Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Best AND Worst Counter Service Restaurants in WDW

There are some great counter service restaurants in Walt Disney World. And not only are some of them wonderful dining experiences, but their importance can't be overlooked. No offense to California Grill, Jiko, and Crystal Palace, but counter service restaurants are the backbone of the dining experience at WDW. They are counted on to serve the vast majority of the tens of thousands of guests who frequent the parks every single day. And if they didn't hit a certain level of quality, it could most certainly effect the number of visitors (and especially repeat visitors) to The Mouse. Disney takes pride in their restaurants, and many give them good reason to be proud.

Of course, for every great counter service restaurant, there's also an average or even downright awful CS restaurants to make up for it. That is why it's important for us here at Around The Mouse to point out the very best of these so if you have choices to make, perhaps this may help. And at the end of the article, we'll point out a few to avoid at all costs.

We'll take aim at recognizing the top 5 counter service establishments, while explaining why each of these belong in this upper tier. Each one will be judged in Mouse Ears (5 being the best, 1 being the worst) in 5 distinct categories:

1. Variety of the menu
It is always nice to have a choice when at WDW's counter service restaurants. Some have far fewer choices than do others, and it can tie your hands if you are a picky eater or have dietary restrictions of any kind. Variety is the spice of The Mouse.

2. Uniqueness of the menu
Not only is variety important, but it's always nice to have vastly different things to choose from; not only when it comes to the items on that establishment's menu, but how it differentiates from other counter service restaurants. What makes this particular place different from all the others? What does it offer that I can't find at every other CS restaurant?

3. Quality of the food
You can have the most varied and unique menu around, but if the quality of the food itself isn't up to snuff, then it's all for not. Whether it's chicken nuggests, a BBQ pork sandwich, a slice of pizza or a chocolate cake, the quality of the food has to be there before anything else.

4. Cost
One of the main reasons why many people utilize counter service is because is they can't afford to eat at table service restaurants for every single meal. It's Disney's version of fast food: fast, good and affordable. Especially in this day and age, the cost end of a meal plays a bigger and bigger role for most people.

5. Theme
OK, this may not be quite as necessary to some guests as others, but if one understands one of the basic concepts of WDW, impeccable theming plays an enormous role in the bottom line; it's what separates WDW from most other theme parks - leave no stone left unturned and totally immerse the guests into the experience.

So, without further ado, here are our top 5 counter service restaurants in all of WDW:

5. Flame Tree BBQ (Animal Kingdom)
This is a treasure. There aren't too many other BBQ joints on property (outside of the restaurants at Fort Wilderness), and the food quality is very, very good. Grab a seat at a table overlooking the water and enjoy the view.
Menu Variety: 3 Mouse Ears
Menu Uniqueness: 4 Mouse Ears
Food Quality: 4 Mouse Ears
Cost: 4 Mouse Ears
Theme: 4 Mouse Ears
Total Mouse Ears: 19

4. Casey's Corner (Magic Kingdom)
Casey's is a staple of Main Street, USA. I admit the theme of the restaurant gets big, big points from my family and I since we are all huge baseball fans (and I have a special affinity for old-time baseball). The food is decent (what you'd find at the ballpark - good hot dogs, addictive corn dogs, cracker jacks, chili) and it's location is wonderful - if you're lucky, you can grab a table just outside for a great view of Spectro and Wishes. The kids LOVE the bleacher seating in front of the movie screen that shows classic Mickey sports-related cartoons. The toppings bar is also outstanding - as much cheddar cheese sauce and sauerkraut as you could ever want!
Menu Variety: 3
Menu Uniqueness: 4 Mouse Ears
Food Quality: 4
Cost: 4 Mouse Ears
Theme: 5 Mouse Ears
Total Mouse Ears: 20

3. Tangerine Cafe (Morocco Pavilion, Epcot)
This relatively unknown gem is a place everyone needs to check out - especially if you're not afraid to try something different. Classic Moroccan/Mediterranean fare including hummus, chicken or lamb shawarma sandwiches, tabouleh, couscous and more make for a nice break from most counter service offerings. You can also grab an outside table and take in the surrounding World Showcase and listen to MoRockin when they are scheduled to play.
Menu Variety: 4 Mouse Ears
Menu Uniqueness: 5 Mouse Ears
Food Quality: 4 Mouse Ears
Cost: 4 Mouse Ears
Theme: 3 Mouse Ears
Total: 20 Mouse Ears

