Daffy Stardust’s Rather Incomplete Ranking of Walt Disney World Restaurants
A big part of planning any trip to Walt Disney World is choosing how and where you want to eat. After all, even if you’re in your absolute favorite place with all of your favorite things, eventually you’ll have to put something into your stomach. There are plenty of people who intentionally sidestep making set in stone dining plans on their Walt Disney World trip. These people either only go to whatever counter service spots are nearby or they just take the pressure off and try finding walk-ins at appealing table service locations. They sit at the bar without any qualms and they shrug and move on if there aren’t any seats to be had. But those people are decidedly in the minority, and there are certainly likely to be few of them reading an article like this. Most of us enjoy the planning and the anticipation that goes into our vacation and one thing we’re looking forward to is that well-chosen table service reservation.
After my long Labor Day weekend trip to Walt Disney World I’m still pretty far from having tried all of Walt Disney World’s table service restaurants. There are something like sixty different table service restaurants in the Walt Disney World theme parks and resort hotels. These are places where you either are being served by a member of the wait staff who will bring your food to you at your table or where you get to carry your plate up to a buffet and select your own meal from everything there. These are the restaurants I’ll be covering here. The places where you order at a window and carry your food on a tray while you look for an available table are called counter service restaurants and won’t be included in this list. I’m also leaving out Disney Springs places because there is so much new there that I haven’t had a chance to sample (and it makes my list seem a little less feeble that way). I’ll have more to say at the end of the rankings, but for now here are my personal rankings of the 23 Walt Disney World table service restaurants where I have dined.
1. Tiffins (Animal Kingdom)
As much as I enjoy the dining experiences I have across my varied trips to the vacation kingdom, there is but a small number of these restaurants which I would enthusiastically and repeatedly patronize if they were located in my home town. Tiffins is at the top of that list. My meal there back in April was so delicious and satisfying that there was no doubt about whether I would be returning in September. What was unexpected was the welcome we would receive as return diners at Tiffins. When we arrived at our table, there was a card welcoming us back by name, and once our wonderful meal was complete we were also presented with complementary chocolates in celebration of our return. The meal that came between was nothing short of excellent, with my pan-seared duck breast at least matching the amazingly flavorful 72-hour beef short rib I had during my spring break trip. The service was top-notch and friendly and we left feeling pampered and satisfied. Nothing I’ve had at Walt Disney World at this point matches Tiffins.
2. The Brown Derby (Hollywood Studios)
The Brown Derby pulls off a pretty impressive trick by both fitting in perfectly in the landscape of Hollywood Studios’ theme as the place that “never was and always will be” while also standing out above most of the other dining options in all of the Walt Disney World complex. Unless you’re seated next to a window, only the family wearing crocs and fanny packs in the next banquette might tip you off that you’re in Florida instead of rubbing shoulders with the studio elite. The menu and its execution wouldn’t seem too far out of place in the real thing, and that’s no mistake. The famous Cobb salad, for one, was invented at the original Brown Derby in California and is still a favorite among its diners. I was a pessimist that it would satisfy me, but I found quite the contrary back in April. This only added to the excellent experience I’d had at the Derby back in 2009.
3. Restaurant Marrakesh (Epcot)
Here is a choice that may be controversial in some circles. Restaurant Marrakesh is one of those Epcot eateries where walk-ins are often entirely possible. This is for a couple of reasons. Firstly, its location deep in the rear of the Morocco pavilion puts it out of sight and out of mind. Second, and perhaps more significantly, there is a large portion of the theme park tourist population which is averse to challenging fare and assumes that the menu will be entirely unfriendly to common western tastes. I don’t know about anybody else, but I had perhaps the best Disney meal I ever tasted here a few years ago in their Roast Lamb Meshoui, which was remarkably savory and delicious. The theme in Restaurant Marrakesh is pretty great too, with attractive tiling and luxurious looking appointments and the very special added bonus of entertainment by belly dancer.
