Full-Service Dining at the WDW Hollywood Brown DerbyWhen it comes to full-service Disney dining, the experience is as important as the food itself. Atmosphere, castmember interaction, menu, and presentation, are all factors that can elevate a Disney dining experience from very nice to transcendent. We’ve found time and again that excellent food doesn’t necessarily an excellent experience make if it isn’t accompanied by at least some Disney magic. On our last trip to WDW, we had some unexpected highs and some unexpected lows, which were almost always the result of the experience rather than the food—though sometimes, it really is just the food. The following were our experiences. DISCLAIMER: Individual results will likely vary based on timing and taste.

The Highlights

Flying Fish (Boardwalk)

A highlight of every trip—and sometimes twice—Flying Fish always comes through. Fish, seafood, pork, chicken, beef… we’ve had some consistently stand-out meals that have expanded our palettes and opened our minds.

We tend to sit at the bar, where we rarely have to wait for a seat, and always get great personalized service. There’s also bar seating around the open kitchen, but as those are the seats most in demand, it pays to go at the right time, as in, a bit off-hour; or be willing to wait for something to open up.

We ordered every appetizer on the menu, save the cheese platter, and while we enjoyed them all, the Kurobuta Pork Belly was the hands-down winner and as outstanding as last time; and the Mile Zero Shrimp Cocktail was anything but your basic shrimp cocktail: the horseradish aioli added a nice bite in contrast to the elderflower mignonette, and the blood orange oil added just the right hit of citrus.

Flying Fish is one of the few places that will garnish a Hendricks martini with a slice of cucumber, and their wine list and recommendations are always spot on.

Jungle Navigation Co. Ltd. Skipper Canteen (Magic Kingdom)

If you think Skipper Canteen is going to be the restaurant equivalent of the Jungle Cruise ride, you wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. While the menu certainly reflects the same, er… highbrow humor we all know and love from the Cruise, the food is no joke. Seriously.

We booked two reservations for this trip, thinking we’d probably only keep one, but after our first experience we knew we were going back for the second. Our “skipper” proved herself a valued guide (thank you, Dominique!) and everything we ordered, from appetizers to entrees, was bold, flavorful, perfectly cooked, beautifully presented and of exceptional quality. In our two visits—yes, we kept both reservations—we experienced the Baa Baa Berber Lamb Chops, the “Tastes like Chicken” – Because it is!, the Char Siu Pork, the Whole Fried Fish, the Shu Mai (both times), the Falls Family Falafel (which was anything but dry and flavorless chickpea balls!), and Trader Sam’s Head-on Shrimp, which we ordered as an appetizer. So glad we kept both reservations, because there’s too much worth trying on the Skipper Canteen menu and we could only do our best. Not only was the experience itself fun, with an atmosphere and skipper castmembers who kept us engaged without becoming too much of a show, but the food itself was just the adventure we’d hoped for. Mark thoroughly enjoyed watching Amy attack her whole fried fish with zeal, and we both appreciated that for a themed restaurant, we never felt crowded by other tables or rushed through the meal.

Le Chefs de France (Epcot)

Full-Service Dining at Epcot's Le Chefs de France
French restaurants are French restaurants for a reason: the cuisine is meticulous, rich, indulgent verging on decadent, consistent, and a tour de force of culinary technique. Sauces and stocks are often the highlight of a dish, elevating the most simple of proteins to the height of perfection destined to live on as one of your fondest memories of chicken, fish, beef or pork. If this sounds overblown and over the top, that’s because this is what it sounds like when a French restaurant lives up to what we want and expect from a French restaurant. And this is why we return to Le Chefs every time we’re in WDW.

It’s hard to go wrong with anything on the menu—except your pronunciation! We always make a point of lunching here, knowing we can indulge in sumptuous fare—which always starts with Cassolette d’escargots de Bourgogne au beurre persillé (Escargot, a.k.a. snails) and Assiette campagnarde (Charcuterie) along with a well-paired glass of wine, followed by what we know will be two beautiful entrées accompanied by another perfect pairing of wine, followed by cappuccinos and dessert—and still be able to work off at least some of it by dinner. We’ve enjoyed every entrée we’ve ever ordered at Le Chefs, which have included salmon, boeuf, duck, seafood, and the Lasagnes de légumes du soleil à l’huile d’olive au thym (Vegetable Lasagna!).

This is an authentically French experience, from the atmosphere to the menu to the cast members, who are all from various regions in France. We don’t eat like this often, so it’s a real treat to have elegantly prepared French dishes that lives up to expectation without being at Chef Paul prices.

Full-Service Dining at the Animal Kingdom Lodge's JikoJiko – The Cooking Place (Animal Kingdom Lodge)

We love Jiko so much that two years ago we stayed at the Animal Kingdom Lodge just to be able to dine at Jiko without having to take a bus or cab as part of our experience. Now, thanks to Disney’s new Minnie Van service, we could enjoy our dinner reservation without the Disney bus from Animal Kingdom and a cab ride back to our hotel, which is the least Disney thing one can do on a Disney vacation.

