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Cuisine Scene: Finding Middle Ground, Again
by Debra Martin Koma, ALL EARS® Senior Editor
This article appeared in the November 21, 2006, Issue #374 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)
Sometimes, we get so wrapped up in reviewing Disney's upscale table service restaurants, that we forget that not everyone can afford to, or even wants to for that matter, eat a fancy, sit-down meal each and every day. A few months ago, Cuisine Scene featured more middle-of-the-road type eateries, both counter service and table service, for both lunch and dinner. We thought we'd revisit that idea, taking a look at another handful of WDW restaurants that won't break your bank, but will still satisfy your stomach.
Backlot Express is a great spot, located adjacent to Star Tours, for burgers and other fast food. First of all, there's a ton of seating -- ground level, upstairs, and even outside -- so unless it's a really high-attendance day, you are almost always guaranteed to find a seat. Secondly, Backlot Express seems to be making a real attempt to broaden its menu. During my last two visits here, I had a terrific Grilled Turkey & Cheese sandwich with arugula and red peppers ($6.89 with fries or baby carrots) that was great by any standard. It was a larger than average size, and was more toasted than grilled -- in other words, not greasy at all. Sesame Chicken Salad with mixed greens, chicken, mandarin oranges, carrots, cabbage, tomato, and lo mein noodles ($6.99) featured fresh, crisp lettuce and a generous amount of chicken chunks. It's not something you'll find on every Disney fast-food menu -- definitely above-average counter-service fare. The vegetarian option on the menu, a sandwich with mushrooms, red peppers, zucchini, tomato, watercress and mozzarella cheese ($6.99) sounds promising, though I haven't tried it yet. And yes, they have burgers and dogs and chicken strips. In fact, my 14-year-old swears by their burgers and insists that we stop here at least once each trip. He doesn't get any arguments from me, even if I'm not eating. It's a great place to sit and take in the theming -- rooms littered with props from movie sets (don't forget to look up) and background music supplied by old television shows. Sometimes we'll sit for a while after we're done eating, just to see how many themes we can identify. Backlot Express rates a solid 8 in my opinion.
ABC Commissary, tucked away on Commissary Lane, off to the left of the Great Movie Ride, is much-maligned in my opinion. I've heard many folks complain about the eclectic menu, but that's actually what I like about the spot. On my last visit, I enjoyed a terrific half a Cuban sandwich (ham, pork, swiss cheese, pickles, mustard and cuban bread) with a black bean salad ($5.79) -- very different, and very tasty. Ditto the Tabbouleh Wrap ($6.69), a flour tortilla filled with a Mediterranean-flavored mix of tabbouleh and hummus, served with marinated tomatoes. Both items are very unusual from your run-of-the-mill fast-food offerings -- perhaps that's why they don't satisfy all their customers? My son says the fish and chips (battered fried fish served with thick cut fries for $6.89) compare favorably with the fish and chips served up at Epcot's Yorkshire County Fish Shop -- maybe just slightly less delicious. Yes, the place is a big advertisement for ABC, with its TVs scattered around the room showing nothing but clips from the Mother Ship, but still I think it's a fine place for a quick lunch or dinner -- not haute cuisine, but perfectly adequate.
I have to admit it, this is nothing but a glorified McDonald's, but sometimes that's all you need, isn't it? Of course, that's just at lunch and later (at breakfast the restaurant is a table service character meal, Donald's Breakfastosaurus, featuring Donald Duck and friends). But if you're on the go later in the day and looking for a quick burger, some of those famous fries, or maybe a handful of chicken McNuggets, this is the place. Prices are maybe a little higher than you'd find at a McDonald's off Disney property ($5.79 for 10 McNuggets and fries), but your final price tag is still going to be a lot less than it would be at one of the table service spots.