2. Columbia Harbor House (Magic Kingdom)
Located in Liberty Square on the border of Fantasyland, Columbia's theming is second to none. Gorgeous interior decor (along with a relatively secluded 2nd floor) provides a haven away from the Fantasyland/Liberty Square chaos. The food is also unique and good, including tuna sandwiches, hummus sandwiches and clam chowder. It's also amongst the most healthy choices you can make at WDW, especially at Magic Kingdom.
Menu Variety: 3 Mouse Ears
Menu Uniqueness: 5 Mouse Ears
Food Quality: 4 Mouse Ears
Cost: 4 Mouse Ears
Theme: 5 Mouse Ears
Total: 21 Mouse Ears

1. Sunshine Seasons (The Land, Epcot)
Theming takes a back seat here, but the food is outstanding - by far the best selection, variety and quality any counter service restaurant offers in Walt Disney World. From salmon to rotisserie chicken to vegetable panini sandwiches to chicken Caesar salad to Asian fusion dishes, Sunshine Seasons has something for almost everyone. And it has unlimited drink refills.
Menu Variety: 5 Mouse Ears
Menu Uniqueness: 5 Mouse Ears
Food Quality: 5 Mouse Ears
Cost: 4 Mouse Ears
Theme: 2 Mouse Ears
Total: 21 Mouse Ears

The reason why Sunshine's 21 beats Columbia's 21 is because Sunshine's score is compiled almost entirely because of the food itself with very little help from the theming (almost in spite of the theming), while Columbia's score is greatly helped by its incredible theming. Like I mentioned, theming is very important in Disney, but when you're hungry and need decent quality food, theming won't cut it. So Sunshine gets the nod.

Honorable Mention
Earl Of Sandwich (Downtown Disney)
Since The Earl isn't technically a Disney owned and operated restaurant (it is in fact a national chain), I couldn't in good conscience add it to this list, except as an honorable mention. But it is SO very much worth mentioning. Not only is there a quality menu that is varied and unique, but it is cheap (well, relatively speaking - in comparison to most Disney CS restaurants - $6.00 for a sandwich that is about 3/4 the length of a Subway foot-long sub). They also have indoor and outdoor seating and free refills as well. It's a good, cheap option in the middle of The Mouse. Can't beat that.
Menu Variety: 5 Mouse Ears
Menu Uniqueness: 5 Mouse Ears
Food Quality: 5 Mouse Ears
Cost: 5 Mouse Ears
Theme: 2 Mouse Ears
Total: 22 Mouse Ears

Now that you know the best, we'll take a quick look at some counter service restaurants that you should absolutely avoid at all costs:
1.Pinocchio's Village Haus (Magic Kingdom)
Pinocchio's used to serve a panini sandwich that was OK. Not great, but OK. And it was something different from most counter service offerings. But then it was removed from the menu. And one of the worst things you can possibly eat (from a health standpoint), the chili cheese fries basket, is still on the menu. Nothing else stands out, and it seems the generic pizza they serve there is somehow worse than everywhere else it's served. Not sure how, but it sure seems that way.
2. ABC Commissary (Hollywood Studios)
This was once a very good counter service restaurant. So the fact that it once was very good underscores its fall from grace. While it never had good theming (the only redeeming aspect is that it continually runs TV promos for its ABC shows - it's where Hope and I first became intrigued with Lost and started watching it religiously ever since), it did have a very, very good Cuban sandwich which was served with plantain chips. But they took it off the menu. Now the menu is awful - stay away from the "Chicken Bleu". Trust me.
3. Yak & Yeti Counter Service (Animal Kingdom)
This was disappointing because the one time we ate at the actual Yak & Yeti table service restaurant, we were very pleased with the experience - GREAT food, incredible theming, good service (but VERY overpriced, however). That is why when we tried the counter service, it blew our minds with how different the quality of the food was. The outdoor theming was still good (not nearly as good as the interior of the actual restaurant though), but the food was worse than most standard take-out Chinese food joints. And WAY overpriced. If you want some decent Chinese-style counter service, try the China pavilion in Epcot. It didn't make our list, but it's close. Yak and Yeti isn't anywhere close.

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