Update (12/18): Both Flying Fish and Yachtsman Steakhouse remain open, but have undergone redesigns and slight menu overhauls. Starting late 2018, Artist Point will also transition into a Snow White character dining experience nightly. We recommend referring to the Walt Disney World website for current pricing and menus.
Within Disney World's ingenious high-low-and-everything-in-between approach to dining, there exist a handful of truly exalted upscale destinations, restaurants manned with some of the most accomplished chefs and servers in all of Florida, let alone these four parks.
They may go hard on the wallet, but they merit their damage. We've left some high rollers off our opinionated list (our exclusion of the Hollywood Brown Derby, for example, will rankle some loyalists), but we stand by these as Disney's great eight. Remember that the resort accepts restaurant reservations 180 days in advance: Prime slots for tables at most of these high-fliers book months out.
Disney's Wilderness Lodge
Frescos of majestic American mountain ranges, inspired by 19th-century landscape painters Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt, and a building that takes architectural cues from National Park lodges set the mood for a menu that looks to the Pacific Northwest. Among the expected nods like cedar-planked salmon, Dungeness crab cakes, and berry cobbler, there's even an overt wink to Seattle's robust meat-free food culture: vegan lo mein tossed with tofu, snow peas, and pickled shiitakes. Omnivores will embrace the aged buffalo strip loin. A comparatively out-of-the-way dining option, Artist Point is often the easiest reservation among these standouts.
Appetizers $10-$16, entrees $29-$49, desserts $10-$15
Disney's Contemporary Resort
Dinner at the California Grill always comes with a show: Guests vie for windowside tables to revel in prime views of the Magic Kingdom's nightly Fireworks Spectacular. Those further afield in the dining room get up from their tables (the kitchen pauses service while the fireworks are going off) and crowd the restaurant's open-air observation deck during the display. Arrive early to unwind at the bar and savor some of the most masterfully mixed cocktails in the parks. The open kitchen produces West Coast-inspired pleasers that span two decades of trends: goat cheese ravioli (a menu staple since the place launched in 1995), saucy-busy sushi rolls, and hefty, au courant mains like grilled lamb rack with artichokes barigoule and quinoa tabbouleh. Not every dish may dazzle, but the spellbinding pyrotechnics make up for the occasional culinary fizzle.
Appetizers $8.25-$20, sushi $22-$26, entrees $35-$50, desserts $13-$21
LE CELLIER STEAKHOUSE
Canada Pavilion, Epcot World Showcase
Escape Florida's unrelenting sunshine in the cool dimness of this perennial favorite, whose stone arches and (electric) candlelit chandeliers were designed to resemble a wine cellar in a Quebecois chateau. Note the maple-leaf motif that repeats through the decor. Nearly every table orders the righteous cheddar soup, amped with beer and smoked bacon, though the maple-cured salmon dolloped with caviar and sprinkled with "everything bagel" crumbs deserves equal cult status. The restaurant serves an honorable ribeye and three other steaks, but the menu covers plenty of other protein territory; between Disney's two baller steakhouses, Yachtsman (see below) is the truer chophouse. This is not to denigrate Le Cellier: Between the irresistible riffs on poutine, the Canadian beer flights, and the fact that it's the only splurge restaurant on our list open for lunch, securing a hard-to-score reservation proves worth the hassle.
Appetizers $10-$17, entrees $29-$50, sides $9-$13, desserts $8-$11
This restaurant's sprawling murals depict vintage scenes evocative of Coney Island and Atlantic City, though the detonation of colors and geometric patterns through the dining room more strongly recall a Wolfgang Puck restaurant circa 1997. The a la carte menu goes for broad appeal, juggling Mediterranean, pan-Asian, and straightforward American flavors in dishes that come with long ingredient lists. Fortunately, chef Tim Keating and his kitchen crew know how to make the many elements coalesce. A crab cake, for example, doesn't lose itself among a hill of slaw with dots and dousings of red pepper coulis and ancho chile remoulade. For $157 per person, the restaurant also offers a five-course chef's tasting wine dinner served at the counter facing the kitchen. Manager/sommelier Stig Jacobsen has the rare gift for talking about wine without a lick of pretension.
