California Grill - Black Grouper

*This gluten free dining experience took place in July 2020. It includes information about dairy free options, as well as fish/shellfish, peanut, hazelnut, cabbage, and chicken & turkey allergies.

Dinner at California Grill

California Grill, located at Disney’s Contemporary Resort, recently reopened in July 2020 after the Disney Parks & Resorts closed temporarily due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a restaurant that is typically one we only go to for special occasions or with friends and family who are visiting Disney World.

Our experience visiting the Disney Parks & Resorts this summer has been limited, with only one visit to Disney Springs at dinner at  The BOATHOUSE in June. After some discussion about risk management and seeing what other bloggers and vloggers were posting, we decided to try a late night dinner at California Grill and a visit to the Contemporary Resort in early July. In this review, I’ll highlight not only our meal experience but also how the restaurant handled safety protocols during our visit.

COVID-19 & Reopening Notes

On this particular visit, we made a last minute reservation on the same day that we dined. I used the My Disney Experience app and found that there was a 9:50 p.m. seating, which we decided to book. The app worked as it normally does, and we were able to add in our special dietary needs in the app and alert cast members of our needs when we arrived at the restaurant. We also utilized online restaurant check-in when we arrived at California Grill, which I’ll talk about a bit in our review.

The Contemporary Resort itself featured many mechanisms to provide sanitization, social distancing, and safety for both guests and cast members. All cast members wore facial masks and some cast members also wore protective shields, as well. In addition, there were many portable hand sanitizer stations for guests to use. We also saw cast members regularly cleaning surfaces and restrooms throughout our visit. The resort itself was fairly quiet — making social distancing very easy. The restaurant was a little busier than expected (it turns out it was opening night, but we didn’t realize that until after we made our reservation), but the tables were well spaced out to provide social distancing.

As a note, at the time of writing this review, we have not been back to the Contemporary Resort or other Disney Resorts, so be sure to check with the restaurant and the official Disney World website for additional information about current guidelines and recommendations.

Atmosphere

California Grill has a modern, yet classic theme to it. In some ways, it feels very contemporary but also mid-century modern — all combined in one theme. Both Brandon and I agree that we love the decor in the restaurant (the acoustics, on the other hand, are quite loud — even when the restaurant isn’t that busy).

California Grill - Entrance
Photo Taken by Gluten Free & Dairy Free at WDW

As you can see by this photo, you arrive on third (I think it’s the third!) floor of the Contemporary Resort. There you will fine a subtle but easy to find check-in counter. From there, you will take an elevator up to the top floor of the resort. Though it doesn’t show in this photo very well, there’s actually plexiglass at the check-in area.

California Grill - Mobile Check-In
Photo Taken by Gluten Free & Dairy Free at WDW

When we arrived, the cast member at check-in recommended that we utilize the mobile check-in. It was super easy and can be done all through your My Disney Experience app. Our special dietary needs notes popped right up, and check-in was fast and efficient. We did have to wait quite a while to be seated, and this was primarily due to the socially distanced table spacing and opening night adjustments.

California Grill - Bar Area
Photo Taken by Gluten Free & Dairy Free at WDW

We were seated in the bar/lounge area, which we both weren’t all that thrilled about initially. However, we absolutely loved the seating and actually found the lounge area to be even more socially distanced than the main dining area. It also gave us a great view of the bar area, which is bright and colorful. I so want the barstools featured there!

California Grill - Seating
Photo Taken by Gluten Free & Dairy Free at WDW

Here is a photo of the main dining area during our meal. It was busier than we expected initially, but Disney did a good job of spacing out tables. You can also get a good look at the modern, clean decor of the restaurant.

California Grill - Seating
Photo Taken by Gluten Free & Dairy Free at WDW

We found that the restaurant really cleared out about 15-20 minutes into our meal, and by the end of the meal we were the only guests in the restaurant. It was a very unique experience seeing it so empty!

California Grill - Seating
Photo Taken by Gluten Free & Dairy Free at WDW

No matter where you are in the restaurant, you get amazing views of Disney World. We especially loved seeing the Magic Kingdom in all its glory that evening. At the time of this review, Disney is not currently offering fireworks, but you can see great views of them if you dine at California Grill when they are offered. I also highly recommend going out on the deck, where you can view them too (side note: they had social distance markers outside on the deck for those who chose to go outside for the view and photos).

California Grill - Seating
Photo Taken by Gluten Free & Dairy Free at WDW

Here’s a view of some of the great art and decor in California Grill minus guests!

California Grill - Selfie
Photo Taken by Gluten Free & Dairy Free at WDW

As you can see, our visit by the end of the evening was quite empty. It was a great time for a few photos of the experience.

California Grill - Seating
Photo Taken by Gluten Free & Dairy Free at WDW

A very popular restaurant, you can see just from these photos why so many enjoy California Grill. It certainly is modern yet gives me retro vibes too.

The Food

Like most restaurants at Disney World, California Grill does offer an allergy-friendly menu. We were also told by our server that we could speak with a chef at any time. As far as protocols and offerings, we found the restaurant to be just as accommodating as they are during normal times.

California Grill - Brandon with Menus
Photo Taken by Gluten Free & Dairy Free at WDW

Some of the menus are available online, while we were given a physical allergy-friendly menu. This was disposable, so we actually got to keep these too!

California Grill - Drinks
Photo Taken by Gluten Free & Dairy Free at WDW

Because it had been so long since we’d eaten at a Disney restaurant, we celebrated with a few drinks. I miss the old Contemporary Resort branded swizzle sticks, and this is the first time I’ve ever visited where they didn’t have them. Still, our drinks were great and a nice way to start the meal.

