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Sunday, March 17, 2019

disney dining review: thanksgiving dinner at the california grill

Normally, when it comes to WDW dining reviews, it's wise to post your thoughts no more than three months after you pay the bill.  This time, I wanted to wait until we were closer to spring to post my review of Thanksgiving Dinner.  We're approaching the time of year where people with Thanksgiving trips to the Mouse House are looking for recommendations for a special Thanksgiving day dinner.  For most, a traditional Turkey dinner is a must, and many Walt Disney World restaurants will offer a special dinner to accommodate the holiday tradition.  Reviews of these dinners, however, are far and few in between-- leaving many first-time Thanksgiving travelers confused.  I know I was!  Hopefully, dropping this review closer to the ADR booking window will help travelers find their perfect Thanksgiving dinner plans.  Posting this review right now is the direct result of an expert marketing strategy from a highly knowledgeable social media expert and not at all related to the fact that I've had this post sitting in my drafts unfinished since I came home from Orlando four months ago.

Around this time last year, my family was starting to think about our ADRs for our 2018 trip.  During this process, I really wanted to find the "perfect" meal for Thanksgiving dinner.  I wasn't quite sure where to look at first.  I wanted it to be special, and mom was adamant about having turkey.  I really did not want to do Liberty Tree Tavern (Magic Kingdom's all-you-care-to-enjoy traditional American feast), it seemed so basic for Thanksgiving and I've been far less than impressed with the food there in recent years.  Plus, I knew Magic Kingdom would be packed that day.  Having a relaxing meal in the middle of a hectic week was another "must" for our Thanksgiving day plans.  I took to the internet to research restaurants that have served traditional Thanksgiving dinners in the past.  I saw that California Grill had offered Thanksgiving dinner last year, and I was more than thrilled to give it a shot.

Something to note-- CG was the first meal we booked as soon as our 180-day window opened.  The only time left for us was 5:40 PM, so this was a popular meal for Thanksgiving.  I also want to note that while no plans for special Thanksgiving offerings had been formally announced yet, when we booked the meal, it was immediately marked as "Thanksgiving Dinner Reservation," instead of just "Dinner Reservation."

The California Grill is a signature dining experience located at Disney's Contemporary Resort.  The restaurant offers guests the chance to experience the flavors of the Pacific Coast while they indulge in a breathtaking view of Bay Lake and The Magic Kingdom.  True to their namesake, their menu is inspired by the international melting-pot culture of the Golden State.  While the menu changes seasonally, several dishes-- such as the Sonoma Goat Cheese Ravioli-- are staples.

The California Grill piqued my interest in 2016 when they began to offer brunch.  Thanksgiving seemed like the perfect opportunity to bring my family here-- on a normal occasion, I don't think I would have been able to convince them to shell out two dining credits for dinner here.  Because we're on the Disney Dining Plan during most trips, we try to be careful with the restaurants we choose.  California Grill, being a signature experience, requires two dining credits for one meal.  Thankfully, they all were on board with the idea this time around, so I went ahead and booked our Thanksgiving meal for 5:30 in the evening.

The check-in podium for California Grill is actually on the third floor atrium, just underneath Chef Mickey's and the shops at the Contemporary.  Once you get off the monorail, walk past the mural and Bay Lake Gifts.  Take the escalator down one flight and look to your right-- you won't miss it.  

We arrived at around 5:15, and once we checked in, we were immediately brought to the private elevator that takes you upstairs to the restaurant.  We had the intention of sitting at the bar and ordering a drink until our table was ready-- but I was surprised to find out once I stepped off of the elevator that our table was ready.

One of the draws of California Grill is the exceptional view of Cinderella's Castle that the restaurant offers.  It's worth nothing that not every table has a winning view... but the view from ours was the grand prize.  

We were shocked to be right up against the the window closest to the castle, even our seating hostess commented on how amazing the location was.  While California Grill is intimate enough that every table has at least an "okay" view of the action, a view like this certainly made our dinner extra special from the get-go.

Our server was with us shortly.  This evening, our server was Jason from Pittsburgh, PA.  He was fantastic.  He was knowledgeable about all of the menus (there are several at CG) and so hospitable.   We had great conversation with him, and he was never too far from the table.  Service can definitely make or break a signature dining experience, so we really appreciated having such a wonderful server.  

