Epcot's World Showcase, Disney's miniature and permanent attempt at a World's Fair, offers some of the most interesting dining and drinking experiences — not to mention straight-up overall experiences — in the entire Disney World complex.
Seeing how Disney works with representatives from the eleven represented countries to translate their food and culture for the hordes of Orlando tourists is often amusing, sometimes disappointing, and always fascinating. Of course, some pavilions do better than others. And they're just begging to be ranked. Our three on-the-ground Disney reporters offer their highly subjective thoughts on each nation below.
Bill: There’s a reason Morocco is extra spellbinding. It opened in 1984, two years after Epcot launched and four years before Norway was built, and the country itself, rather than a corporation, sponsored the pavilion. King Hassan II famously loaned Disney a crew of Moroccan craftsman to carve the archways, lay tile, and generally provide the thousands of exquisite details that only Moroccans could. I vote for Restaurant Marrakesh, hidden in the back of the pavilion’s maze-like medina, as the most transporting place to dine in Epcot. Go for the harira (lentil soup) and the tagine-like preparations (even if it isn't called a "tagine" on the menu, the inclusion of preserved lemon will be your clue).
There’s no place in the four parks I’d rather hang out, feeling hypnotized by the patterns and colors in the glazed zellige tiles and eating dishes seasoned — by Disney standards, anyway — to the edge of daring.
Helen: Morocco is the prettiest of all the country pavilions, so maybe that's part of what swayed me over to ranking it as the overall best. But the food is really good — like, really good, even by heavily handicapped help-I've-spent-the-last-90-hours-in-an-amusement-park standards. Even Spice Road Table, the newest and least-good of the four restaurants, has a surprisingly ambitious menu that delivers on a fair amount of its promises. And Tangierine Café might be the single best lunch option in any of the four parks, period.
Amanda: At the end of the day, poor France didn't have a chance with this group. We just love Middle Eastern flavors and the cool Morocco architecture too much. Plus you can leave a meal here and feel like you almost did something good for your body.
Amanda: Damn. France has game. First of all, the entire pavilion is run by a French restaurant group, not Disney. They bake all their own bread and pastries every morning. They make their own ice cream for the L'Artisan des Glaces shop. The casual bistro is like Balthazar but somehow more authentic. Monsieur Paul, the super high-end Paul Bocuse restaurant, is stuffy but brilliant. Their signature boozy slushy drink thing is made with Grand Marnier. Their head baker used to work for Joël Robuchon. And they have a crêpe kiosk. What more could you want?
Bill: France is really the World Showcase’s culinary heart. Visitors expect the French to excel at food, and the restaurants and shops in turn do not disappoint. The boulangerie in the back of the pavilion cranks out 700 to 800 baguettes every day; it’s so civilized to start the day here with bread, butter, jam, and a cafe au lait. On a similar note, I was downright dazzled recently by the composed desserts at Monsieur Paul — spherical fantasies of fruit and cream that look fiddly but taste heavenly.
Helen: When I went to Disney World a few years ago, I posted something on Twitter asking where I should eat, and was veritably inundated by people telling me that the pizza at Via Napoli was actually among the best they'd ever had. And you know, it's fairly on point. They import the water for the dough — some sources say from Italy, some slightly more believable sources say Philadelphia, wherever it's from, it's blessedly not the sulfuric swamp-juice that runs from Orlando's municipal taps. That's the kind of attention to detail that elevates a good Epcot country pavilion to great.
Amanda: It's almost unfair to be Italy, because everyone loves Italian food, has access to decent to great Italian food, and thus (at least in my case) sets the bar pretty high. These guys pretty much deliver. Pros: They serve the best (best meaning not sweet) cocktails in Epcot, their casual pizzeria is a great, easy, family-friendly place, the pizza's not terrible, the pizza ovens are great, they have a wine and cocktail bar with a real amaro list, there's gelato, they have the hottest waitstaff.
Cons: The waiters, though attractive, are not super good at their jobs, pizza should be better, we had a pretty sad chicken parm and a pretty sad lasagna.
