It should be noted that our relationship with California Grill, albeit quite limited, has been a rocky one, and we accept some of the blame for that. We’ve seen the many excellent reviews the Grill gets, but this isn’t one of them. Perhaps it’s because we’re from California.

From the get-go

For Us, the dining experience begins with check-in, and that’s where California Grill is a disconnect—literally—for check-in isn’t even on the same floor: it’s 13 floors down from the 15th floor restaurant that boasts what is undeniably one of the best views on Disney premises (a front row seat on “Expedition Everest” at the Animal Kingdom is a contender, but there isn’t a lot of time to take it all in). There’s only one way to behold the Grill’s stunning panoramic view and that’s to be escorted by a cast member via elevator. On the one hand we can appreciate the air of exclusivity this arrangement commands, but on the other, we don’t appreciate the air of exclusivity. It also doesn’t help that the check-in desk feels more like check-on for an airline than a restaurant, and the only item on the counter is a plaque displaying the dress code. There was a tangible sense that we could be rejected even though we had a reservation.

Our one good experience

Mind you, we’ve only been to the Grill twice, so we’re not drawing on a vast database of experience, but there was a reason our first experience was positive and the second was regrettable: we were only there for cocktails and the view, and we didn’t need a reservation (just proper attire).
Indeed, the view was incredible, and made all the more awesome and memorable for the fantastic lightning show punctuating the skies with bursts of blinding light stemming from craggy claws of lethal current. The Magic Kingdom was lit up before us, with each bright flash adding to the magic of its own illumination. As far as the eye could see was much farther, it turned out, than the World of Disney. And the accompanying martinis well lived up to the view.

Then, four years later…

We’d heard about the Grill’s remodel and asked the server we overheard talking about it what he thought. “It’s very yellow,” was his only comment. Hmmmm. Still, we had our reservation and would soon enough see for ourselves.

The California Grill is a unique space with an open floor plan that wraps around a central core and features a wall of windows that defines the restaurant’s perimeter. This gives the restaurant a cruise-ship feel, which is furthered by its size, which is massive, given it comprises the entire 15th floor.

The centrally located lounge area, directly off the more formal check-in, affords the best view, as it takes in everything from the Polynesian and Grand Floridian Resorts to well past the Magic Kingdom. This is where we should have stayed, especially since the full menu is available in the lounge.

But back to our regularly scheduled reservation…

Our first impression of the remodel was that it made the restaurant look more like one of our trendy home furnishing stores, with its array of identical vases in varying tones and hues displayed on shelves throughout the entire restaurant and modernist yellow barstools creating a distinct motif of California living. Yes, there was a prevailing sense of yellow.

The route to our table took us around the central hub of the restaurant, beginning with the full bar, followed by the sushi bar and culminating in the dessert display behind glass. On the other side of the aisle were the booths, an unusual placement that at first seemed romantic, but quickly seemed oddly exposed to the foot traffic of servers, guests and other cast members.

Our table was located in the center of a small room at the farthest end of the restaurant. We didn’t even get a window seat, which was fine, since what little view there was quickly faded to pitch black as the last of the light drained from the sky. Had we not been staying at the Contemporary Resort, with our very own stunning view of the Magic Kingdom, we would have exchanged our table for one in the “main” room; but we agreed we could afford the sacrifice for those more in need.

Keeping an open mind for a romantic dinner

Even before delivery of our first cocktail, two couples and one party of four refused their table assignation and were led back to the holding tank. We felt somewhat second-class for choosing to stay in what was clearly the least desirable section of the restaurant, but we also believed we could make our experience a romantic one—even without a view. The ambience was at least romantic and the smaller room meant a more intimate setting, particularly as the tables were well spaced and provided a nice feeling of privacy. And also a cocktail would help.

Then we started looking at the menu and our open mind started closing in.
“Name me one thing on the menu that’s California,” Amy demanded of Mark.
“Colorado rack of lamb?” Mark smirked.
“Well, at least it’s grilled.”