4. ‘Ohana (Polynesian Resort)
While I’ve heard reports of ‘Ohana having significant peaks and valleys over the years, there is no doubt that it is one of the most popular and beloved restaurants on property. So much so that it’s kind of hard to believe it didn’t open until 1995. The overall appeal of the Polynesian resort’s pacific theme is in full evidence here and the welcoming family party atmosphere is only heightened by the piles and piles of tasty food that are delivered to your table not long after you arrive. Try not to fill up on the bread and salad that lead off, because lo mein, pork dumplings, and teriyaki wings are soon to follow. The main course is a parade of grilled meats, including steak, chicken and shrimp that are brought out on large skewers and eased off onto your plate in whatever amount you like. Still more room is needed for the delightfully luscious dessert; a banana bread pudding topped with vanilla ice cream and caramel sauce. If that’s not enough, just take advantage of the fancy rum drinks available from the bar and see if you can get seated near the windows if you’ll be there during the fireworks show at the Magic Kingdom. All added up, it’s simply an undeniable vacation dining experience.
5. Be Our Guest (Magic Kingdom)
If you want to eat in the castle from 1991’s Oscar-nominated film Beauty and the Beast, you’ll have to be either very lucky or very persistent. Be Our Guest fills up faster than any other restaurant on property due mostly to its beautiful recreation of the environments from that movie and its prominent place in the Magic Kingdom’s Fantasyland, but I wouldn’t dismiss its food either. While not on the level of either Tiffins or the Brown Derby, Be Our Guest has a variety of appealing dishes which are better than a good percentage of what you’ll find at other Disney table service locations. In my three turns having dinner there, I’ve had three good meals, with the strip steak and pork tenderloin being very satisfying. Be Our Guest is certainly a must-do if you’re only going to Walt Disney World once in your life just for the execution of the theme. After just five years open it’s become an important part of the flagship park.
6. Sanaa (Animal Kingdom Lodge)
Here’s another restaurant that is perhaps underrated due to both its location (at Animal Kingdom Lodge) and its unique menu. Unless you happen to be staying in this resort I can certainly understand how one-time visitors might manage to miss Sanaa. Why spend the time and effort to leave the theme park where other excellent options such as Tiffins and Yak & Yeti are located for a meal that you might not believe is to your tastes anyway? Well, I’ve got two headliner reasons right up front. The beautifully and uniquely decorated dining room is flanked on one side by huge windows that look out on a savannah full of wild African animals such as zebras, giraffes, and finely plumed cranes. That’s not an experience you can find at any of your local dining establishments. Chief among the gastronomic pleasures of Sanaa is the naan bread service you can order brought to the table. If you’re not acquainted with naan…you should change that. While the African/Indian fusion entrees aren’t as interesting or flavorful as what you might find in a larger town, they are plenty good and don’t detract at all from the wonderful strengths Sanaa possesses.
7. The Wave (Contemporary Resort)
If you’re just in the mood for a moderately upscale meal in a modernly appointed spot, then The Wave…of American Flavors just might be your best bet. Unlike most of what’s gone before on this list, there isn’t anything particularly unique in menu or theme to The Wave. But if you want to sample excellent dining in the mid-century modern digs of the Contemporary resort without dropping the kind of change you’d have to part with up at the California Grill, this will definitely fit the bill. Personally, I’m a sucker for the aesthetics of the place. The kitchen uses mostly regionally grown ingredients, but what you get doesn’t remind you of a farmer’s market window. Grab a mixed drink from the bar and order yourself a steak, You’ll start feeling like Don Draper within minutes.
8. Yak & Yeti (Animal Kingdom)
The table service version of Yak & Yeti pushes up into my top 10 based partly on value (a quality it shares with its counter service counterpart). The portion sizes are good and the food merits finishing what you get. There’s a lot to choose from here, with eighteen different entrees divided among four different categories and a variety of dining styles available. Looking for a table-full of eats for a large group? That’s very easy to do at Yak & Yeti thanks to a wide range of Pan-Asian flavors as small plates, “shareables,” and sides along with the sort of entrees that lend themselves to a wandering fork and an extra plate. Probably the biggest strike against Yak & Yeti is that it is located within a short bus ride of Sanaa and in the same park as Tiffins, both of which I would choose first. Still, if you want to go to Rivers of Light on a full stomach, this is a geographically convenient and tasty option.
9. Biergarten (Epcot)
It took me quite some time to finally sample Biergarten, and I think I probably chose a good time of year and day to do so. With my Labor Day weekend trip taking place during the Food & Wine festival when most visitors are sampling from kiosks and my reservation falling prior to six o’clock, the generally popular German buffet wasn’t particularly busy the night I was there. Buffets aren’t always my favorite because I live in fear of trying to navigate my way to the offerings I’m interested in with gobs of meandering folks constantly in my way. It’s only a little better than carrying that tray. That said, I enjoyed Biergarten’s variety of tasty meats and top-notch theme quite a bit. It’s a satisfying choice for the first night of a trip when you’re in a celebratory mood (since it’s always Oktoberfest there) and your stomach isn’t already full from being at Walt Disney World for a day or two.
