Raise those pinkies high in the air because we’re headed to the 15th floor of Disney’s Contemporary Resort to enjoy brunch at California Grill.
Brunch here is a relatively new addition with the initial announcement arriving last December via the Disney Parks Blog with the brunch itself debuting on February 7th, 2016. It is currently only hosted on Sundays with seating between 10am and 1pm. Reservations are surprisingly difficult to come by, particularly considering that around 11am, the restaurant was maybe half full. But I am told that walkups are often accommodated with the expectation that the earlier you go, the better assuming you’re arriving without reservations in hand. Window tables are also easier to come by earlier in the morning.
The signature restaurant is of course best known for its panoramic views of the Contemporary’s parking lot…I mean Magic Kingdom…particularly around fireworks time.
Those seated near the window may elect to watch the fireworks from their table with the lights dimmed and the music piped into the restaurant.
Those seated elsewhere in the restaurant have the opportunity to head out to one of the two balconies that overlook Cinderella Castle. I mention this because those visiting for the daytime brunch have the opportunity to return to the restaurant that evening to watch the fireworks. Just show your receipt at the podium.
This is the view from the table, which I think I prefer during the day. It’s fun to watch the ferries cross the water and all of the buses pulling in and out of the loop.
If you’re driving, the guard should let you know that valet parking is complimentary for brunch guests. From here, enter through the resort’s main entrance and continue walking past the long check-in/concierge area that will be on your left and take the escalator up to the second floor that will be on your right.
The check-in podium is immediately on your right. Upon checking in, a cast member will take you up to the restaurant in a dedicated elevator.
Brunch is a hybrid buffet/table service experience very much like Palo brunch if you’ve ever visited on a Disney Cruise sailing. I have a review of that experience here, not that it’s really an option if you’re considering Disney World restaurants.
Perhaps most importantly, you will be handed a sparkling wine cocktail or non-alcoholic something or other literally on the way to your table.
And even more importantly, these cocktails are bottomless. And not a begrudging, “I’ll bring you a third mimosa after you’ve sat there empty for ten minutes and you ask me twice.” But, “Here, I noticed you only have a sip or two left let me replace this drink for you without you having to ask.” I should also mention that we are joined by Stan (StanH on the forums) and his wife, Terri, who were nice enough to invite me out for brunch this past Sunday. And Stan can put ’em back. Sometimes I am a little self conscious as I go through drink after drink after drink in quick succession, but Stan was right there with me. Over about 2.5 hours we must have had eight or nine each. And they were pretty good. My idea of a mimosa is just a little bit of orange juice for color and these weren’t far from that with the fruit very nicely masking what can sometimes be a bit of harshness from the initial sip of champagne. They were very easy to drink, unlike some that are mostly juice. Very good.
This is how Disney describes the brunch on their website:
I had a few people asking me if the mimosas were “really bottomless” or that they had read that they “weren’t,” but ours definitely “were” and I think that the “throughout the brunch” wording makes it clear that drinks will be replenished throughout the meal at no additional charge.
Considering Disney’s standard Mimosas are $9.50 each, there is a lot of value for those that arrive with drinks in mind.
The Bloody Mary Bar is not included and drinks will cost you between $15 and $17 depending on your spirit choice:
It’s a pretty wild setup and almost made me wish I could stomach one. But with the amount of food that’s included in the already high price of brunch, having some celery, shrimp, bacon, olives, and cheese sticking out of a huge cocktail seems a bit superfluous. But they are here and if someone in your group is avid about their tomato juice cocktails, they are more than a little Instagram-worthy.
Our server arrived with a pastry board within a minute of being seated. This is a pecan sticky bun, cheddar biscuits, and cranberry scones – all were freshly baked and looked about as good as anything I had seen in recent memory. About half way through brunch I intended to eat “just half” of a cheddar biscuit and after enjoying the very cheesy, delicate, flaky interior shoveled the rest in my mouth in short order. These are bring-a-ziploc-bag-for-the-extras-and-stuff-them-in-your-purse-when-nobody-is-looking good. And they will actually bring you a box to go.
The buffet itself doesn’t offer an overwhelming number of selections, but unlike most buffets, most everything should be appealing.