First he brought out the bread service, which was a warm sourdough bread.  It was nice and crisp on the outside, and the bread had that perfect "tang" sourdough is known for.  Rather than butter, the bread is served with a tomato olive oil.

When it comes to bread service at Disney World, it can range from "meh" to "better than the entree."  While we loved our entrees tonight, this was a more unique offering and definitely on the latter end of that scale.  I thought the tomato olive oil was great.  When it comes to bread service, I prefer olive oil to butter anyway, but the tomato gave it a little something special.  It wasn't the highlight of the meal, but we could tell the olive oil was house-made and all of the ingredients were fresh, which was a great note to start the meal on.

If you didn't already know this, California Grill has a very impressive wine menu.  Probably the most extensive in the Resort.  In my eyes, it would have been a sin to walk out of the restaurant without enjoying a glass of wine.  I'm no wine expert (yet), so I told Jason what I was looking for and I let him pick something for me.  He came back with the perfect glass for me, and he was kind enough to write it down for me so that I'd remember it when I got home-- it was a German 2016 Selbach Spatlese Riesling.

I am still dreaming of this wine.  It was light, it was sweet, and didn't have the vinegary aftertaste most white wines carry.  Sorry for the lack of proper wine terminology here-- like I said, I'm no expert.  The only thing I can tell you for sure is that I loved it.

We ordered an appetizer for the table.  Since California Grill is known for their artisan flatbreads, that's exactly what we tried.  The Pepperoni Flatbread is served with house-made pepperoni (they look like meatballs), tomato conserva, and a mix of cheese including fontina, asiago, and parmesan.

Presentation wise, I couldn't have asked for a prettier pizza.  Unfortunately, I didn't like this as much as my family did.  It smelled very strong, which is always a turn-off for me, and it was very oily.  However, it's also worth nothing that while the toppings were oily, the crust underneath stayed nice and crisp!  The crust and house-made pepperoni were both teriffic, but other than that, this was just decent.

For dinner, everyone at the table ordered the Turkey Dinner.  On the menu, it's advertised as a braised leg and thigh served with cornbread dumplings, butter-whipped potatoes, chestnut-truffle sauteed green beans, gravy and cranberry sauce.

The menu somewhat mislead us.  No one got a leg, and it was served with a more traditional serving of plain stuffing rather than a cornbread dumping.  But nobody complained, because this dinner was simply perfect.

I can't sing my praises about this meal enough.  The turkey was moist as chicken, and it had a nice, smokey flavor to it.  The mashed potatoes were very creamy, made with real potatoes, and had this amazing milky aftertaste to them.  The green beans were nice and crisp.  I'm not a fan of canned cranberry sauce, but I was more than impressed with the house-made cranberry jam here, which reminded me of an applesauce with cranberries mixed in it.  The stuffing was probably the best part of the meal, but I may be biased, because I always look forward to stuffing on thanksgiving-- This tasted like a very traditional stuffing, despite the fancy presentation.  I think the presentation lead the stuffing to be cooked more well-done than it usually is, which may have factored into it.

There was nothing I didn't love about this dinner.  Everything was portioned perfectly, and the flavors all came together so divinely.  I can honestly say that this was probably the best meal I've ever had at Walt Disney World.  It was everything we were expecting and more.  

When I was finished with dinner, the rest of my family stayed for dessert, but I went back to the resort-- it had been a long day and I had a really bad headache, so I took the monorail back to the Poly to get some rest.

Personally, I could not have been happier with our Thanksgiving dinner at California Grill.  As a family of four adults (three adults and one adult-ish teen), we always appreciate at least one "nicer" meal at Walt Disney World, and there is perhaps no "nicer" restaurant on property than California Grill.  The signature restaurant is the perfect backdrop for a special occasion, which made it perfect for our Thanksgiving dinner mission.  As far as a Thanksgiving meal goes, it was perfect.  Not only did our dinner cover all the bases of a home-cooked, all-American Thanksgiving meal, the portion size was perfect for each of us and everything on the plate was good-looking, flavorful, and house-made.  Matched with a glass of white wine and a castle in the background, our Thanksgiving at the Contemporary Resort's California Grill was an evening we'll never forget.


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