10. 50s Prime Time Cafe (Hollywood Studios)
Ever hear a Disney parks veteran opine about how the quality of the Jungle Cruise is mostly dependent on how good your specific skipper is? Well, that’s also true to a degree here at the 50s Prime Time Cafe. Don’t get me wrong, theme in general is excellent here. If you have spent any time in the homes of people who were adults during the decade in question you will likely feel like you just walked into one of them. The fixtures, the wallpapers, the tchotchkes, and even the televisions showing old clips from shows like “Father Knows Best” and “I Married Joan” resemble exactly what I remember from the homes of plenty of my older relatives. But the difference in this being a truly memorable experience and just being a fun place with nostalgic decor is in your interactions with the wait staff who are playing your cousin and will insist that you eat all of your greens and keep your elbows off the table. The right server can keep a table in stitches, while an overworked one can be disappointing. The food is good – not great- but I do recommend the Peanut Butter and Jelly milkshake.
11. Les Chefs de France (Epcot)
I’ve eaten here twice. One meal was very good, while the other was a little lackluster and seemed pretty mass-produced. My strongest memory of the place was during its part in the Disney Character Initiative when a tiny animatronic Remy from Ratatouille was wheeled out to our table under a food dome and spent a couple of minutes interacting with our table. It was a fun addition to the dining experience…but unfortunately they no longer do that. Maybe they’ll bring it back once the Ratatouille ride opens in the France pavilion? The mildly disappointing meal we had that second time has stuck in my mind as much as Remy though, and with so many other places to try at Epcot I likely won’t return soon unless someone else I’m traveling with or meeting makes the plan. Still, the chicken dish I had there in 2009 was worthy of a good real world restaurant, so I’d go with my friend with no complaints.
12. Mama Melrose (Hollywood Studios)
I must admit that I’m surprised to find Mama Melrose as high as this. There’s nothing particularly special about either the theme of the place or its menu. I’ve heard it compared to a Ruby Tuesday or an Applebee’s, and those comparisons are not entirely off the mark. What you’re looking at with the decor is a clean, romanticized Disney version of an Italian neighborhood’s local eatery, complete with vines hanging from the rafters and random stuff festooned on the brick walls. Basically the same environment being aimed at by those middle-class chains. I’m put in mind of the restaurant Jennifer Anniston worked at in Office Space. So why place it so high? Well, when it comes down to it, both of the meals I have had here have been solidly good – – and not in a way that me made wonder why it wasn’t better like at so many other Disney restaurants.
13. Liberty Tree Tavern (Magic Kingdom)
Before Be Our Guest showed up in Fantasyland, this was my family’s go-to for a table service meal in the Magic Kingdom. Like the most difficult ADR to get on property, Liberty Tree Tavern has different lunch and dinner menus, with very different resulting experiences. The family style Patriot’s Platter served to everyone at dinner is basically a Thanksgiving meal with turkey, stuffing, and other meats and potatoes. While this same option is available at lunchtime, there are a number of other menu items you can choose, including the thematically sound pot roast or fish and chips. Most memorable is the popular dessert called the Ooey Gooey Toffee Cake. It’s been a while since I ate here, but I remember it as pretty good comfort food in a good location.
14. Kona Cafe (Polynesian Resort)
The tricky thing about judging a restaurant, especially one that has to pump out so many meals both on a nightly basis and over the years, is that there’s always the chance that you’ll get that one disappointing menu item or just catch them on an off night. In my case, it’s entirely possible that the bland steak I had at Kona Cafe was simply a matter of a mediocre piece of meat or individually flubbed preparation. I’d read pretty consistently good things about the steak at the Kona Cafe, so I was looking forward to this meal. While I recognize the role that high or low expectations can play in experiencing something like a movie or a meal, I really don’t think that was the case here. It was a steak. I’ve prepared better steaks in my own kitchen at a decidedly lower price point. On the other hand I’ve also read criticisms of the restaurant’s open floor plan leading to a noisy and distracting dining experience, but for me on that night I appreciated the bustle and activity buzzing past. Everybody else at the table loved their meal, so I’m bumping Kona Cafe much higher than I would if the ranking was based only on my own meal.
