If you want to eat the best food at Disney World, you should to go to Monsieur Paul, the opulent bistro in the France pavilion at Epcot. For the best gimmick, check out the hilariously over-the-top tiki animatronics over at Trader Sam's in the Polynesian resort. For the most dazzling decor, peek into any of the opulent dining rooms catering to the three-foot-tall princess crowd.
The 50's Prime Time Café, an unassuming throwback spot tucked in a back corner of Hollywood Studios, might not hold the number one spot of any of these lists, but what makes it truly remarkable — especially in the context of a place where dining rooms, for the most part, are designed to optimize just one aspect — is that it's in the top five (at least) for all of them. 50's Prime Time Café manages to nail everything at once, and because of that it's the best overall restaurant in all of Disney World.
Most restaurateurs these days, when they're opening a new place, talk about "telling a story." That's a more literal mandate at Disney World, where the employees are called "cast members" and a guide on the safari ride, when you ask where in Africa the giraffes live, will look at you deadpan and say, "Well, we're in Africa right now." It extends to the restaurants, too — especially the restaurants in the parks themselves, where maintaining the immersive experience of each themed land is paramount. In Hollywood Studios, a guest's progression through the moviemaking-themed park is chronological: You start in the 1930s, and gradually the architecture gives way to the postwar modernism of midcentury design. That's where you'll find 50's Prime Time Café, its neon marquee tucked just beyond the splashier, more perpetually packed character buffet of Hollywood and Vine.
When it opened in 1989, thirty years after its era of reference, the restaurant was playing straight to parental nostalgia. It did this through meticulous design, to be sure: The restaurant is decked out in Bakelite, Fiestaware, and boomerang Formica, its tables art-directed to look like a kitchen straight out of I Love Lucy or Father Knows Best, complete with Osterizers and a linoleum floor. But it was also targeted in its psychology. If you were a parent bringing your kids to Hollywood Studios in the late 80s and early 90s, odds were good you spent a good chunk of your own childhood in the 1950s. The narrative every diner stepped into at 50's Prime Time Café capitalized on that: Mom's in the kitchen, cooking dinner. Servers are aunts, uncles, or cousins who tease, scold, and playfully berate guests for familial offenses like not finishing their vegetables. Every diner gets to be a kid again.
As the boomer parents with rosy midcentury memories aged out, this clever bit of psychological stagecraft was lost, and the family-kitchen song-and-dance became simply shtick (good shtick, but shtick). That is, until not too long ago, when it inadvertently became haute. The last decade's culinary obsession with comfort food means that the menu of rib-sticking throwbacks on offer at 50's Prime Time Café is surprisingly of the moment. Meatloaf, stuffed pork chops, wedge salad — they're the sort of thing a restaurant-minded person would expect to see on the menu at your standard reclaimed-wood-and-Edison-bulb joint, alongside a dollar-oyster happy hour and a laundry list of small-batch bourbons. It can be tiresome, out in the real world, to come across yet another restaurant playing this same culinary melody. But finding a menu like this inside a Disney park, where most of the food is either try-too-hard or not-try-at all, is both a pleasure and a relief.
Maybe this is the gastronomic equivalent of a stopped clock being right twice a day. As dining trends spring up and flare out, restaurants that stay steadfast in their gimmicks will flow in and out of harmony with the prevailing moods. But even without that, 50's Prime Time Café has a lot going for it. The food's flat-out good, for starters — the wedge salad is crisp, the fried chicken is well-brined and flavorful, the pot roast is tender, and the green beans are snappy. The cocktails lean towards sweet, but a bourbon on the rocks is hard to mess up. The relatively cozy space is human-scale — not the soaring castle-like ceilings or institutional big-box chow sheds of other in-park restaurants — and in the bar area, where the full menu is available for those of us without the six-month foresight to make a reservation, it's quite beautiful: a George Nelson dream complete with steel-framed leather lounge chairs, sinuous brass wall sculptures, and a gabled, wood-paneled ceiling.
50's Prime Time Café may be one of the best restaurants at Disney World for nearly everything, but there's one area where it's the actual best, and that's the dessert list. Most of the sweets available at restaurants throughout the park come from a central commissary, and it's entirely possible that these do, too. But they're unique to the restaurant, and they're wonderful, especially a sticky-gooey pineapple upside-down cake, and a not-too-syrupy warm apple crisp. (The ice cream situation is also superlative; the PB&J milkshake is the closest thing in all of Disney World to real, actual magic.)
To bring it all home, the dessert menu is presented not on a printed piece of paper, but as a photographic reel on a View-Master — that plastic stereoscope that hit it big in the 1950s as a way for people to check out far-off places in dazzling 3D, a substitute for real travel that was nevertheless still thrilling, both a tool and a toy. You see where I'm going with this: it's a metaphor, for the food and the restaurant and maybe the entire experience of flying all the way to central Florida only to find yourself having a root beer float while a waitress in a pink gingham dress smirks at your glasses and acidly calls you "four-eyes." But that's what happens when you're at Disney World, a place where everything means something. Metaphors are unavoidable. So you may as well eat dinner inside one that gets it right.