Appetizers and salads $10-$19, entrees $36 to $48, desserts $7-$9
Animal Kingdom Lodge
Sculptural fixtures shaped like birds sweep in a flock across the restaurant's ceiling, flying away from a savannah sunset rendered by lights that gradually change over dinner service from bright gold to garnet. The dining room beautifully calls forth nature, and the cooking, at its best, does similar justice to African flavors. A highlight came early with a selection of flatbreads with dips that didn't shy from spices and heat, including a bhuna masala curry alive with coconut, tamarind, and chile. One outright disappointment: vegetable and tofu sambusas (savory pastries with mint-coconut chutney and saffron rice) that were tough and dense. Stick to meats like short rib and pork shank. Jiko's selection of South African wines is the largest in the world outside the country itself, and the bartenders craft an off-theme but nonetheless upstanding Negroni.
Appetizers and salads, $9-$18, entrees $30-$49, desserts $10-$12
France Pavilion, Epcot World Showcase
Originally called Bistro de Paris, the restaurant underwent remodeling in 2012 and emerged with a new moniker to name-check legendary French chef Paul Bocuse, whose son Jerome operates the restaurant (and all the other food operations in the France pavilion). White tablecloths, curving burgundy banquettes, and crown moldings galore set a formal Gallic tone, though the park never recedes too far into the background; snag a table near the window for prime views of Epcot's nightly IllumiNations fireworks show. Dishes vary between rich classical French cooking and lighter nouvelle derivations. The latter approach proved especially rewarding in staples like red snapper crusted in potato "scales" (a tableau Paul Bocuse conceived in the 1980s, that was widely copied) and la myrtille, a gorgeous composed dessert of vanilla cream in blueberry gelée over pistachio cake and shortbread. If the $29 black truffle soup en croute seems lacking, there's a reason: The restaurant had to replace the original recipe's inclusion of foie gras (a no-go at Disney) with oxtail meat.
Appetizers $15-$17, mains $39-$44, desserts $13
Grand Floridian Resort & Spa
Disney World's most extravagant dining destination can make a stuffy first impression: The room, a carpeted affair where a harpist strums "Beauty and the Beast" and staffers in prim Victorian-era costumes dart among columns covered in brocade wallpaper, recalls yesteryear's gilded hotel restaurants. But doting service and the kitchen's finesse make for memorable, grown-up indulgence. (The restaurant only allows children 10 years and older.) Longtime chef Scott Hunnel pulls off modern American menus that touch on Continental classics while weaving in global flavors. In the main dining room, seven courses ($150 per person) include choices: for example, roasted duck with bok choy and soba noodles or herb crusted lamb? Ten-coursers in the more lavish Queen Victoria's Room ($225) or at the chef's table in the kitchen ($250) are more structured, kicking off with a caviar-studded amuse bouche, running a gamut of seafood and meats, and cresting with cheese and two rounds of dessert. There are equal opportunities to go big on beverages, with optional wine pairings, a 61-page wine list, and even a menu of bottled waters from around the world.
Note: The prices for all tasting menus are scheduled to increase by $10-35 in October 2015
Disney's Yacht Club Resort
If the atmosphere — a handsome mix of woods, a boxy Arts and Crafts-style chandelier that hangs two stories over the dining room — doesn't immediately call out "steakhouse," the menu here certainly sets the appropriate tone. Wallow in beef palace traditions: New York strips and ribeyes dry-aged on the premises, lobster bisque, creamed spinach, truffled mac and cheese, and overly rich desserts. Every steak comes with some form of potatoes. And in lieu of a wedge salad, there are lettuces from the greenhouses in Epcot's Land Pavilion, adorned with ever-changing ingredients (whipped brie and dehydrated strawberries appeared in the spring). The $119 price on the 32-ounce porterhouse for two, sliced into dominos a la Peter Luger in Brooklyn, may at first elicit sticker shock. Considering, though, that it comes with three otherwise a la carte sides (as well as a lush potato gratin), and that most other steak entrees cost between $50 and $60, it's a relative bargain.
Salads and starters $12-$20, entrees $31-$119, sides $9-$14, desserts $10-$11