15. Nine Dragons (Epcot)
Here is another case in which expectations may have played a part in how I appreciated a Disney restaurant. After years of hearing mostly negative things about Nine Dragons in the China pavilion at Epcot I was pretty convinced that there was no reason to bother with it until I’d eaten at pretty much every other restaurant in the park. Then I read a defense of the place from one of my favorite Disney bloggers and when I was searching for a meal at a pretty specific time there it was with availability and right in my projected touring path too. So I held my breath and made the reservation. I still wasn’t convinced the place wouldn’t be underwhelming, though. After all, my one experience with Epcot’s Chinese counter service spot the Lotus Blossom Cafe, was perhaps the worst Chinese food I’d ever had. But as it turned out, the pork belly dish I ordered (pictured above) was very tasty and filling and didn’t have that mass-produced feel you get at times on property. Have my initial low expectations artificially inflated my opinion of the meal I had? Maybe. But right now this is where I think it belongs.
16. Skipper Canteen (Magic Kingdom)
My rating of the Skipper Canteen in my day 5 vlog from my spring Break trip pretty much sums up my feelings about the one experience I’ve had at the place so far. “Char Sui Pork: C+…Everything else at Skipper Canteen: A.” Unfortunately, the impression I was left with about my entree was that it had definitely been frozen somewhere along the way. None of it was cold or tough or overly chewy…it just had that microwaved quality to it. On the positive side, the jungle cruise theme of the restaurant is fun and appealing and each of the cast members I interacted with was fully invested in the dry humor the management is shooting for and I appreciated it. They all made me smile. I want to try the Skipper Canteen again, because I would love for it to both be good and succeed. It’s in a great location and it’s in a park that is in dire need of more quality table service options. I just won’t order the pork next time.
17. Tutto Italia (Epcot)
On day one of my Spring Break trip I had Tutto Italia scheduled as basically the first thing I would do before beginning my day around Epcot. I had been up since four in the morning and had only eaten enough to keep myself going in anticipation of the heavy dining I’d be participating in over the following week. Everything I ate at Tutto Italia was delicious, but I’m holding a grudge because the portion for my entree was easily a third too small, so it is impossible to not come to the conclusion that the value attached to the place was relatively low. Throw just a couple more chicken medallions on my Scaloppine di Pollo, and the whole restaurant could have jumped way up on this list. Heck, the Mocha Tiramisu I had was quite delectable indeed. Sometimes scrimping doesn’t pay off, Disney.
18. The Plaza (Magic Kingdom)
Okay, so you can probably tell what part of this list we’re getting into here. I don’t have anything particularly negative to say about The Plaza, but there’s nothing particularly remarkable about it either. The interior is attractive and on a purely surface level appears to fit the Main Street vibe perfectly, but I can’t help feeling that a place like this on the real Main Street would be a bit more intimate. Obviously, Disney doesn’t have that option, but that’s none of my business, is it? The Americana target means the menu isn’t very unique or creative, but hey – my club sandwich was pretty good and the citizens of Main street did wander through at one point. If you just want a decent sandwich, but you don’t want to carry that dreaded tray through the minefield of a counter service restaurant, The Plaza might just be what you’re looking for. Reservations are generally easy to get and there’s certainly nothing wrong with spending more time on Main Street.
19. Teppan Edo (Epcot)
Here is one of those situations I mentioned before in which you come out wondering why Disney hadn’t at least matched the appeal of the kind of restaurant they were aping. Disney is known for great immersive theme and showmanship, so this sort of performative dining experience should be right up their alley. Most of us have been to this brand of restaurant before. You sit with a group around a big table-sized griddle and a chef comes out to cook your specially ordered meal of meats, vegetables, and rice right in front of you. The chef flips his forks around. He makes a volcano out of an onion. He flips a piece of food into his own pocket or onto the top of his hat. You have a few drinks and the food tastes great, Everybody goes home happy. I’ve done it several times. This should be a home run. So why was it vaguely disappointing? Why should the final product be less satisfying at Walt Disney World than in a strip mall around the corner? I suspect corner cutting and a lack of imagination are the culprits.
