Dining Out and About: The Garden Grill
by Jack Spence, ALL EARS® Guest Columnist
This article appeared in the February 6, 2007 Issue #385 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)
Editor's Note: This issue was incorrectly numbered 384 when it was sent out. It is actually issue 385.
Last week I was heading for the Land Pavilion with two of my friends. We planned to eat lunch at the Sunshine Season Food Fair. I have eaten here a number of times and feel that this is one of the better counter service eateries at Disney World. Instead of the typical burgers and chicken nuggets you find everywhere else you are offered freshly-made sandwiches, salads, flatbreads, and other offerings that try - and succeed - at being upscale and imaginative. However, after entering the pavilion, one of my companions suggested eating at the Garden Grill Restaurant and we all agreed.
We approached the counter and asked if immediate seating was available. We were told yes and given a pager. I thought this was strange. Why did we need a pager if "immediate" seating was available? And low and behold, we didn't wait a full minute before the pager was activated. We returned to the podium and a nice young man took us to a table on the second level of the restaurant. When we got there, we felt that the seating was rather cramped as diners on both sides had spread out and their chairs were already invading our space. We asked the host if he had another table available. He said he'd check and asked us to follow him back to the podium. Within a few moments we were headed back to the upper level and to more spacious surroundings.
For those of you not familiar with the Garden Grill Restaurant, it is located on the entrance (main) floor of the Land Pavilion. It is circular and slowly rotates, giving diners an overhead view of the Rainforest, Desert, Prairie, and Farmhouse that guests see while riding on the "Living with the Land" attraction. The kitchen is located in the middle of this turntable and is stationary. I give credit to the servers who must constantly look for their ever-moving guests.
The restaurant has two levels. The lower level is comprised of booths and has an unobstructed view of the scenery below. The upper level (about two feet higher than the lower lever) is made up of tables and chairs (no booths). There is a half-wall that separates the two levels. If you're seated on the upper level, it is necessary to sit against the half-wall in order to look over it to see the passing scenery. A small child would have trouble doing this. Those guests sitting away from the wall will see very little or nothing of the "Living with the Land" attraction below. Instead, they will see a blandly painted wall that houses the kitchen and an occasional bus station or kitchen doors as you rotate past them.
Brass lamps are positioned on the half-wall that separate the two levels. The light from these lamps is defused as it cascades over the lower level and onto the openness of the scenery below. However, the upper level lighting is much harsher as it bounces off of the bland kitchen wall.
In case you have already caught my drift, I was not particularly happy with my seat. I've been to coffee shops on the Interstate that offered more atmosphere than I had here. If I had been seated at a booth on the lower level, or even against the half-wall on the upper level, I might not have felt this way. But any group of three or more seated up here will have to sacrifice someone to a lousy seat. Furthermore, anyone in a wheelchair would be seated on this level as the booths cannot accommodate them.
When we were brought to our table it had three sets of flatware set on folded napkins and three "industrial" white plates, complete with scratches acquired from much use, stacked in the middle of the table. Our waiter appeared shortly thereafter and took our drink orders. I saw a gentleman at another table drinking a beer and decided that it looked good and ordered one instead of my usual diet coke. My companions ordered ice tea.
The Garden Grill Restaurant features character meals. Mickey, Pluto, and Dale (from Chip & Dale) are the stars here and these three characters continually move from table to table and do a fine job of making conversation considering they cannot speak. In keeping with the Land Pavilion theme, the characters are dressed in "farm" attire. For instance, Mickey dons bib overalls and a red gingham shirt.
I have never been fond of character meals. Since I don't usually visit the parks with children, I'm really not that interested in interrupting my meal to make small talk with Mickey and the rest of the gang. But then, I also refused to sit on Santa's lap until I was forced to do so at age 10, or lose face in front of my younger cousins. But I digress...
One of my dining companions loves the characters and she did a wonderful job of making up for my character-phobia. In fact, I think that Mickey was enjoying my friend's interaction as much as she was enjoying his. The point being, you don't need children to enjoy the characters - as long as you don't have me at your table.
