Where to Eat at Disneyland Resort (Part 1)
UPDATED 9/15/2017: Scroll down to Carthay Circle (in California Adventure)
If you like good food and haven’t been to Disneyland Resort (DLR) since it expanded from Disneyland to Disneyland Resort (2001, major upgrade finished in 2012), you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how much better the food has become. Disneyland (DL) and Disney’s California Adventure (DCA) both have a much wider variety of food choices and tastier food than in the past, especially as compared to “typical” amusement park food.
In addition to better food, another exciting change began in 2001: Adults (21+ years old) can buy alcoholic beverages in several restaurants (and other locations) at California Adventure, as well as in Downtown Disney. Before 2001, the only place to buy alcoholic beverages in Disneyland was the super-exclusive Club 33 (where membership openings have a looonnnng waiting list, membership fees are very high, and prices are expensive too). So glad that has changed. More about where to buy alcohol later.
Disneyland Resort dining locations fit into several categories. The explanations below are from the Disney parks website. Sometimes a restaurant will fit in more than one category:(Italics are my further explanations of the Disney website's categories)
Character Dining: Meet Disney Characters during meal times.
Quick Service: Grab a snack or meal (stand in line, give your order to a cashier, and pick up your order at a counter). This also includes restaurants where you pick up your meal selections from a cafeteria-type line.
Casual Dining: Dine in a relaxed atmosphere with table service (a server takes your order at your table and brings your food to the table).
Signature Dining: Delight in a memorable table service experience with culinary masterpieces (more exclusive & expensive table service, often with unique menu items).
Unique and Themed Dining: Relish a creative cuisine in a casual atmosphere (usually table service).
Bars and Lounges: Enjoy a variety of libations, from award-winning wine collections to specialty cocktails, in cozy to lively atmospheres. (alcoholic beverages with food)
Character Dining experiences are customized for children meeting their favorite Disney characters, and you'll see more children at Character Dining experiences than most other dining locations and dining events in the Parks. These meals are expensive (approximately $35 to $60), and parents pay these prices to give their children more time with the characters without the long lines for Meet & Greets that are common elsewhere in the Parks. I don’t recommend Character Dining unless you want eat a meal accompanied by MANY children (or maybe you really, REALLY want to meet Ariel or Mickey or Minnie?). Note that some restaurants have Character Dining at some meals (like Breakfast), and then become regular restaurants for other meals (such as lunch and dinner). Check the Disneyland dining website before you make a reservation for one of these restaurants.
Slightly fewer children (but still a lot!) of children will be dining at Quick Service locations because the service is quick (duh, right?), the menu contains many items that children will like, reservations aren't required because they aren’t needed, and many tables are usually available. Usually you go to the counter, order your food, and it's ready at a nearby counter within minutes.
Generally even fewer families bring their children to Casual Dining restaurants, because eating at these involves table service, which generally takes more time from when you walk in the door to ordering and getting your food, paying your bill, and (finally) getting back on the quest to keep the kids active and happy (rather than sitting quietly). Some Casual Dining locations take reservations.
Signature Dining and Unique/Themed Dining restaurants tend to be slightly more expensive to much more expensive than Quick Service, and slightly to substantially more expensive than Casual Dining, so these generally have fewer and somewhat older children than Quick Service dining, and definitely fewer than Casual and Character Dining. Several of these restaurants take reservations (and encourage them) because the they have a limited number of tables. Without a reservation, you could be waiting 20 to 30 to 45 minutes (or more) to be seated.
You'll generally find the fewest number of children dining at Bars and Lounges. The Bars and Lounges at the DLR hotels and DCA all serve food, and children are allowed to dine at these locations, but few adults bring their children to these.
IMPORTANT! Please notice that the explanations above include the word generally. Most of the restaurants include Kids and Toddler meals on their menus. A Casual Dining restaurant may serve very few items that children like but some parents will take their kids to eat there anyway. With that in mind, and years of trial and error to find quiet and peaceful dining experiences, I recommend the following restaurants for grown-ups at DLR. (I also look at prices and value for your meal in making these recommendations)
Here’s the key to Disney’s price symbols included below and on the Disney Dining web pages (price per person, excluding dessert, beverages, tip and tax):
$ = 14.99 and under
$$ = $15.00 to $34.99
$$$ = $35.00 to $59.99
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR GROWN-UPS
Café Orleans (New Orleans Square) $$ –The Cajun/Creole menu and décor of this Casual Service restaurant takes you to New Orleans without leaving southern California. In this location since 1966, it’s one of the oldest at Disneyland. The menu features items such as N’Awlins Vegetables Ragout (with or without blackened chicken or salmon), the infamous Monte Christo sandwich (with or without meat), New Orleans-style gumbo, entrée salads with pan-seared salmon or blackened chicken, N’awlins style crepes, beignets, espresso, Bananas Foster Crepes and more.