We love Jiko this much because there’s nothing like it anywhere else: The atmosphere is poetry, with origami-esque birds appearing to soar across a changing African sky, and beautiful mahogany tables seeming to flow organically through the restaurant-scape; and the food is bold, flavorful and unique to the African continent. It’s also elegant, romantic, refined, and an adventure start to finish. We started with the highly recommended Grilled Wild Boar Tenderloin, served with mealie pap (a creamy South African polenta), chakalaka (a spicy South African tomato relish that is to pap what mustard is to a hot dog), truffle oil, and micro cilantro; and Inguday Tibs in Brik, which reads like an Indian samosa, with mushroom, spinach and cheese wrapped in crispy filo, but this is a Tunisian (North African) dish that has a decidedly sweet and spicy nature as implied by the addition of julienned apples and a colorful and creamy curry vinaigrette. Our entrées of Moroccan Lamb Tagine and Botswana Seswaa-style Beef Short Rib were both melt-in-your-mouth, the-food-dreams-are-made-of delicious. Tip: If you have an adventurous palette, let your Jiko food ambassador know and s/he will guide you to making excellent decisions. Even the desserts are unique, as is the wine list featuring a predominance of South African wines.

In our opinion, Jiko is the most romantic dining experience in all of WDW, with the added bonus that it can be followed with a romantic stroll overlooking the savanna.

The Hollywood Brown Derby (Disney Hollywood Studios)

Full-Service Dining at the WDW Hollywood Brown Derby

When in Hollywood, the Brown Derby is a must if you want a truly authentic taste of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Whether it’s a lunch or a dinner—and you’ll need a reservation for either—the menu reflects the indulgences of the era with a clear nod to the contemporary: Pho and Farro, for example, were certainly never on the the real Brown Derby menu, but these popular and healthy additions are given an old Hollywood twist of sophistication and luxury that don’t detract from the theming or the flavor.

We took the opportunity to enjoy one of the Derby’s signature cocktails, the Cloe Carnard, which was a refreshing riff on a Gin-Gin Mule. Definitely buzz-worthy!

For our appetizers, Amy wanted to maintain ties to the authentic past with the Cobb Salad, which was originated by the original Hollywood Brown Derby in the 1930s. Had she ordered the entrée-sized version, it would have been mixed tableside, true to the Hollywood tradition. Mark ordered the Togarashi-crusted Ahi Tuna which was unabashedly spicy and undeniably delicious.

The Black Grouper and Lobster Cioppino, which Amy ordered, and the Roasted Cheshire Pork Chop that Mark ordered were both beautifully prepared, stunningly plated and brimming with flavor. We were there for lunch, but the portions were dinner-sized. And consistent with all our Brown Derby experiences, the service was impeccable and attentive, and we were expertly advised through every course.

Characteristic of the original, the Derby is a luxury getaway that affords a real sense of privacy and intimacy, whether you’re in a cozy booth or a small table. Soft golden lighting gives everything a romantic glow, day or night, and no matter where you’re seated, you can enjoy guessing at the famous caricatures that decorate the walls. And, depending on when you’re there, you may get to “schmooze” it up with silver-screen celebs as you enjoy classic cocktails and top-notch cuisine. Definitely worth the splurge if you’re planning on a visit to Hollywood.

Full-Service Dining at Epcot's Coral ReefCoral Reef (Epcot)

One compelling reason to eat at Coral Reef—at least once—is for the experience of dining with a wall-sized view into the aquarium of The Seas. Expect to see sharks, rays and sea turtles, along with at least a few scuba-certified park guests as they practice waving at diners as they explore the reef.

The more food-and-drink-worthy reason to eat at the Reef is for an adult-sized adult cocktail and the Charbroiled Octopus appetizer. As for the latter, if you’ve never tried octopus—or have fear and trepidation issues—this is the place to summon your courage and rise above your fear. You will forever think differently about octopus. To the former, Coral Reef makes a darn fine martini: they came fast, chilled, perfectly dry, and perfectly sized.

Shoutout to Dan, our awesome server, who gave great menu advice and we couldn’t have been happier with our orders of Seared Mahi Mahi and the Pan-seared Verlasso Salmon. In both cases the fish was cooked to perfection and the sauces and sides added complexity and flavor without overpowering or becoming too sweet (for those of you who don’t always want a sweet glaze on your fish entree).

Romance-wise, this is more of a family restaurant than an intimate dining experience, but if you keep your focus limited to your mate, the “ocean view,” and the beautiful food and drink you’ve been served, you can make Coral Reef feel like your own personal grotto.