California Grill - Gluten Free & Dairy Free Rolls
Photo Taken by Gluten Free & Dairy Free at WDW

For bread service, I was served Bloomfield Farms allergy-friendly rolls along with extra virgin olive oil, garlic, tomato, and basil. The bread service was both gluten free and dairy free.

This was the first time that I had tried the Bloomfield Farms rolls. I’ve had the buns many times at locations like Three Bridges Bar & Grill and really love them. The rolls were great. They were well-heated, which always makes a big difference. I think I might prefer the Deanna’s Gluten Free brand rolls (also served at Disney) over these, but I think I need to try them a few more times before I can fully decide which I prefer.

The extra virgin olive oil was a nice option — though I will say that I enjoyed it much more than Brandon did (we received separate dishes to avoid cross-contamination). All in all, it was a nice way to start our meal.

California Grill - Bread Service
Item in this photo is NOT gluten free / Photo Taken by Gluten Free & Dairy Free at WDW

Brandon was served the regular bread, which is was a sourdough loaf. He really enjoyed this and said it was a great bread starter.

California Grill - GF Cheese Plate
Photo Taken by Gluten Free & Dairy Free at WDW

For an appetizer, we decided to split the cheese plate. They modified this to be not only gluten free but also nut free for Brandon by serving the nut related accompaniments on the side, which I was told were safe for me and the gluten-filled crackers on the side which were safe for Brandon.

I will say that I skipped the nut accompaniments, as they had a white substance on them — which I guessed was cornstarch but didn’t ask. We had so many dishes to try that skipping them was fine with me that night. But, I always recommend asking questions and speaking to a chef if you’re concerned about a dish or ingredient and special dietary needs.

While I liked the cheese plate, Brandon loved it. We were served, I believe 3 different goat cheeses. If you’re lactose intolerant or can tolerate goat’s milk, this might be a good option. I really enjoyed the fresh peaches, honeycomb, and peach puree that came with the cheese plate too. While it wasn’t my personal favorite cheese plate, it was still quite good, and I appreciated that the restaurant deconstructed the cheese plate so that we both could enjoy safely.

California Grill - Black Grouper
Photo Taken by Gluten Free & Dairy Free at WDW

For my entree, I ordered the Black Grouper with Herb Basmati Rice, Cashew Chutney, Bok Choy, Baby Shiitake, and Kaffir Lime-Coconut Nage. This was marked safe for Egg, Milk, Peanut, and Shellfish Allergies on the allergy-friendly menu. It was modified to be gluten free (I believe the adjustment was gluten free soy sauce instead of regular soy sauce).

Can I just say wow? This was an absolutely stunning entree and one of the best fish dishes that I’ve had out in a restaurant in a very long time. The grouper itself was perfectly cooked, and the accompaniments were just so flavorful and fantastic. I’m a huge fan of Asian inspired dishes, and this was just outstanding. The flavors were so well-balanced too. I would absolutely get this dish again without hesitation. I think it may be the best entree that I’ve ever had at California Grill.

California Grill - Steak
Photo Taken by Gluten Free & Dairy Free at WDW

Brandon decided to get the Oak-Fired Filet of Beef with Aged Gouda Macaroni and Cheese and Roasted Potatoes. Normally, this dish comes with Brussels Sprouts, but because Brandon is allergic to vegetables in the cabbage family, we were able to swap them out for potatoes. This dish is marked safe for Fish/Shellfish, Peanut/Tree Nut, and Soy Allergies on the allergy-friendly menu. It was also made safe for cabbage and chicken & turkey allergies.

Our last visit to California Grill included great theming and company, but both of agreed the food wasn’t as spectacular as we were hoping. This visit, Brandon said his steak was outstanding, so we both got really great dishes. He said it was cooked perfectly and very flavorful.

California Grill - Mac & Cheese
Dish in photo is NOT gluten free / Photo Taken by Gluten Free & Dairy Free at WDW

He was also a big fan of the mac & cheese, and I think this might have been his favorite part of his entree. As you can see, it was very cheesy but also had a nice bread crumb topping too.

California Grill - Potatoes
Photo Taken by Gluten Free & Dairy Free at WDW

He also had roasted potatoes, which he agreed might not have been the best potatoes in the world, but they were very good. This was great to see he could easily swap out sides for his entree so that he could safely enjoy.

California Grill - Cashew Cheesecake
Photo Taken by Gluten Free & Dairy Free at WDW

Brandon decided to skip dessert, but I was tempted by California Grill’s cashew cheesecake. As an aside, I asked if I could get it to-go so that we weren’t keeping the cast members there all night, as we were the last guests in the restaurant. However, our server while she was happy to oblige, she insisted that I eat it there and enjoy. I happily devoured this dessert while Brandon took some photos so that we could leave after I finished my dessert.

The Cashew Cheesecake includes Coffee-Cashew Cheesecake coated in Chocolate Glaze. It is not only gluten free, but it’s also dairy free and vegan too. I have had this before, and it’s a really lovely rich dessert. It’s a great way to experience cheesecake in a totally different way. It’s one I definitely recommend guests to try if they want something rich and decadent to end their meal that’s gluten free and dairy free.

If you want to see more about our experience and our visit to Disney’s Contemporary Resort, check out our vlog on our YouTube channel.

Overall

While California Grill has never been our top signature restaurant on property, we were blown away by the quality of the food and level of service on our recent visit after the restaurant reopened. Both Brandon and I thought our meal was the best we’ve ever had at California Grill. We also really appreciated the restaurant’s commitment to provide a safe and pleasant dining experience during the COVID-19 pandemic. While we probably won’t be back for a while, we had a lovely meal and experience at California Grill.

Have you been to California Grill? What was your experience at this signature dining location?

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