California Grill Re-Imagined

Written by Kevin Yee. Posted in Kevin Yee

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Published on September 10, 2013 at 12:56 am with 21 Comments

After seven months of refurbishment, the California Grill is back with a new menu, subtle decor enhancements, and one Mother of All Parties to kick off the re-launch.

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I was fortunate enough to be selected for the DisneyParks blog meetup at the California Grill this past Sunday–this was a (free) event open in theory to the public, but only 70 folks were chosen from the online registration. The first seventy, that is, and each got to bring a guest. Disclosure: not only did I get free food, I got a swag bag surprise in the form of actual money (more on this later).

First, let’s talk about the restaurant. Seven months of rehab gets you an updated look, with stuff like new fixtures, new booths and tables, and new carpeting. Probably the most significant change was the way the bay windows worked. Previously, the lower section was a real wall, and the windows dominated the top half of the wall. Now, it’s floor-to-ceiling windows, and the effect really is a nice one. This has the air of an exclusive club up here, and it definitely raises the expectations of the patrons.

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By and large, those expectations will be met by the menu. The food available got as thorough a scrubbing as did the decor, and the new menu sparkles from starters to dessert. In fact, the second thing I ate (an appetizer) ended up being my favorite for the night: the three-meat meatballs with picholine olives, herbed rozo, chimichurri, and lavender mint. It’s $15 as an appetizer (it’s not on the entree menu), and even if that means only three meatballs, I will honest to goodness be back to pay for this appetizer, even if I have to eat it at the bar. Some foods are just unreal, the way they activate taste buds in the way only sublime fine dining can.   IMG_9330

We sampled the fish (halibut, I think), duck pate, and the desserts (a chocolate confection more airy than its chocolate-on-chocolate appearance would indicate, as well as a soda float), and found them all satisfactory. The sushi menu was extensive, and we frankly gorged here. While it was expertly assembled, it was “only” competently conceived, if you can follow what I mean by this. In other words, the sushi was great. It just wasn’t transcendental. There was something transcendental about the sushi in the former menu up here; maybe the loss of sushi chef Yoshie had a bigger than anticipated effect. The standout here was the pork belly sushi–something that sounded gross to me on paper, but ended up tasting like char-sui dim sum mixed with a tasty vegetarian-based nigiri roll. Good stuff. It will cost $22 on the menu.

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The other standout – besides the divine meatballs – was the oak fired filet of beef, featuring heirloom tomato risotto, baby vine tomatoes grated to infinitesimal size, petite basil, and tomato butter. To fully grasp the magnitude of my endorsement, consider that I almost never seek out steak or steakhouses, and am just as likely to order ground beef as steak on my burritos. Couple that with my legendary aversion to tomatoes of any kind – never mind mentioned THREE TIMES on the menu – and you’ve got all the makings of a dish I will hate. But it was the special kind of yummy you can’t recreate in your kitchen no matter how perfect your recipe is. I had seconds of this for sure. It will be pricey on the menu, though–$49 as an entree (the paper menu they gave us didn’t indicate the portion size).

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As mentioned earlier, not only did I get free food, I got a swag bag too – a gift upon parting that I didn’t open until out of the elevator and back at the lobby. Inside I found two sweet bread rolls, two paper menus with prices, and a cloth pouch with a $50 Disney gift card.

I was dumbfounded by the gift card at first. Some degree of flummoxation is inevitable when something that unexpected happens to you. This was followed by elation. Fifty dollars? Not only did I get free food, I got outright PAID to be here?

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Not too long after, however, came other emotions. Guilt was first. What had I done to deserve this? And then a kind of moral nagging from deep within my psyche. Was this money meant to ensure a positive review? Not a bribe exactly, but something like payola? That led to confusion. Should I refuse it?

It got me thinking about my role. I’m not media to Disney – they don’t invite me to the press events – but I *do* have something of a microphone/sandbox in the form of this publication. I guess I’m quasi-media. Bloggers are sometimes called “citizen journalists.” Should I act like a journalist? What would a journalist do?

I know some reporters – including at least one food reporter – and the way THEY do business is to hide their affiliation, visit the establishment more than once, pay like everyone else, and then write reviews that way. This model works because there is a whole media machine behind it. It’s not their personal money spent on food; it’s a spending account and the newspaper/magazine/TV station pays for it ultimately.