Helen: The real move at Japan is to skip all the upscale stuff and go straight for the fast food and pop culture. You don't need the airport-quality sushi or gloppy Benihana-lite hibachi — what you need is fast-food-style chicken curry-rice, a cup of shave ice drizzled with melon syrup and condensed milk, and then a wild spree in the candy-and-snacks section of Mitsukoshi department store, where there are hundreds of options for Pocky, panda cookies, shrimp chips, and neon-colored Ramune soda, plus a semi-secret sake bar tucked in the back corner. (Bonus: if the sun's heat is oppressive, this is the place to buy a ridiculously oversized Hello Kitty hat.)
Bill: At our lunch in Japan, Helen and I peered into the Teppan Edo steakhouse, noting the chef juggling peppermills and the onion ring volcanoes billowing on the table cooktops, and then we darted to the other side of the building for a calmer meal at Tokyo Dining. The menu hit all the circa-now notes of Japanese favorites in America: familiar specimens of sushi and sashimi (tuna, salmon, yellowtail, eel), California rolls and their cream cheese-slicked ilk, tempura vegetables, grilled chicken in teriyaki sauce. Probably my favorite thing was the miso clam soup. Note, though, that after a 95-degree morning with brutal humidity, the freshness and lightness of the food felt like a mercy.
Amanda: The running joke during this reporting trip was that Le Cellier Steakhouse was actually the best restaurant in Epcot. Granted, it was the first restaurant we went to so a) it didn't have much competition until we got to France later that day, and b) we were actually hungry when we got there. That said, the Canadian steakhouse impressed us, considering none of us give much thought to Canadian food outside of the artery-clogging wonders of Montreal.
The cult item here is the cheese soup, which was almost queso-like but you eat it with a spoon. It's fantastic. All three poutines are textbook examples of the genre. The bread basket overflowed with freshly baked pretzel loaves, the steak lacked funk but didn't disappoint, and service couldn't have been better. Points deducted for having an American running the kitchen, though.
Helen: Architecturally, the UK pavilion is pretty neat — a charming facsimile of a high street where each building represents a different historical style — but food-wise it's a little bit one-note. Fish and chips from a takeaway window, slightly different fish and chips inside a pub. On the upside, both versions of fish and chips were great, with crisp battering that held up against a major dousing of malt vinegar. On the downside, there are six brews available — only four of them from Britain — but ten decidedly non-British wines. A bizarre moment: We ordered a Guinness and, while it was pulled flawlessly, the beer tasted straight-up bad.
Like a lot of other pavilions, the real treasure for me was found in the gift shop, which was full of wonderful British foods that I honestly cannot imagine anyone actually buys and then lugs around the park: tins of mushy peas, boxed Yorkshire pudding mix, tinned kippers, Heinz piccalilli. Though I was pretty tempted to buy a gilt-edged teacup celebrating the birth of Princess Charlotte Elizabeth Diana, 2nd May 2015.
Amanda: I feel an acute sadness about the Mexico pavilion because it has all the makings of a top seed Epcot country. 1) The temple is freaking cool in general. 2) The San Angel Inn offers one of the most picturesque dining experiences in the whole resort. 3) Unlike many of the restaurants in Epcot, the Mexican group is run by operators from Mexico, the owners of the real San Angel Inn in Mexico City. 4) There's a great tequila bar in the temple. 5) There's great shopping in the temple. 6) There's a RIDE (not a great ride, but still). 7) The newer restaurant, the Hacienda de San Angel, sits on a beautiful spot overlooking the lake. 8) There are margarita stands all over the place. 9) If you time it right, you can see mariachi Donald Duck.
And yet, Mexico is rightly ranked at number seven on this list of 11, because it falls down on the food. This pavilion would be such a great place to show Americans just how dynamic and exciting and truly delicious Mexican food can be. But dishes are dumbed down and often sad.
Bill: More about that bar, La Cava Del Tequila: Its seductiveness can’t be overstated. Small and buzzy and grownup, it makes an ideal setting for a lost afternoon at Epcot — especially since Mexico is largely indoors in the sweet, sweet air conditioning. The margaritas veer sugary; straight shots keep it real. Over 150 options cover the gamut of blancos, reposados, añejos, and mezcals. Traditional chasers of sangrita and lime? Check. Don’t expect much more than guac and queso to line your stomach.
