Often times I’m asked where to go for a special or celebratory vegan dinner at Walt Disney World. California Grill at Disney’s Contemporary Resort is on the short list of restaurants I will recommend for such occasions.
Vegan Disney Food Review: California Grill at the Contemporary Resort
California Grill is one of Walt Disney World’s Signature Dining locations. Signature dining often times means more money, but does a higher cost translate to a better experience? I think this post may convince you that yes it does. EDITORS NOTE: The Plant Based Unplugged menu is currently unavailable at California Grill. See our most recent post for the current vegan options at California Grill.
Disney’s Contemporary Resort is a Magic Kingdom area resort located on the monorail line. The hotel is nestled in between Bay Lake and the Seven Seas Lagoon.
While the exterior of the resort isn’t very “contemporary”, the interior has been refurbished to give it a more modern feel.
When entering the resort from the ground level you will take the escalator up to the second floor check-in area. If arriving via the monorail you will head down the escalator one flight to the second floor.
Check in is required, after which you will be directed to a special elevator with an attendant who will take you up to the restaurant.
As with all signature dining locations across Walt Disney World property there is a dress code. Resort casual attire is required which means no tank tops, swimwear, cut-offs or torn clothing of any kind and gentlemen must remove hats.
Disney’s California Grill Atmosphere
California Grill is located on the top floor of Disney’s Contemporary Resort. This positioning offers guests magnificent views of the entirety of Walt Disney World Resort.
I have caught many a sunset from the restaurant’s lounge area which is first-come first-served and offers the full dinner menu. The restaurant has massive windows with sweeping views of the Magic Kingdom. It’s possible to see the fireworks over Epcot and then Happily Ever After fireworks over the Magic Kingdom in the same evening.
You can watch the Magic Kingdom fireworks from the comfort of your table as the lights are dimmed and the show’s soundtrack is played over the restaurant’s speakers or you can meander outside onto one of four cat walks on either side of the building for a better view.
Guests who dine at Disney’s California Grill early in the evening are welcome to return with their receipt on the same day to watch the fireworks.
As I mentioned before, the restaurant has a full-service bar and lounge (Ray & Clinta are amazing bartenders) which is where I end up dining most often as reservations here can be hard to come by. If you’d like to try this tactic for dining at California Grill, be sure to arrive as soon as the restaurant opens. Once the lounge fills to capacity they will not let any guests up without a confirmed dinner reservation.
If you do have a confirmed reservation (ask to sit with Jess and tell her Amanda says “Hi”) seating options include standalone tables, banquette seating and a small amount of four-seater booths which are situated by the open show kitchen. If you’re uncomfortable seeing meaty dishes coming out I would highly recommend avoiding the booth seating.
Disney’s California Grill Vegan Food Options
I can’t start a post about the vegan food at California Grill without first mentioning the drinks. This is my FAVORITE place for cocktails in all of Walt Disney World.
The restaurant has a bevy of signature cocktails, a craft beer selection and an extensive wine list of varietals by the glass and by the bottle.
Dinner at California Grill will start with complementary bread service. Do not skip this! You’ll receive a small loaf of white bread and a side of the BEST olive oil for dipping. The oil includes tomato, garlic and chives and is out of this world!
As I’m writing this review, I’m checking the MyDisneyExperience app to see if there are any open tables tonight, that’s how good this bread service is.
Most plant based eaters come to the restaurant to experience the “Vegan Unplugged” menu. This special menu offers a four course tasting portion entree for $36. There are eleven savory options on the menu and all of them are completely vegan as-is.
This ends up being a great deal of food, so an appetizer might be a bit much. However, on one occasion, I was dining with a friend and her toddler and after taking a peek at the kid’s menu, I ordered the Grilled Seasonal Vegetable Lettuce Wraps ($5) with Hummus as an appetizer.
These would also make for an affordable bar snack if you were just here for cocktails or doing a monorail crawl, but I digress. Back to the “Vegan Unplugged”.
I’ve seen this menu change with the seasons so your mileage may vary depending upon the ingredients being sourced during the season in which you dine.
Here’s a look at the menu offerings from my last dining experience here in March of 2020.
When ordering you will select four options and they will arrive to your table all at once.
Here’s a closer and more in depth look at each one of the offerings.