From the word go, our waiter clearly wasn’t into us. Possibly, we conjectured, he felt slighted for being given the “small, dark room,” because he was acting very much above his caste as he “graced us” with his expert recommendations. He spoke highly of the Spicy Kazan Roll, and although we voiced our desire for spicy, we opted instead for the Dragon Roll, whose ingredients were more to our liking—and was also described in the menu as “spicy.” Randall didn’t hide his displeasure as he took the order any more than we could hide our disappointment in the Dragon Roll, which was neither spicy nor abundant in the ingredients—like the shrimp tempura—that made us want to order it in the first place.

Our California Bias

We excused the sushi, knowing we could easily recoup our lackluster experience at any one of the excellent sushi options in our neighborhood.

The entree selection was proving even more challenging. Something we take for granted living in California, just a few hops from Santa Monica, is easy access to healthy gourmet faire highlighting organic ingredients and sustainable proteins. Looking at the California Grill menu was making us realize we’re food snobs and the California theme was mostly lost on us.

When Mark asked Randall if the maple-stout glaze on the salmon was very sweet, Randall gushed, “Oh, yessssss,” as if that was the answer Mark was hoping to hear. It wasn’t, and we were quickly realizing how much we weren’t the restaurant’s demographic. Randall considerately presented the option of getting the sweet stout glaze on the side, which enabled Mark to feel comfortable about ordering the Wild Columbia River King Salmon (which, by the way, was not grilled).

Amy’s struggle finally landed her on the gnocchi, which she ordered for its accompaniment of fava beans, chanterelle mushrooms and petite artichokes, which sounded nice and not too heavy. She didn’t even realize she’d ordered the vegetarian entree until Randall again scowled as he took the order.

“Why did Randall look so unhappy when I ordered the gnocchi?” Amy implored, baffled and a bit hurt.
“You ordered the vegetarian dish,” he replied easily.
“So?” Amy wasn’t getting it.
“That’s the least expensive entree you could order.”

“Oh,” Amy was saddened, feeling bad that we were all stuck in a bad relationship and there was nothing we could do about it.
Even worse, our vodka gimlets were odd and we couldn’t put our finger on why. We might have mentioned this to our obsequious waiter, but he was neither attentive nor present, so we pressed on.

But wait, there’s a bright spot!

Fortunately, our MIA waiter had a backup, who was well making up for Randall’s noticeable absence, particularly in the wine department where lay his true passion. He made a few recommendations, explaining how the various selections would specifically complement our different entrees, and further illuminating our appreciation of the pairings. He then brought us each two glasses to sample to help us make a final decision. We were glowing now, finally feeling like we existed and that someone actually cared about the quality of our experience, which in itself elevated the quality of our experience. We were even forgiving the pretentious bread selection with lavender and sea salt.

Thank goodness for the wine and its ambassador, because the entrees were even more disappointing than we were predicting: Amy’s gnocchi was pan-seared to Tootsie Roll doneness, and the “sweet corn nectar” broth that consisted mostly of peas and dark wilted greens seemed a wan and confused attempt at umami. Worse still were the very ingredients that seduced Amy into ordering the dish: the fava beans were dry, there were only two little slivers of chanterelles and the petite artichokes were so petite as to be undetectable. Mark’s salmon was, as he eloquently stated, “okay,” but added it was slightly overcooked to the point of being dry. The saving grace, however, was getting the “stout syrup” on the side, which would have drown the dry salmon in an unbearable sweetness (though no doubt most diners would have preferred the sweet overtone).

We would disappoint Randall one more time by passing on the after-dinner coffee and dessert. He clearly wasn’t having a good day, and without our trying or wanting to, we’d made it worse. Sigh, you can’t win ’em all.

And yet…

Having walked away with a well-defined negativity towards California Grill, we both did extensive searching for people who shared our low opinion. We did not find many. In fact, we are a distinct minority. Amy was determined the divining rod was California: “Maybe everyone who loves it doesn’t live in California,” she postulated. Unfortunately, the raves didn’t include the reviewer’s state of residence, so the theory remains inconclusive.

For Us, the potential for a romantic experience was within reach—we just should have stayed in the lounge: the view is better, the attitude is more laid back, and there’s no pressure to order a full dinner. In a more casual scenario, we likely would have been more entertained by the California theming instead of holding it in a negative light—and same with the menu. Next time, we’ll remember not to make a reservation.