Bloggers don’t tend to have that kind of disposable income. Nor do people expect that level of objectivity. So maybe I shouldn’t feel guilty about keeping the gift card?

About this point in my musings I read somewhere online that the actual media members had received similar swag bags in THEIR evening at the California Grill, a few nights earlier, complete with those same $50 gift cards. That cleared up my confusion at least. If the media was getting actively paid, surely I should allow myself to accept the gift card with no reservations.

Disney clearly spent some money on this thing. 70 reservations plus their guests must have meant at least $14,000 in food costs and another $10,000 in labor. The gift cards added a few extra thousand dollars. Was it money well spent? I can tell you that I, for one, came away more impressed with the food than expected, and more likely to pay rack rate prices in the future than I was previously. I had been to the California Grill twice on my own in the past decade, and the new menu had looked expensive to me at first, but now, less so.

And I have definitely notched some positive feelings about the DisneyParks blog. This was my first meet as their guest, and it felt truly wonderful to be that pampered (a key fact that didn’t fit anywhere else in this review: all the wine/beer you wanted was also free that night). In many ways, the blog is filling the niche I would have expected from D23, at least for events out here in Orlando, and they are doing it in style.

Oh, and those decorations included prints of Mary Blair artwork – she did the Small World designs and the Grand Canyon Concourse right here at the Contemporary Resort – as well as actual photos of Mary, which is even more rare. Bravo.

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About Kevin Yee

Kevin Yee is an author and blogger writing about travel, tourism, and theme parks in Central Florida. He spent more than a decade working at Disneyland and cultivating a never-ending fascination with that park’s rich traditions and history. Now relocated to Orlando, Kevin enjoys the Disney offerings on both sides of the country. Kevin is the author of numerous independent Disney books, including the popular Walt Disney World Earbook series and Walt Disney World Hidden History. Readers are invited to connect with him online and face to face at the following locations: UltimateOrlando.com – Kevin’s personal blog for daily WDW updates Public Facebook page – or friend his personal Facebook account, Twitter feed (user UltOrlando), Google+ account (user cafeorleans), Email at [email protected], Weekly Walt Disney World, a Facebook group of regulars who visit Disney World each weekend. Visitors from out of town are encouraged to come and say hello when in Orlando! Join the FB group to learn when/where the next meet is. Kevin’s books on Amazon

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21 Comments

Comments for California Grill Re-Imagined are now closed.

  1. I’d love to hear more about the remodel. Glad they’ve changed up the menu. But sorry to hear the sushi isn’t quite the same. I have avoided that place for a few years after George Miliottes left and the service and food slid downhill slowly but steadily. I think it’s time for a re-visit.

  2. Kevin, I enjoyed your article as I always have in the past. Thank you for sharing your wonderfull event with us. I’m planning my first trip to Orlando in 2015, and I just might try to plan a meal there.

  3. I appreciate your honesty. There are quite a few bloggers receiving tons of free gifts from Disney right now, from gift cards to free club level stays at various resorts. Some are obvious to readers. Like seeing the same round of bloggers posting videos of luxury resort rooms and showing off their toes poolside.

    It is refreshing to read the truth about what bloggers are getting. It is without question payola.

    Should you feel guilty? Well the thing is that you are probably the only blogger who thinks analytically before he writes. Most just point the camera at what’s in front of them, hit record and accept gifts. You should continue being honest. That’s what makes your columns interesting. You aren’t always right but you speak through your conscience.

  4. Thank you Kevin. I’ve been watching the California Grill story closely. It was one of my favorite restaurants before the renovation. I’m glad to hear that you overall approve of the upgrades. Love it that they’ve accentuated their biggest asset, the view, with floor to ceiling windows. Though, I’m not thrilled with the outrageous prices. It was always expensive, but this seems like crazy pricing. Though, if they are booked solid every night, then I supposed they are justified, even if they do price even more guests out of the market.

    Would you happen to know if the bar is open to all guests or only guests of the restaurant?

    • We asked about the bar, and were told that “if there is space” one could come up just for the bar.

      We clarified: what about right AFTER the fireworks and were told that would almost certainly be very welcome.