20. Chef Mickey’s (Contemporary Resort)
As I’ve stated elsewhere in this article, sometimes expectations are everything. Although Chef Mickey’s is undoubtedly overrated in some circles, I went into my breakfast experience here with my feet planted firmly on the ground. It’s a Disney breakfast buffet, so the food was bound to be no better than an inch above mediocre. It’s a character meal, so it doesn’t have to be. The aesthetics of the Contemporary resort are pretty hit and miss. Sometimes (like at The Wave) the mid-century modern decor sends you back in time to an age when Walt Disney and other visionaries helped make the United States the swaggering optimist of the modern world and backed it up with quality and innovation. Other times the place looks like a mid-tier airport from the early nineties. Chef Mickey’s is what you think it is. A decent buffet in an iconic Walt Disney World location with character meets featuring the Fab 5. Buy in and you’ll enjoy it. But try not to delude yourself into thinking it’s actually good.
21. San Angel Inn (Epcot)
Look, I’m not going to pretend that I wasn’t reasonably satisfied with the meal I had here back in December of 2012. It wasn’t like most Mexican food I’ve had over the years, but it also wasn’t bad. The environment provided for San Angel Inn is pretty great, too. Indoor/outdoor theming is almost always appealing, and the inside of the Mexico pavilion is generally attractive even if you’re just walking through on your way to visit the Three Caballeros or to get a margarita. In hindsight, however, it’s hard not to find the place lacking when you consider that it’s basically supposed to be Walt Disney World’s answer to the super popular Blue Bayou restaurant at Disneyland where an indoor/outdoor theme watches boats from Pirates of the Caribbean float by instead of those from Gran Fiesta Tour. Then it occurs to you that your meal would have been even better if it had just been average Mexican food like you can get at $12 a head in any American town. It’s hard to mess up tortillas, fried rice, and melted cheese. Sometimes average is great and something else is just average.
22. Sci Fi Dine In (Hollywood Studios)
Here is another place with excellent theming that is undone by purely sloppy or corner cutting food. The theming at Sci Fi Dine In is, in fact, superior. Yes, parties of odd numbers end up with one person sitting on their own with somebody’s backs to them, but as a solo traveler on most occasions that really doesn’t concern me. The nostalgic drive in movie theater showing clips from cheesy B movies of the 50s and 60s gets a big thumbs up from me. Now get me some decent American fast food at an only mildly inflated price and I’ll walk out of here grinning from ear to ear. But that’s not what happens at this place. Somehow they have consistently managed to disappoint diners with pretty low standards. Why does every single sports bar I’ve ever been in make better burgers than the Sci Fi Dine In? How exactly do you manage to fail at making a decent hamburger when you’ve got this great theming to work with? Inexcusable.
23. Crystal Palace (Magic Kingdom)
Maybe I should try this place again. The one time I ate here I had difficulty finding anything on the buffet that I was excited about eating. My relationship with characters was different at the time, too. I didn’t really want them bothering me while I was eating my evening meal and it wasn’t really where I had wanted to eat in the first place. I’m probably being unfair to Crystal Palace, but I can’t imagine a second trip there would make it a revelation. It’s pretty frustrating too, because the building the Crystal Palace is in is truly lovely. I can imagine a fine dining location in this building being an absolute top-shelf experience, but I’m guessing Walt Disney World makes more money with their character meal here. Why bother with making good food if people will pay top dollar for mass-produced fare and an audience with an unknown actor in a furry suit? Oops. There goes 2009 Daffy again.
So that’s my list so far. Obviously, I’ve never eaten at places with great reputations like Victoria and Albert’s, Flying Fish, or California Grill. Some of that has had to do with the price, but I have to admit to being tempted by Flying Fish. If you’re a big Walt Disney World fan then it’s probable that I’ve completely missed out on the charm of one of these places in your opinion. Or maybe I’ve foolishly overrated one of my top choices. I’m open to hearing other thoughts on the subject. In fact, I’m planning on hitting the parks one day over the Christmas holiday. Maybe I can knock out one more restaurant then.
Posted on September 21, 2017, in Animal Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios, Magic Kingdom, theme parks, travel, Walt Disney World and tagged 'Ohana, 50's Prime Time Cafe, Be Our Guest, Biergarten, Brown Derby, Chef Mickey's, Crystal Palace, Disney dining, Kona Cafe, Les Chefs de France, Liberty Tree Tavern, Mama Melrose, Nine Dragons, Restaurant rankings, San Angel Inn, Sci Fi Dine In, Skipper Canteen, Teppan Edo, The Plaza, The Wave, Tiffins, Tutto Italia. Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.