The House-made Charcuterie is signature-restaurant-quality and includes Napoli Salami, Serrano, Wagyu Sausage, Venison Terrine, Pork Belly Rillettes, Dijon Mustard, Zellwood Pickles, Sweet Onion Jam, and Sweet Drop Peppers, in addition to cheddar, manchego, and blue cheeses, in addition to a couple of bread choices. I’m not sure there’s much use in describing the flavors other than everything we tried was flavorful, fantastic, and could just as easily be served on an $18-$25 charcuterie board at any Disney signature restaurant. And you can eat as much as you want.
Sushi is perhaps a unique buffet offering, but it is part of what California Grill is known for during their dinner service and the rolls are prepared fresh behind the station throughout the morning.
California Rolls with Jumbo Lump Crab Meat. At dinner, eight pieces would run you $24. For dinner, these rolls also include shrimp tempura, which reduces the amount of crab.
Salmon, Tuna, and Hamchi Nigiri. The quality should exceed expectations. This kind of nigiri is typically $4-$6 per piece.
Spicy Tuna Tekka Maki Rolls are unique to brunch and the same high quality that you would expect during dinner.
This is the $26 Spicy Kazan Roll – Crab, Shrimp, Scallops, Tuna, Fireball Sauce from dinner, for example.
I am not historically a deviled eggs person, but living in the “south,” I am starting to come around. These arrive with Crispy Lardons and Spiced Aïoli. Lardon is a fancy way of saying a little strip of bacon, the saltiness of which contrasted nicely with the creaminess of the egg. You should try at least one.
Disney switched out the Kale for Spinach in this salad recently, which also includes pink pearl apples, dried cranberries, and marcona almonds in an apple vinaigrette. It reminded me a lot of the recent addition at Tiffins, which is served with walnuts. The balance between the sweet fruit, salty cheese, and the acidic vinaigrette is tried and true. Another signature-quality salad that would run you about $12 as an appetizer elsewhere.
A Baby Iceberg Wedge Salad with Marinated Tomatoes, Cherrywood Bacon, and Avocado-Ranch Dressing.
The whole wedge thing is a trend that I can’t personally get behind. Ordering a salad is depressing enough without the expectation that I’m going to have to do some work once it arrives. But it’s potentially worth slicing into this one if you’re into pre-11am salad – everything is reliably fresh with the blue cheese, bacon, tomatoes, and red onion combining nicely on top of the crisp lettuce and creamy dressing.
According to Disney, “here’s the fun part – you get the chance to interact with the culinary team in the open show kitchen.” While I suppose you could chat up the people behind the buffet line, nobody really was and I wouldn’t go in expecting to enjoy a lively discussion about everything culinary with the executive chef. You could certainly approach somebody, but it wasn’t something I saw anybody doing. Just a note.
The Fregola Salad, which is similar to couscous, was another highlight and at least “felt” a little more brunch-y than the wedge. Everything was incredibly fresh and the crispiness of the sauteed vegetables contrasted really nicely with the softer, chewier semolina pasta.
I enjoyed the Shrimp Tempura with Orange Drizzle and Mango so much on the first go around that I grabbed two pieces on the second trip through.
It might have been a mistake as it ended up being four very sweet, fruity bites that didn’t enjoy the complexity of several other dishes. Still excellent.
I don’t usually commit the time/energy to consume an entire apple at a buffet, but I appreciated the cup of very fresh strawberries, kiwi, and pineapple that was available.
I was surprised how much I enjoyed the Hardwood-smoked salmon with a variety of accompaniments available.
I was more surprised to see the restaurant’s stockpile of wood to the right of the bar.
Freshly toasted bagels are available should you wish to go in that direction.
A Greek Yogurt Bar closes the buffet offerings. I thought the honeycomb was a nice, upscale touch, in addition to more fresh fruit and the granola. It was a very refreshing couple of bites after some of the heavier charcuterie and nigiri options.
While the buffet portion is not Boma-esque in the number of offerings, everything was fresh, fantastic, and plentiful with the staff constantly replenishing the various bowls, plates, and trays.
But the buffet portion is only about a third of the overall experience. Our server let us know that the entrees take about 20 minutes to prepare and that we should let him know when we were ready to put in our orders. Since debuting in February, the options have remained mostly the same, though the pancakes are seasonal with blueberry and sweet potato varieties prior to the current pumpkin variety. Two keys here are the ability to add butter poached Maine lobster to the Eggs Benedict and the sides at the bottom of the menu.
I ordered the Shrimp and Grits – Gulf White Shrimp with Tillamook Cheddar Grits, spicy Tomato Broth, Espellette-spiced Tomato Ragoût.