Helen: When you spend your day walking from mini-nation to mini-nation in hundred-degree central Florida heat, you become very aware of a certain amount of geographic determinism in various countries' foods. The food of Germany — at least, the food that's hit the American consciousness firmly enough to be the stuff that's served here at Epcot — is not exactly warm-weather friendly. It's heavy, Black Forest fare: wursts and spaetzle and a (surprisingly credible) sauerbraten, listed on the all-you-care-to-eat buffet as "German meatloaf." But the design of Biergarten (the indoor buffet restaurant) is seriously cool, the polka band comes on every hour, and Sommerfest (the outdoor snack counter) makes a wicked currywurst and also fries up fresh potato chips that are tossed in paprika and served warm. There's a pretty decent selection of German beers, and a tight list of (mostly sweet, but balanced) Rieslings, which is pretty nice, but on the other hand, Germany's also the one place in the park where you can get shots of Jägermeister. So, kind of a wash. Important note: the gift shop sells Haribo.
Amanda: We tried to camp out and charge our phones inside the Biergarten restaurant because it was so alluringly dark and cool and intriguing (there was a four piece band playing). I think if that waitress hadn't politely implied that we scram, I would still be sitting at large wooden table, soaking up the AC, listening to some polka music, nursing a Radeberger.
Helen: Bonus points for giving the impression of ambition, here. At Nine Dragons, the menu actually reads pretty excitingly, and it's only once your food arrives that you realize it's among the blandest, most dispirited, most Americanized renditions of bland, dispirited, Americanized Chinese food you've ever had. The three of us strolled right into the restaurant without a reservation, at prime dinner time — I guess that should have been the first clue. But it's not all bad: The tea stand next to the lagoon has some pretty nice ice cream options, an okay char siu bao, and you can't mess up an egg roll too badly. Plus Mulan is the baddest-ass of the Disney princesses, and this is where she reliably hangs out.
Bill: Yeah, I feel bristly over the lame execution of the food at Nine Dragons. China’s cuisines are vast and distinct: Sichuan and Cantonese cooking in particular have made enough inroads into American culture that surely the restaurant’s overseers could take a rewarding chance or two. Can’t they put some honest kick in the ma la spicy beef? Would a bowl of dan dan noodles be too much to ask for?
Amanda: As a kid coming to Disney, Norway ranked as my favorite of the countries, because it had a ride (Maelstrom) that was actually scary and it seemed like such a fun and random inclusion in the Disney collection (I didn't realize as a child that certain countries paid for the privilege to be included, but I should have known).
Maelstrom (RIP) is being repurposed as a Frozen ride (Frozen Ever After, opening in 2016) and the old Norwegian buffet (Akershus) is a character dining spectacle. Meanwhile, the bakery Kringla Bakeri og Kafe was a little worse for wear when we visited in June, and the outdoor terrace needed a good cleaning.
Helen: I'm deeply, personally affronted that Norway has been repurposed as a holding tank for Frozen-related merchandise and character activities. There was always something so charming and geopolitically baffling about Norway's inclusion (like Amanda, I had no idea the pavilion had bought its place in the World Showcase), and now that it's been retconned into Let It Go-land, most of that charm is gone. I do appreciate that you can buy canned sardines at the gift shop, though, and the bakery makes a reliable take on lefse, the buttery-sugary rolled crêpe. Considering that the Voss water sold with the lefse is actually from Norway, this could be the only place in America where drinking this jerkiest of bottled waters might not make you look like a jerk. (It probably still will.)
Bill: I’ve literally blocked out the food options. I only acknowledge the pavilion as the home of the American Adventure and the place I race by, with one ear out for the Voices of Liberty belting a patriotic tune, on my way to a meal somewhere else.
Amanda: The America Pavilion just bums me out because it doesn't represent the best of what this country has to offer. It doesn't even represent the second or third best. I spend a good portion of my waking hours obsessing over the great restaurants in this country across all the price ranges, and this pavilion — a grand showcase to foreigners and domestic tourists alike — serves a chicken BLT and a salad with Craisins® in it?
They don't need to open a location of Jose Andres' America Eats Tavern, but a little recognition of the culinary history, traditions, and triumphs of this country could go a long way.
Helen: I just want to note, for the record, that I was the only one of the three of us to actually go inside the restaurant of the America pavilion on this trip. But it was so depressingly tragic that I understand why Bill and Amanda didn't feel the need to confirm their memories. I don't think I ever need to go back, either.