Indoor dining is available, but I prefer the outdoor dining area. It’s a people watching great spot, since it’s next to the walkway along the Rivers of America. Favorite “healthy” menu item: Crescent City Salad with blackened Salmon (dressing on the side). Lunch & Dinner served; reservations strongly encouraged (yes, even for lunch).
Trivia: The espresso machine visible from the indoor dining area is the same one that made this caffeinated brew for Walt Disney himself.
Rancho del Zocolo Restaurante (Frontierland) $ - Quick Service restaurant with indoor and (shaded) outdoor seating available. In true Disney Imagineer style, this restaurant's Spanish-style setting has fountains, Spanish tiles, adobe-looking walls, arches, and blown glass lanterns overhead. After entering the restaurant, diners are directed to various “stations” to select their entrees, then carry them on a tray to the self-serve beverage station, and then to the cashiers. Many of the entrees are prepared or assembled (quickly) while you wait (in just a few minutes last time I ate there). Menu items include traditional tacos of various types, tostadas, chilaquiles, burritos, enchiladas, roasted chicken, and more. Most of the entrees include Mexican rice and refried beans; sautéed vegetables are available as a substitute. Free refills on self-serve soda machine beverages.
Favorite healthy item: Baked fish tacos with Pico de Gallo (tomato salsa) instead of Chipotle-ranch sauce, sauteed vegetables instead of rice & beans. Serves Breakfast (including Mickey Mouse pancakes), lunch and dinner. (Don’t think too long about having breakfast here. Here’s why.) No Reservations accepted here.
According to the Disneyland Resort website: “The literal English translation of Rancho del Zocalo is “Ranch of the Square.” ¿Por qué? The open area at the entrance to Frontierland was once called “El Zocalo,” or “the town square,” making this quick-service cantina the town square ranch.”
Trivia: This restaurant opened as “Casa de Fritos,” in 1955, shortly after the opening of Disneyland. Doritos were invented here (REALLY!) when the restaurant used some surplus tortillas to fry some tortilla chips (without Fritos’ knowledge). The Fritos representative really liked the idea and … the rest is history.
Blue Bayou (New Orleans Square) $$$ - Unique/Themed, Fine Dining (Table Service). You’ll see people enjoying this Cajun/Creole restaurant as you board and disembark from the Pirates of the Caribbean (POC) ride. Yes, it is in the same building as POC and it’s must-do experience…at least once! It’s always twilight at the Blue Bayou, and their menu items are very special. Examples: Filet Mignon, Strip Loin, Surf & Turf, Rack of Lamb, Jambalaya, Seared Salmon, etc. Their menu includes an upgraded Monte Cristo sandwich (compared to the Café Orleans version): it becomes Le Special de Monte Cristo Sandwich, and it comes with Gumbo or house salad, Crème Anglais and berry preserves atop the Monte Cristo, along with a fruit skewer. (At the Café Orleans, the Monte Cristo Sandwich is an ala carte item, with berry puree and powdered sugar). You pay for atmosphere, unique and upscale menu items, and excellent service at the Blue Bayou.
Lunch and dinner. Reservations required 99% of the year.
Disney’s California Adventure
California Adventure definitely raised the dining bar at the Disneyland Resort. Though Disneyland chefs have been creating more adventurous and interesting menus in the last five or so years, one of the restaurants at DCA is very highly rated on Yelp and Trip Advisor. Not as an amusement park restaurant: as a restaurant in Orange County, California. California Adventure has a feature that many grown-ups (21 and over) applaud heartily: Many of the restaurants serve alcoholic beverages! The Pacific Wharf area has a wine margarita stand and a beer truck. I’ve seen many parents that definitely need a glass of wine after a full day (or even halfway through the day) with little ones at the Parks. Even for those of us without children, what a great way to relax during your day at the parks!