Lotus Blossom Cafe
Lotus Blossom Cafe, serving up familiar Chinese restaurant fare, is just the place if you need a quick lunch or dinner. They have great egg rolls, loaded with a savory filling, and beef fried rice that rivals that served up by the best Chinese take-out place back home. They also have a delicious smoothie (the Lotus Blossom Smoothie Special for $3.29), and the different oolong iced teas are quite interesting -- not to mention refreshing. Located as it is, rather tucked back in the China pavilion, the Lotus Blossom is often not very crowded, making it a nice little retreat from the crowds. I'd eat here before I'd eat at the table service restaurant in China (Nine Dragons) again -- it's not that Nine Dragons' food is bad, it's just rather over-priced for what you get. If you're looking for a relatively inexpensive meal (this IS still Disney, remember), and Chinese fills the bill, the Lotus Blossom is worth a visit.
Walt Disney World
It's going to take a long time before I start calling this 24-hour buffeteria on the lower level of the Walt Disney World Dolphin "Picabu" -- it's always going to be Tubbi's to me. But that's not necessarily a bad thing -- Tubbi's was, and Picabu is, a great spot to grab a moderately priced breakfast, lunch or dinner. (For those of you on the Disney Dining Plan, though -- sorry. This isn't a Disney-owned establishment, so you can't use the Dining Plan here.)
But you shouldn't let that discourage you. In my opinion, Picabu is one of the best-kept secrets on Disney property -- probably because it's not in a Disney-owned resort. While there are plenty of "to-go" prepackaged items (salads, sandwiches, desserts), there's a good selection of hot foods dished up, as well as a number of made-to-order items. The breakfast sandwich here (bacon, egg and cheese on chewy ciabatta bread for $8.95) is quite filling, maybe even enough for two lighter eaters. At dinnertime, Picabu can't be beat for its family dinner combo -- a whole rotisserie chicken and three side dishes for just $21.95. And your side dish choices -- green beans, stuffing, buttered corn, creamed spinach, mashed potatoes, or cheesy fusilli -- are both fairly well prepared and very generous in portion size. In addition, Picabu still has what I consider to be the best pizza on Disney property -- a 12-inch pie is just $12.95, and for my money is much better than even the pizza served up across the BoardWalk at Spoodles. OK, I'll agree with my son that Picabu, despite the recent renovation and new tropical theme, is short on atmosphere (it still feels like Tubbi's, in fact!), but you can't beat it for decent food at a fairly reasonable price. And, given its location in the Dolphin, it's a little more out of the way than some other Disney dining spots, so you're more likely to have the place to yourself, especially if you dine at off-peak times.
Cape May Cafe
Beach Club Resort
If you're looking for a dinner that offers good value for the money, the nightly Clam Bake buffet served up at the Beach Club's Cape May Cafe is a good choice. For just $25.99 for adults, $11.99 for kids 3 to 9, you can fill up on some fairly nice fare.
On a recent visit, my husband, the seafood aficionado in the family, loaded up on the steamed littleneck clams and mussels and proclaimed them respectively "tender, consistently sized and done to perfection," and "excellent." He added to that a plateful of "superb" peel and eat shrimp and felt that if he ate nothing more, he had already had his money's worth. But the buffet at the Cape May offers much more, with a wide assortment of meats and veggies for landlubbers, too. The night we visited, the rest of the buffet included: New England clam chowder (which my son called "a little thick, but still good"), minestrone, a moist and well-seasoned salmon, beef with mushrooms, pasta with asparagus and shrimp, mashed potatoes, broccolini, roasted red potatoes, chicken, BBQ ribs, a melange of green beans and carrots, a wide variety of salads (from caesar to mushroom to cucumber to chicken to fruit), as well as assorted breads and rolls. There was also a carving station that featured prime rib, and the kids' buffet, which had yummy mac and cheese (of course I had some!), chicken nuggets, etc. I tried to save room for dessert, but I always end up overeating at buffets. It's just as well -- most of the few I sampled were nothing spectacular, in my opinion. The apple cobbler was fine, but the creme caramel was gloppy. The brownies looked better than they tasted, but I must say that the mini-cheesecakes were excellent, and my son enjoyed the strawberry whipped cream cake.
Service was surprisingly attentive, which is not often the norm at a buffet. Our server even shared with us a special treat -- a teeny, tiny starfish that one of her other guests had discovered in one of the clams! The nautical motif of the restaurant is pleasant, even if the sound levels do tend to be on the noisy side.
Cape May doesn't offer haute cuisine, but it's a good value with reasonably good food if you like buffets, and especially seafood.
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Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.