Yes, it's a constructed environment, the castle is made of fiberglass (no bricks!) and you're in the middle of a swamp. But that's really not the point. Rather than being a cynic, revel in the insane amount of effort that's been put into the project of making you feel like you're somewhere else. Believe in the magic!
That's where these seven restaurants come in. They're not terrible (we'd never recommend something terrible), but they're not the very best food on property. Instead, they're worth a visit because of where they take you, and how they make you feel.
San Angel Inn
Mexico Pavilion, Epcot
Possibly the best example of themed restaurant design in all of Disney World, San Angel Inn brings diners to a dark, romantic waterfront restaurant next to a giant Mayan pyramid. Boats (filled with riders on the nearby Gran Fiesta Tour) float by quietly. If you squint just a little, it feels exactly like you are outside under the stars in a small Mexican town. Let the cast members know if you're having a special occasion, and they'll seat you by the water for one of the most memorably surreal dinners you can find anywhere. Too bad the food isn't consistently good. The mole is generally safe, but don't expect it to beat the Mexican place at your local mall. If you're looking for a decent culinary experience in the Mexico pavilion, head across the plaza to La Cava Del Tequila, a less-themed but much better spot with a tequila list that rivals any big city joint. Plus, if you have a tequila flight before dinner, you'll really feel the theme.
Be Our Guest
The Magic Kingdom
Some Disney loyalists will have a conniption when they see Be Our Guest on this list. But let's admit it: The restaurant's French-inspired food is not all that great, especially when you could hop a monorail across the resort to the France pavilion in Epcot. What is outstanding is the décor. If you're a fan of Beauty and the Beast, this is your chance to go inside the Beast's castle, a place where it's always gently snowing outside, the suits of armor actually talk, and the magic rose glitters in a corner of the forbidden west wing. It's a masterpiece of design, and there is no better place in the entire world to eat mediocre French onion soup.
(Some looking for castle dining might point to Cinderella's Royal Table, the restaurant inside the actual Disney castle, as another option. But the food there is so awful, and the meal so expensive, that we just can't recommend it. Go to Be Our Guest instead.)
Liberty Tree Tavern
Liberty Square is one of the Magic Kingdom's smallest lands, but it's also one of the best. Somehow, thanks to the magic of Disney, walking out of Peter Pan's Flight and into a colonial-era American town doesn't feel jarring. And what would a colonial town be without a tavern? At Liberty Tree Tavern, it's Thanksgiving every night. The food is served family-style, you have no choices, and there's no alcohol. It's entirely adequate, by the standards of steam-table roast turkey and carved beef, though the "Declaration Salad" is over-dressed with a strange strawberry vinaigrette that verges on cringe-worthy. On the plus side, "Johnny Appleseed's Cake," studded with apples and cranberries, is pretty delicious, though eating a pound of cake might not be the best move right before going on Space Mountain.
All that said, the small rooms, antiquated décor, and period-costumed cast members really do make you feel like you've stepped into a colonial New England restaurant, and the details are enough for a colonial-era scavenger hunt. (Keep an eye out for Benjamin Franklin's kite.)
The Land Pavilion, Epcot
Have you ever wanted to eat food grown inside a theme park? This is your chance. Before you sit down to dinner, make sure to ride Living with the Land, an entertaining, lightly educational ride that walks you through sustainable and futuristic agricultural methods. Seriously, it's just about the coolest thing on the Future World side of Epcot. After that, head upstairs to the Garden Grill, a rotating restaurant that takes diners through the same scenes of Living with the Land, from a different vantage point.
Like Liberty Tree, the restaurant is a family-style affair, though the food is significantly better. Garden Grill serves fresh salads made from the veggies growing in the pavilion, a "sustainable fish of the day" (usually a slightly-overcooked catfish), and a few other entree options. It's totally fine. But it's the only place in Disney that combines a ride (inside another ride!) with dining. By the time you (and the restaurant) have made one complete revolution, you're done and ready to continue your day.
Coral Reef Restaurant
The Seas with Nemo and Friends, Epcot
There are some people who find this restaurant a bit disconcerting. As befits a restaurant inside The Seas pavilion, which boasts one of the largest aquariums in the world, Coral Reef is dominated by a gigantic, wall-sized aquarium window filled with beautiful tropical fish. This means that you're watching fish at the same time that you're eating fish. If this bothers you, go elsewhere.
But if voyeuristic carnivorousness isn't a problem for you, Coral Reef is worth a lunch drive-by during your time in Epcot. It's beautiful, cool, and refreshing — everything you need in the middle of a day at a theme park. The tables are on tiers just like at an old nightclub, except instead of a floorshow, there's that giant aquarium. There's not a bad seat in the house. Don't expect culinary fireworks (seafood has never been Disney's strong suit), but fried calamari is safe, as is a decadent, mostly-cream crab dip.
Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater
Disney's Hollywood Studios
Turns out we are going to recommend something terrible — at least, as far as the food is concerned. If you're a science fiction geek or a film nerd, you have to go to the Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater. After a brief walk down a soundstage hallway, guests emerge into a starlight night at the drive-in movie theater, where the tables are "cars" (complete with speaker stands), and the big screen in the front of the room plays a loop of classic sci-fi trailers and clips. If you're a Rocketeer fan, you can find the helmet and backpack from the movie hiding amongst the many props.
Be warned: The food is genuinely awful. Frozen microwaved hamburgers would be a step up. So, just don't eat it! Make a late-evening reservation for dessert, or duck in out of the midafternoon sun for a light snack. Either way, grab a cocktail (there's an Oreo shake blended with chocolate liqueur that's worth the calories), order something that's hard to mess up, like fancy popcorn or fried pickles, and sit back and watch the show.
The food at the Contempo Café, the counter-service restaurant in the Contemporary Hotel's Grand Canyon Concourse, is utterly forgettable. I've probably eaten there 20 times, and I have no memory of a single bite, good or bad. But if you're a nerd, or someone who grew up watching the Wonderful World of Disney on Sunday nights, there's no substitute for sitting at breakfast watching the monorail glide through the hotel lobby above your head. It feels like you've been transported into a glorious Jetsons future, but with Mickey-shaped waffles. There's no better way to get excited for a day at Disney World than to have breakfast here.