Boardwalk Pizza & Pasta (Paradise Pier): $ This Quick Service Italian-style gem (near Silly Symphony Swings) offers delicious pasta, pizza and entree salads, with several shaded dining areas. Many people don't even know where it is, so it's usually quiet. Even some Annual Passholders look puzzled when I suggest it. Enter the restaurant, pick up a tray and head for one of three stations: pizza, pasta or salad. The Five-cheese Ravioli with Pesto and Pine Nuts is sinfully delicious, and the Field Greens Salad is yummy too. Chef Ken has worked at Disneyland Resort for 26 years and is known as a DL trivia buff; but I think he's also a master of combining ingredients. Free refills at the self-serve soda/lemonade/ice tea station. (Fill your water bottle here, too)
Healthy dining tip: order the Chicken Caesar Salad, and ask for the greens and toppings from the Field Greens Salad, minus the cheese and croutons, and then go easy on the salad dressing. Filling and very tasty! (By the way, if you eat gluten-free or have specific food allergies, ask to see their Gluten-free and Allergy-friendly menu. It's equally tempting)
Craft beers on tap, too. Serves lunch and dinner. Dining is outdoors, spread over at least three areas nearby, and it's rarely crowded. Lots of tables shaded by trees and canopy structures.
Various bands play near their outdoor dining area, and the "Navidad" celebration will be here during the Christmas holidays. In 2017, the area is slated to hold many Character Meet and Greets. I'll report back on how that affects this mostly unknown area.
Wine Country Trattoria (Pacific Wharf) $$ - This Casual Dining and Unique/Themed, Table Service restaurant (one of my favorite places) has a Mediterranean feel, with vine-covered trellises on an outdoor patio, serving a variety of Italian dishes, both traditional and creative variations. The menu includes items such as bruschetta, a daily soup, fritto misto, and Caprese salad for starters. They also offer “Pasta Your Way” (choose from 3 pastas and 5 sauces), lasagna, sustainable fish, pressed panini, entrée salads and Italian desserts. Wine pairings are suggested on the menu for each entrée. Glasses of wine, wine flights, and wine by the bottle, as well as craft beers, are also offered. Outdoor dining. Serves lunch and dinner. Reservations highly encouraged.
Favorite Healthy meal: Bruschetta with Soup of the Day or Tuscan Salad with Sauteed Shrimp. A good place to have your birthday lunch (be sure to get a Birthday button at the Chamber of Commerce--near the DCA entrance).
Carthay Circle (Buena Vista Street) $$$ – This Fine/Signature, Table Service, Unique/Themed restaurant offers dining on the second floor of a Unique/Themed building evoking the Golden Age of romantic and glamorous Hollywood. Fascinating historical photos; most glamorous restroom at the resort. Indoor and outdoor seating available. Lunch and dinner, with wine, beer and mixed drinks. Reservations HIGHLY recommended (mostly required). My latest favorite healthy meal: Chilled Soba Salad.
UPDATE September 8, 2017: My friend & I enjoyed a fabulous lunch at Carthay Circle. He ordered the Sesame & Ginger Crusted Salmon; I had the Chilled Soba Noodle Salad. Both were really delicious. I know that TripAdvisor and other sites include reviews about how expensive Carthay Circle is, and yes, it is one of the most expensive restaurants at DLR. However, you aren't just paying for your food. This is a very elegant restaurant in the outside world, complete with waiters in white shirts, ties and jackets (not character costumes), unique furnishings, and impeccable service. The waiters are not rushed and have time to talk (about the restaurant, including fun trivia) to the guests.
Trivia: The building represents the architecture and details of the historic Carthay Circle Theater, where Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs premiered in 1937. A free tour of the Carthay Circle building is offered every day at 10:30 am. (I've done this tour twice. One time three people were on the tour and the other time four. It is really cool to learn about the history that inspired the building, and the cast member points out lots of cool features that reference either the Snow White movie or Walt Disney's early career. Lots of good trivia to amaze your Disney friends--and bore the others.)