  5. I’d actually love to see more interior photos of the remodeled California Grill.

    • Ditto

  6. Wow, the California Grill was my favorite before the renovation. It’s hard to imagine they somehow made it better. Thanks for the report!

    As for the gift card, the only person you have to answer to about that is yourself. You want to write unbiased articles. Do you feel that you can still write a completely unbiased and uninfluenced article about this restaurant? If so, then feel free to keep it. You disclosed it in the article, and if some of your readers feel that means the article is no longer unbiased, then that’s really their problem, not yours. No one pays to read MiceAge so I don’t think you really have an obligation to your readers to worry about things like that.

  7. it took reading the entire article to get to “right here at the Contemporary Resort” in the LAST paragraph. until that, i had no idea what or where california grill was. i googled it and got a bunch of restaurants in california. “citizen journalist” or not, please kevin, don’t bury the lead! ;)

  8. Prices are now insane. Would like to have seen more shots of the view. I relished all the 2-seaters along the window, as I was normally there on business and could snag a small table to myself after monitoring them from the bar nearby.

    Sounds like it may be more difficult now. Still, it’s a magical spot and every visit has been memorable.

  9. >…until that, i had no idea what or where california grill was.<

    davy, I think you are in the minority on this one, as most people in the Disney park community know (and usually love!) the California Grill, and have been watching this remodel with great anticipation.

    Kevin, I really appreciate your review. I've long said that this is my favorite restaurant on the planet. Glad to hear they haven't screwed things up. I was most interested in your review of the oak fired beef filet, which has been my go-to dish at the CG for 20 years now. I've been really concerned about all the tomato references in the new recipe, as I'm not at all fond of tomatos. It was good to read that you're the same, and you still loved the dish. I'll be trying it out on my birthday in about 19 days – can't wait!!!

  10. Did you get a look at the wine list? Are doing their best to show off California’s wonderful wines?

    As for the gift card, spend it fast before they figure out who you are and rescind the offer. Your honesty must drive them crazy sometimes but we are all thankful for you calling things as you see them.

    Sam

  11. The Parks Blog meetups never disappoint with the swag. I’ve been to two or three and each has been an awesome exclusive experience topped off with a nice gift.

  12. HELL- Take the damn gift card! I too am a member of the media and have been to many Disneyland events where we almost always get swag as well as being treated to fantastic food and drink, entertainment, fast passes and more. That’s all akin to being “paid” in some way because in the long run it is inexpensive advertising for Disney (and the like).

    Hope you had fun and enjoy the gift card!!!

  13. It’s been my experience that whenever there’s an opening event at a restaurant they give gift cards in the “swag bags”…this is meant as an enticement to come back to the restaurant another night. The thinking behind it is that your brain will remember you have that $50 card, and you’ll think of an occasion to go out with friends and use it there. Your total bill will end up being much more than $50, so the restaurant really does not lose money on you. It just gets you back in the door on another night…and you will probably bring other people. It’s a way for the restaurant to get more new customers.

    I don’t think anyone was trying to get you to write nice things about the restaurant on the internet. I think that gift card was just standard promotion material to get you to come back to dinner again on another night and bring some friends and family, who then could become regular California Grill guests as well in the future. It’s restaurant marketing 101.

  14. I just think these Disney people are saints, bless them for giving food. We all know we live in a country where 1 in 5 children is food insecure and it’s wonderful a big corporation known for their greed is giving away food to the needy (or the not so…). And yes just take that card, you earned it because, hell you are a nice dude and you shouldn’t feel guilty.
    Just kidding Kevin I’m glade there is at least 1 decent place to eat at WDW.
    Regarding gifts, at the company I worked for we can refuse gifts but if the giver insists or due to it’s culture he finds it an insult if you reject, you can except it. After that we give it to someone in the company and it’s auctioned off at the end of the year and the money is donated to a charity. It prevents you from being influenced and I think it’s a great thing (but that is probably just me).

  15. Kevin, if you still feel guilty about the gift card (or any in the future), send it to that nice charity for children that was promoted on MiceChat last week.

    The menu sounds delicious and out of my price range. The Chihuahua wants to know what a price range is, and whether there’s one under the table. If not he plans to yell “Squirrel” and see if all the diners don’t jump up and leave their plates momentarily unattended. And if you don’t want your tomatoes, he’s happy to “disappear” them for you.