and vegetables, which are then served alongside udon noodles and steamed rice. Sushi is also available, but the reason to come to Teppan Edo is the show. (Photo courtesy of Marie Elena Martinez)

 

DISNEY HOTEL DINING

After logging a couple of days of Epcot dining, some of the restaurants at Disney World hotels merit a look. Todd English’s bluezoo at the Dolphin Resort is a sexy, swank restaurant on the lower level of the hotel. With iridescent blue tiles, a blue-lit bar, and Lucite wall décor that shimmers purple and blue in the evening, the aquatic theme of the space carries over onto the menu. Simple fishes are served grilled, while more complex plates like a miso-glazed black cod, barbecue-rubbed swordfish with clams and shrimp, and a daily special called the "dancing fish" round out starters ranging from chowders to tartares to a raw bar. (Photo courtesy of Marie Elena Martinez)

Il Mulino seems to be taking over the world, and in Disney World, it turns up at the Swan Resort. Riffing off of the original hot spot on Greenwich Village’s West Third  Street in New York City, Il Mulino is a feast for the senses (and stomach) beginning with antipasti — prosciutto, Parmigiano-Reggiano, peppers, calamari, eggplant — and continuing onto massive portions of risotto (don’t miss the langoustine if it’s offered as a special), carbonara, and Bolognese, followed by heaping preparations of chicken, steak, and fish. Where the NYC location is cramped, the Swan’s Il Mulino features a spacious wine bar and lounge.

With their nomination of chef Scott Hunnel at Victoria & Albert’s in The Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, it seems the James Beard Foundation is paying close attention to Disney dining, too. This elevated experience in the crown jewel of Disney’s hotel collection changes nightly and features a six-course prix fixe menu based on seasonal market selections that can be paired with wine. Harpists play soothing music and crystal shimmers in every direction in this formal dining room. Jackets are required for men.

OFF-SITE DINING

The James Beard Foundation has also put its stamp of approval on some of Disney’s off-site dining destinations. The 1999 winner of the James Beard Award for Best Chef Northeast is Melissa Kelly, responsible for the gorgeous, expansive Primo dining room at the JW Marriott Grande Lakes. Warm colors and an open kitchen lend to the inclusive feel of Primo, which originated as a concept in Rockland, Maine. A reliance on local, farm-fresh produce shows in the Mediterranean-style dishes inspired by the coastal regions of Italy, France, and Spain, like warm goat cheese flan, spinach pappardelle alla Bolognese, and pork scaloppini in a sage-infused Madeira jus.

Just next door to the JW Marriott sits the Ritz-Carlton Grand Lakes, and within that temple of luxury awaits Norman’s. Run by Norman Van Aken, a defining force in Florida’s dining scene since the mid-80s, with accolades from everyone from the James Beard Foundation to The New York Times and Gourmet, Norman’s inhabits an airy, marble dining room anchored by a dramatic 12- to 14-person wine table and overlooks the 17th and 18th holes of the property’s golf course. Norman’s serve up the fusion dishes that made him famous; standouts are the yucca-stuffed shrimp with orange mojo, Key West yellowtail in citrus butter sauce, and barbecue veal chop with Thai fried rice. (Photo courtesy of Marie Elena Martinez)

Craving a good steak? Look no further than the ritzy Waldorf Astoria’s Bull & Bear. A spin-off of the New York City original, enhanced by red leather accents and deep wood furnishings, the clubby space is Orlando’s newest culinary hot spot. With a menu heavy on classic cuts, from filet to porterhouse, decadent sides like lemon risotto and cheese-infused potato purée, and a healthy list of starters from wedge salads to oysters, this is Orlando’s best haunt to get your meat on.

Remember, there are ways to save on dining within Disney World. If you’re a guest of a Disney World hotel property, be sure to check out the Disney Dining Plans that can save you money on meals throughout the parks. Another option for Florida residents, Disney Vacation Club members, or Annual Passholders is the Tables in Wonderland program, which entitles members to 20 percent off food and beverage at Walt Disney World Resort restaurants, as well as complimentary parking. 

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