Carthay Circle Lounge (Buena Vista Street) $ -- This Lounge, on the ground level of the Carthay Circle building, serves themed mixed drinks, local wines, craft beer, and an interesting menu of small plates/appetizers (“Elegant bar snacks” according to the Disney Dining page) in a glamorous retro-Hollywood setting. Mixed drinks are served in special glasses with specialty ice. Menu items include Tostaditos, Salmon Roll, Flatbread, and other items. 11:30 am to 7:00 pm (perhaps this can be a light lunch or dinner?).
Tangaroa Terrace & Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Bar: $ One of our favorite places to end a DLR day trip (or for an evening break from the crowds). Tangaroa Terrace is a Quick Service restaurant located in the landscaped area between the four towers of the Disneyland Hotel. It shares an L-shaped terrace with, and is in the same building as Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Bar (Table Service, Bars & Lounge dining category). When you sit in the Trader Sam’s area of the outdoor terrace, you can order food from Tangaroa Terrace and drinks from Trader Sam’s bar menu. Trader Sam’s and Tangaroa Terrace are decorated in tropical island decor, including swaying palm trees, tapa cloth lamps, tiki torches, “basket-weave” walls, and the outdoor terrace overlooks the Disneyland Hotel’s "Monorail" swimming pool.
The Tangaroa Terrace's “island style” menu features flatbread pizza, Hawaiian cheeseburgers, and entrée salads, like the Asian chicken salad. Drinks at Trader Sam’s are exotic, “and use intoxicating ambrosial ingredients for his heady brews.” Continuing the Polynesian/Jungle Cruise/Hawaiian theme, many of the drinks are served in Souvenir glassware. Some of the drink names really crack me up: HippopotoMai-Tai, Shrunken Zombie Head, and Tiki Tiki Tiki Tiki Tiki Rum. They also serve an excellent white sangria with tropical accents, as well as non-alcoholic theme drinks and a few appetizers.
Favorite healthy choice: Tangaroa Terrace Salad with sautéed shrimp, and White Sangria.
On many evenings, you can enjoy live Hawaiian music on Trader Sam’s Terrace.
Tangaroa Terrace serves breakfast, lunch and dinner and has a selection of “grab and go” snacks (tropical yogurt parfaits, island-inspired desserts, sandwiches, boxed salads, bottled drinks and more. Usual hours are 7 am to 10:00 pm; check with the hotel for hours on the day you plan to visit.
Trader Sam’s Tiki Room is open 11:30 am to 1:30 am.
Trivia: Tangaroa Terrace is named after the god of the sea in the Enchanted Tiki Room; Trader Sam is the "head" salesman of the Jungle Cruise (You can visit the Tiki Room and the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland).
Grand Californian Hotel
Hearthstone Lounge: $ Bars & Lounges, Table Service. As you might expect from the name, you can sit by the lodge-style fireplace while you enjoy a beverage and a light snack. At breakfast, the menu includes all types of coffee drinks (lattes, espresso, etc.) and pastries. During the rest of the day, you can enjoy a glass of wine, a beer or cocktail, and snacks such as a cheese plate, flatbread or sliders. Serves breakfast in the morning hours and lounge food the rest of the day. (Current hours: 6 am to 1:30 am)
Favorite mostly-healthy choice: Glass of wine with Margherita Flatbread with Grilled Chicken, or Seafood Cocktail.
Whitewater Snacks: Quick Service. $: Listen closely. You might hear the rushing water of the Grizzly River Rapids. After entering the Grand Californian gate from DCA, turn left at the first (outdoor) corridor to reach this secret spot near Grizzly River Rapids (but not in the park). Serves breakfast items such as Mickey waffles, breakfast sandwiches and burritos, cereal or oatmeal and milk and a huge variety of beverages, including coffee and tea. Lunch and dinner items include pizza, burgers, nachos, other sandwiches and bottled beer. Variety of grab-and-go snacks also available. Tip: if you are at the parks with a group—and you can agree on the same food choices [especially at breakfast]—check out WWS’s grocery section. You can get a bag of bagels for the price of two warmed-up bagels. WWS provides convenience food items for guests staying at the Disney Vacation Club’s condo-type rooms at the Grand Californian. Can be a good quiet place to eat, or take your food to a bench in Downtown Disney.
Favorite mostly-healthy choice: Charbroiled Chicken Sandwich with fruit (instead of fries)
Open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
I'll update this post as I try out different entrees and restaurants.