The Truffle Selezione Pasta is a medley of pasta with baby carrots, green beans and forest mushrooms in a creamy truffle oil emulsion. It’s a hearty portion size and is both delicious and filling. See the most recent Plant Based Pasta selection currently available.
Next up is the Vegan Pho which is NEW and improved.
Boy oh boy was the Pho an improvement! The broth is totally different now. It used to be a bland tomato fennel broth. Now the dish is rice noodles in a fragrant mushroom broth with jalapeño, cilantro, Thai basil, hoisin and lime.
This third item is the Fried Rice with tiny vegetables. The best part of this offering is the shiitake bacon on top. SO GOOD!
The Vegan Pizza of the moment is a Brussels Sprout Pizza with caramelized onion and fennel, roasted Brussels sprouts, vegan “Stracciatella” and blueberry agrodolce.
In the Spring you might find this Vegan Sonoma County Pizza with spring onion pistou, wild mushrooms, ramps and snap peas. Keep in mind this is a extreme mini pizza. Like three or four bites max.
If you’re not into the Vegan Unplugged option chef just might make you a large scale version of whatever mini pizza is one the menu.
Here’s a look at an entree sized pizza which was topped with red onion jam, red wine poached Asian pears, cracked black pepper and fresh arugula.
Another option on the Vegan Unplugged which can also be prepared full scale instead of three pieces is the Forbidden Roll. This sushi roll is composed of forbidden black rice, marinated shiitake mushrooms, lettuce and pickled mango. It’s topped with fried sweet potato strings and sits on a bed of smoked paprika aioli.
The sixth item you can order is the Vietnamese Meatball Lettuce Cup which took the place of the kafta recently.
This is a small bowl with lettuce, noodles, cucumber, jicama, mango and fresh herbs in a vegan Nuoc Cham sauce.
My absolute FAVORITE item is the Thai Herb Basmati Rice with cashew chutney, bok choy and baby shiitake mushrooms in a kaffir lime coconut nage.
A lighter option is the Pear Salad with poached cranberries, walnut granola and a pear vinaigrette.
Pictured below is the new Minestrone soup. This one looks as if it was the old Pho reimagined. Here we see a tomato fennel broth with the addition of chickpeas, carrots, green beans, tomato conserva and extra virgin olive oil.
The Calzone is new. It was good but we mentioned to the chef that we would have liked to have some marinara sauce for dipping. It was filled with tomato sauce, vegan “Stracciatella”, basil oregano pistou, and tomato conserva.
Edit: On a subsequent visit chef told us that he took our suggestion and added a small cup of marinara to the calzone. Proof that you should always speak up when dining at Walt Disney World restaurants.
The final savory item wasn’t much to look at but the taste was on point. It’s the Creamed Spinach. This dish was composed of ice root spinach, tofu, lemon and plant based cream.
Last but certainly not least, DESSERT! And no, it’s not sorbet, although they do always have a seasonal sorbet here. This one was Pear Sorbet.
No, what I’m talking about is a decadent pile of Lavender Doughnuts that will blow your mind. These deep fried sugar coated pillows of happiness come over a blueberry gin jam with pistachio crumble. I always ask to sub vanilla rice dream or toffuti ice cream for the blueberry “faux-yo” frozen yogurt it comes with. NOTE: This item has been replaced with the vegan Blueberry Doughnuts.
The lavender doughnuts have been off the menu for a few months because the restaurant’s fryer wasn’t functional. I’m happy to report that on our most recent visit the fryer had just been delivered to the resort.
Another option is the Cashew Cheesecake which is a dome of vegan cheesecake made from cashews covered in a dark chocolate ganache with a sprinkling of toasted cashews and fresh berries.
Have I convinced you to give Disney’s California Grill a try yet? The restaurant is open nightly for dinner (except New Year’s Eve where there’s a ticketed event) and brunch on Sundays. Reservations are almost always a must unless you get there right at opening and can snag a table in the lounge or get really lucky and visit on a slow evening.
The vegan food, service, atmosphere and views at California Grill are unparalleled and this restaurant sits up near the top of the list for vegan fine dining in Walt Disney World.
LOOKING FOR VEGAN OPTIONS IN THE THEME PARKS, WATER PARKS AND DISNEY SPRINGS?
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LOOKING FOR VEGAN OPTIONS IN THE WALT DISNEY WORLD RESORT HOTELS?
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