Mizner’s Lounge (Grand Floridian)

Full-Service Dining at the WDW Grand Floridian HotelIf you’re lucky enough to land a seat or a table at the intimate lounge area behind where the Grand Floridian Orchestra plays its lively mix of jazz, dixie, ragtime, and unique arrangements of Disney favorites from the second floor overlooking the picturesque lobby, you can enjoy expert cocktails and a select lounge menu culled from Citricos’ appetizer course and served from the Citricos kitchen.

Tables larger and smaller flank a wall of windows that look out onto the beautiful grounds beyond. This is one of our favorite places to go after a bit of freshening after a long day at the park. The atmosphere is always lively—and the music is always live—whether it’s from the Orchestra playing just on the other side of the bar, or from the pianist playing in the lobby below. A great place to unwind and enjoy a bit of sophisticated—but fun—adult time after being an unadulterated child all day.

Honorable Mentions

Full-Service Dining at Citricos at the Grand Floridian HotelCitricos (Grand Floridian):

A beautiful room in a beautiful hotel, Citricos can always be counted on to deliver high-end fare with an elegant flare.

The menu is a comfortable melding of American favorites with on-trend twists and Tuscan nuance, and the right server can help you make informed decisions, as some entrees and sides are decidedly better than you’d expect from their description—shrimp with feta, for example (for us).

There’s a nice flow to the dining room and a casual elegance with a Mediterranean seaside theme. Being in view of the open kitchen is as engaging—if not more so—as a window looking out at the Grand. And there’s enough space between tables to secure a sense of intimacy. Where we find Citricos consistently lacking is in the personalized service and general Disney love that makes a fine dining experience at WDW a truly special and memorable one. Citricos is rarely that, but the food is reliably delicious.

Full-Service Dining at the Grand Floridian CafeBreakfast at the Grand Floridian Café (The Grand Floridian)

Breakfast without characters is hard to come by in WDW, and as a couple who are serious about breakfast, we do our research. For years, The Grand Café has been our go-to, guaranteed good breakfast. Start with, you’re at the Grand Floridian, the most beautiful of all the Magic Kingdom resort properties. But then, the Café is situated so perfectly as to receive the most beautiful morning light that gives the room a glow and makes the view looking out at the Grand’s pristine landscaping, with the pool and hotel in the distance, a view to the romantic Victorian past. And, starting your Disney day at a table dressed in white linen, with a white linen napkin in your lap, your own carafe of coffee, and a luxuriously tall glass of orange juice, is a great reminder that it is possible to combine the rigors of the park experience with the luxuries of being on vacation at a resort.

Food-wise, everything is very good, if not a bit over-the-top, but then, they want you to know this is luxury food—and why not. Still, the luxury comes more in the form of a trendy twist than in complexity or originality. The Cheesy-Hash Brown Casserole, for example, is no doubt a crowd pleaser: it’s cheesy and creamy and potato—what’s to complain about? But it’s also just rich for the sake of being rich. The Café is very good at rich, but not so much at being flavorful. When Amy’s ham and cheddar cheese omelette was served, she promptly asked what hot sauces were available. Tabasco was all there was. Also, we ordered the regular hash browns (having tried the decadent version the previous year), and again, good, but not great, which is how they’ve been serving them for years.

For the price of a romantic, luxurious resort-hotel breakfast, we always walk away satisfied, happy and ready to get to our magical day in the park.

Disappointments

Full-Service Dining at Boma at the WDW Animal Kingdom LodgeBoma – Flavors of Africa (Animal Kingdom Lodge)

The first time—and only other time—we had breakfast at Boma was three years ago, and we couldn’t stop raving about it: a morning buffet of flavors and textures and combinations of flavors and textures the likes of which we’d never experienced, and all of it accompanied by Boma’s proprietary beverage, Jungle Juice, an unexpectedly quenching fruit juice combination that surprisingly didn’t become cloying or tiresome by the third glass.

We even raved to our Minnie Van driver on the way to our breakfast reservation about how unique the experience was, and how much we enjoyed the authentic flavors and dishes. We would never forget the combination of Mealie Pap with Chakalaka as a breakfast food, nor the Bobotie nor the carving station featuring the most succulent turkey breast and ham that we’d ever had, which became da bomb when accompanied by Boma’s spicy honey mustard or sambal.