The Garden Grill Restaurant is an "all you care to eat" establishment and the food is served family style. Shortly after our drinks were served, our food arrived. There was a basket of three biscuits and three rolls with honey butter, a bowl of mashed potatoes (with skins), and the remainder of the food was pleasantly arranged on a small platter. Actually, the small platter was the same industrial-type plate that we were to eat off of. The offering contained Flank Steak with Mushroom Cabernet Jus, Rotisserie Turkey with Cranberry Relish, Fried Catfish, vegetables, and stuffing.
To be honest, I've only eaten catfish once or twice before in my life, so I'm far from an expert on the subject, but I did enjoy theirs. The turkey was turkey - all white meat - with some cranberries drizzled on top. I felt it came from a pre-packaged breast sold to restaurants rather than actually being cooked there. My friends thought that the beef was tough. I didn't notice this, but felt it had a strange taste. The vegetables were fresh and cooked al dente. I also appreciated that the skins were left on the mashed potatoes. Besides adding to the taste, it spruced up their looks. And finally, the stuffing was tasty, but very basic.
Halfway through the meal we asked our server for more turkey, this time, without the cranberries. Within moments, a plate with four slices appeared. We were also encouraged to make additional requests.
Dessert consists of bread pudding served in a large bowl. Guests spoon out their own portion into a smaller bowls that were brought at the same time. Like the rest of the meal, dessert was good, but nothing special. Sugar-free ice cream is also available upon request.
When I left the restaurant I felt unsatisfied. I had just spent $20.99 for lunch. To me, that's a lot of money to spend on a mid-day meal. So I started to analyze why I felt so disappointed.
First, I was very unhappy with my seat. I feel the upper level of this restaurant is very utilitarian. Disney needs to do something to spruce this area up and add a touch of warmth. Perhaps lower the light level. It was awfully bright up there. Also, repaint the center-kitchen wall. Maybe a mural or landscape with trees and flowers would help break up the monotony. In the past, there were brightly colored sunflowers on this wall. That was an improvement over how it is now. I'm sure if I had been seated on the lower level and had a good view of the scenery below, I would have been much happier.
Next, when we were seated, I felt that the table setting was clumsy. Plates being stacked in the middle of the table did not make for an inviting first impression. I realize that service is "family" style and it's supposed to impart a casual feel. But to me it came off more as a "let's make it easy on the server" attitude. Paper place-mats would help as there are no tablecloths. Also, the plates themselves were extremely basic. Maybe add some color to them.
With the exception of the beef, all of the food was good - but very uninspired. Your run-of-the-mill coffee shop is doing a better job these days at trying to offer interesting and new menu items. I would have been happier if we had eaten at the Sunshine Season Food Fair as we had originally planned. Here you'll find a menu that is trying to be worthy of the 21st century.
I can't complain about the service. First, the host who seated us was more than willing to give us another table when we requested it and our waiter was friendly and efficient.
I realize that part of the cost of my meal was to pay for the characters. Mickey, Pluto, and Dale don't come cheap. And I can't fault Disney here. If you're looking to have some one-on-one time with your favorite Disney pal, then character meals are the way to go. However, why does a restaurant have to be "completely" character dining?
I use to love to eat at Cinderella's Royal Table. This restaurant featured character breakfasts, but lunch and dinner were character free. Then Disney started offering character dinners. And finally they added them to lunch. Now, if I want to eat here I must pay extra for something I don't want. The same thing happened at Akershus Royal Banquet Hall. In essence, Disney has taken away one of the unique Epcot dining experiences from me.
Why does it have to be all or nothing? I think that the Liberty Tree Tavern in the Magic Kingdom has the right idea. Lunch service does not feature characters while dinner does. I think the Garden Grill, Akershus and Cinderella's Royal Table should do the same thing.
In closing, would I recommend this restaurant? Probably not. Perhaps if you request seating in the lower level, really want to interact with characters, and are happy with pedestrian food, you'll be happy here. But for all others I would recommend the Sunshine Season Food Fair if hunger pangs hit while in the Land Pavilion.
Reservations can be made by calling 407-WDW-DINE.
Lunch: Noon-5 p.m.
Dinner: 5-9 p.m.
Prices are as follows:
Lunch: $20.99 Adults 10 and up; $11.99 Children 3-9
Dinner: $27.99 Adults 10 and up; $12.99 Children 3-9
Non-alcoholic soft drinks are included
Other reviews by Jack Spence: http://allears.net/btp/jacks.htm
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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.