The shrimp here were meaty and enjoyed that perfect snap with each bite. The cheesiness of the creamy grits contrasted really nicely with the slightly spicy broth that was enhanced by the peppers in the ragout. This was easily the best Shrimp and Grits that I’ve enjoyed on property (Boatwright’s and Olivia’s come to mind), though the BOATHousE version is still on my short list.
Stan ordered the Eggs Benedict – Two Soft-poached Eggs, Toasted English Muffin, Honey Ham, Classic Hollandaise with Butter-poached Maine Lobster. Each piece of muffin came with a sizable chunk of lobster underneath the buttery hollandaise sauce. Another perfect execution.
And what they look like without lobster.
One side of bacon arrives with a pile of thick slices. I like my bacon to have a bit of chew instead of that burnt crumbliness that’s usually served around property and this was exactly that with just a bit of crispiness on the ends. I definitely recommend trying it, perhaps in addition to the sausage that I regret not trying.
A variety of “sweet minis,” in addition to macarons, toffee, strawberry jam linzer cookies, and a soft lemon cookie in back.
While I don’t think dessert is going to be what brings you to brunch here, it was a fitting end to a wonderful meal. The lemon madeleines, which go nicely with a cup of tea, had a soft exterior that gave way to a vibrant, zesty lemon flavor. The linzer cookies had a nice crunch to them and were sweetened up nicely with the strawberry jam. The truffles packed a lot of flavor into a small package and the meringue in the macarons had a nice chewiness around the sweet filling. But I thought the star of the show was the toffee, which had a decadent caramel flavor along with the creamy chocolate. Everything was outstanding.
One thing that I can’t capture in photos is just how pleasant and relaxing the overall experience was as live music permeated the seating area throughout the meal with the panoramic view behind the duo.
Our server was fantastic and everybody we encountered was authentically pleasant, from the staff to the other guests.
I discussed photography with a gentleman as we made our charcuterie selections and took some photos of a just-engaged couple outside on the balcony. It was basically everything that brunch at Chef Mickey’s is not. Not that there isn’t necessarily a time and a place for Chef Mickey’s, but know that your experience at California Grill should be much quieter and much calmer, while still enjoying an energetic atmosphere. We were there for just over two hours, which I thought was surprising considering it never “felt” like time was passing us by. I really can’t emphasize enough how pleasant it was to be up there. They do a very nice job.
The question everybody always wants answered is, “Is it worth it?” At $80 for adults and $48 for kids ages 3-11 (not age nine like most meals), we are decidedly in special occasion territory here for the majority of people. Those that drink and arrive prepared to eat will obviously find the most value and those returning in the evening for the fireworks view are even better off.
For a bit of a breakdown, if you drink four mimosas at $7.50 each then you’re at $30. I’d consider the unlimited sushi/charcuterie/other stuff to be worth at least $25. The Shrimp and Grits would be small if it was served as an entree at a regular table service meal, so we’ll call it $20 worth plus another $5 for the bacon. That puts us at $80 and we still have dessert to consider, in addition to the intangibles like the live music, fireworks, and the fact that you’re looking out from the 15th floor of the Contemporary. On the other hand, if you don’t like sushi, don’t like charcuterie, don’t drink, and order the pancakes, then you are coming away with far less value.
Here’s the current dinner menu:
You would not need to try very hard to spend $80/person on this menu with an average entree price around $45. Add a glass of the least expensive sparkling wine at $16 and you’re at $61. Split the $18 charcuterie and we add $9 and add a $10 dessert (which you can’t do since the least expensive one is $13) and we’re at $80.
So the brunch is potentially comparable to enjoying dinner here. Whether I’d recommend brunch or dinner is going to go back to what you plan to eat at brunch. Unlimited mimosas is hard to look past, as is the variety offered at the buffet. Those that prefer the romance of the evening and don’t want to get up and down fetching food all morning may prefer dinner. The $80 brunch price may seem high, but you might add up the cost of what you’re planning on ordering at dinner and see where you’re at. Dessert pricing and a drink list are available here: https://disneyworld.disney.go.com/dining/contemporary-resort/california-grill/menus/dinner/.
So yes, I think brunch certainly could be worth your time and money. Or it might not be. It’s certainly a unique experience and one that I have only heard positive things about.
Thanks again to Stan and Terri for the invite. They were back to California Grill for dinner later in their trip and may interject an opinion about what they thought about their experiences, hopefully ignoring how strange I am irl.
Hollywood & Vine is up next. And you might not believe it, but it was actually really good.