But this year, nothing lived up. Now granted, this particular morning could have just been an off morning at Boma, but when you’re only at WDW once a year, and you can’t always repeat the restaurants you’d eaten at the previous year, an off day is all you have to go by. So, based on this year’s experience, we won’t be going back for a Boma breakfast in the near future. Dishes weren’t replenished fast enough, so a few dried chunks of Bobotie lingered in the hot pan for long enough to have to forgo it. The carving station was poorly manned and sometimes not at all, and when Amy finally got served, the ham was gristly and the turkey breast dry. She would have given it a second chance, but the carver was nowhere to be seen and the bowl of the to-die-for honey mustard sauce was empty—and it remained so even 20 minutes later when we finally left. Even the service disappointed. After Edna gave us the quickie rundown of how the buffet was organized and our glasses were filled with Jungle Juice, we never saw her again. Amy had to go fetch the pitcher of Jungle Juice from an unattended station and refill our glasses herself, and worse, our cleared plates from the previous round were left stacked on the chair at the vacated table next to us, so what a pleasant view as a couple other castmembers went about clearing away all evidence of diners from the last service. Yes, we were there for the last breakfast service, but the last service is still a service, and we felt like we’d closed the joint and had outstayed our welcome. Edna was very kind and suddenly interested in our Disney day ahead as she furnished the check. Sorry, Edna, we weren’t a big tip, but we still felt like we’d overpaid.

We both so hope it was just an off day, but the fact remained, this experience left a very bad taste in our mouths as we headed into our day. It was an experience that would need to be redeemed.

Full-Service Dining at the Yachtsmen Steakhouse Yachtsman Steakhouse (The Yacht Club Resort)

We’ve had some our most standout dining experiences at Yachtsman Steakhouse, as well as some of our most memorably delicious steak experiences. We’ve also had some real disappointments. Yet eventually, we’d forgive and go back to what we knew would be a flawless steak experience. Unfortunately, on this last visit, even the steak didn’t quite live up and we left feeling enough was enough—at least for a while.

We would never characterize Yachtsman as having a romantic atmosphere per se, unless you’re lucky enough—or been willing to wait—for the highly sought rotunda room, which offers the most intimate seating options of the entire restaurant. For our romantic dollar, we find the lighting to be more family-friendly than couples-friendly, and the decor a bit more homespun then “beefy.” So that’s all accepted going in. For us, the disappointment started with the serving of our coveted Grey Goose martinis, ordered dry, straight up and with a twist. In the past, they’ve always been shaken and served tableside, from individual chilled shakers, into perfectly chilled glasses. On this trip, after a lengthy wait, we watched our martinis—already in glasses—make at least one stop at another table before being set down in front of us, not chilled, and only half filled. Not a good start.

Perhaps the sad cocktail had already colored our outlook, but the roasted garlic bulb and sweet visalia onion rolls that we’d raved about in the past didn’t seem as sweet, creamy and melt-in-your-mouth fresh. The next downward turn came when we asked for a recommendation on a glass of wine to accompany our meals, and our server proceeded to try to sell us on a $130 bottle of “Kurt Russel” wine, noting we could take whatever we didn’t finish back to our room. At this point, we felt like our server was more interested in the upsell than in listening to his customers. The Charcuterie appetizer we ordered ended up being the best part of the entire meal, but when you’re at a premier steakhouse, the appetizer shouldn’t be the star.

By time our NY Strips arrived, accompanied by the mashed potatoes we remembered as so perfect they were probably sent down by angels from Heaven, we found ourselves treating our meal as if it were just a meal. Our steaks had the perfect sear and were cooked to a perfect medium rare, as ordered; and the mashed potatoes were rich and creamy as expected. But somehow, we just felt an overall lack of that something more—that magic that signifies a standout dining experience at a signature Disney restaurant.

Next year we’ll have a reservation at Epcot’s Le Cellier.

Full-Service Dining at the Wave

The Wave…of American Flavors (Contemporary Resort)

Back when you could get a bowl of chili, a choice of sustainable fish sautéed in a healthy and delicate sauce, or a half an oven-roasted chicken cooked to perfection, The Wave was our go-to place for simple comfort food you could enjoy at the bar. They’ve since made some changes that for us became a deal-breaker: Fish and seafood have taken a backseat to pork and beef (no doubt we’re the minority in our disappointment here), and fresh and light have been replaced by rich and creamy (again, we probably don’t speak for most). And while there are additional choices on the newly added bar menu, we sadly found that the $19 “Signature” burger, for instance, was barely better and hardly bigger than what one can get at the Contempo Café for half the price.

This used to be our mecca for simple yet perfectly prepared fare that could always satisfy after a long day of travel or traversing the park. Now, not so much. And even though they’ve added a buffet option to their breakfast offerings, we found the selection—both from the menu and the buffet—to be sadly limited and only so-so. Moreover, what was once a stylish, unique and whimsical atmosphere now feels more like a diner in need of some TLC. Hopefully The Wave is just going through a transitional phase and will find its way back to a more holistic vision of itself.

Wrap-up

Hopefully our experiences can be of benefit as you make your own WDW plans. Of course, these are just our findings based on our own tastes, and one thing about Disney is it’s always changing. Even a restaurant that falls short one year can impress the next, so no doors are ever closed. For our 2017 roundup of quick service restaurants, click here. Happy dining!