And, as if by strange and sad magic, we’re back. Two glorious weeks in unseasonably baking weather – which wilted but did not wither this fragile British blossom – and it’s back down to (spaceship) Earth with a bump.
I dare say there will be a few things I will be keen to blog about over the next few weeks, but being of Mediterranean origin I’m going the traditional Greek route of telling you about everything I ate since we last met. Food was always going to be a major part of the trip, from classic US diner breakfasts (yes, Brits are obsessed with the likes of Cracker Barrel, Perkins and Denny’s because they might be ubiquitous cheapie chains to you, my American brethren, but to us they’re ZOMG biscuits and proper pancakes) to a date night in Epcot, because why would a date night involving me be anywhere else?
So, here is a brief(ish) rundown of the highlights, with just a few of my favourite things.
At: All those places I mentioned above
The Highlights: I am most particular about my pancakes. I appreciate crepes, I do, but when it comes to breakfast only thick, fluffy American pancakes will do. Since I gave up maple syrup (I use rice malt at home), I appreciated a good dollop of whipped butter and a sprinkling of fresh fruit as well. Though I love Cracker Barrel for its hokey setting, Denny’s took the prize for me for the best, thickest, fluffiest pancakes; I did appreciate that Perkins did a multigrain and nut version, though, which was nicely savoury and interesting (hell, you could even pretend it was healthy). All were served with a dash of whipped butter. If you like blueberry pancakes, Denny’s sprinkle them throughout lightly, which I prefer, and Cracker Barrel pack them to the gills. All in all, it was a good fortnight for pancakes. As we were staying at a villa, the rest of the time I scharfed on pumpernickel rye bread from Publix with 100% peanut butter and sliced strawberries or whipped cream cheese (insert joke about my fondness for whipped things here) and slices of cucumber. Why don’t we have as much pumpernickel bread here? THIS COUNTRY NEEDS MORE PUMPKERNICKEL.
The Downsides: Sugar-free toppings tend to be sorbitol-laden sugar-free syrups (I’d rather just have maple and suffer the consequences) so take your own rice malt if you’re a committed sugar-quitter who really can’t do without. There will be some sugar in the batter, remember. Also, we didn’t manage to get in a visit to Einstein Bros for pumpernickel bagels and this is very very sad because see sentence in caps above.
At: Sci Fi Dine-In Theater (Disney’s Hollywood Studios), The Leaky Cauldron (Diagon Alley – The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Studios), Captain America Diner (Marvel Super Hero Island, Universal Islands of Adventure), Be Our Guest Restaurant (Magic Kingdom)
The Highlights: I’m not sure I can even remember much about the food in the Sci Fi Dine-In Theater and I’m almost certainly sure it doesn’t matter – the theming is all in that place, where you sit in rows in drive-in cars and watch 1950s cartoons under a ‘starry’ sky.
I do recall it had some more unusually healthy / less fried options (eg vegetarian shepherd’s pie, although it was made partly with veggie burger patty I think) and had Mickey Check options for the kids, which are a Disney Parks initiative marking out salt, sugar and fat-controlled meals that provide at least one serving of fruit or vegetable. But really, you would eat fried batter with batter on the side just to sit in there – it’s wonderful. Booking is almost certainly essential at busier times of year.
The Leaky Cauldron is also brilliantly themed – like stepping onto the film set – and the British-inspired fare is actually decent; the Ploughman’s for two I shared with my husband had a lovely fresh beetroot chutney and decent cheese, and the kid’s fish and chips had crunchy batter. The chips were nothing like soggy chip shop chips and frankly all the better for it (no, you can’t revoke my citizenship for that; I was born here). Plus there was malt vinegar on each table as standard.
Since it opened, Be Our Guest Restaurant has been so insanely popular that you can now only get a table through Advance Dining Reservations and it was an effort and a half to secure a late lunch reservation for nine of us. It was entirely worth it though; we had a choice of eating in one of the three dining rooms; distracted and hungry, we made a beeline for the obvious, huge ballroom (it felt amazingly like stepping into That Scene even in my sweaty t-shirt and denim shorts). We could have dipped into the ‘Castle Gallery’ room, surrounded on all sides by paintings and tapestries from the film, and we should have gone straight to the West Wing, which includes an amazing stormy window in front of which is placed the enchanted rose – from which a petal drops every so often. The hangings are ripped and the portrait of the prince suddenly gets slashed. Gorgeous. Of course, you’re free to wander in there after you’ve eaten. At lunch, the ordering system means you order before you sit and take a plastic ‘rose’ puck with you wherever you go so your food can find you.
Options were limited but decent; I had a roast beef baguette with horseradish which was so big I gave half of it away. The kids all went for a healthier pasta option. I had to have a bite of the ‘grey stuff’, so ordered the Master’s Cupcake (chocolate with buttercream); it was… well, quite nice. I don’t really do icing anymore, so the rest of it was devoured by my husband and child, but I’m glad I did it! I understand dinner is much more of an event, with a wider menu, proper table service and Beast meet n greets, so try your damndest for a booking if, like me, you’re a big Beauty and the Beast fan. Plus it’s the only place in Magic Kingdom that serves alcohol.
An honourable mention should also go to Katsura Grill at the Japan pavilion in Epcot’s World Showcase – which offers cheaper Japanese meals such as quick and tasty udon soup with beef, curry or tempura shrimp plus chicken teriyaki, rice and veg for the kids. People also didn’t seem to notice it was there, so there tended to be available seats even though it’s a pretty small location.
The Downsides: Across the board, even the most mundane theme park food in Orlando is about ten times better than the quick service Disneyland Paris fare, I’m afraid. However, the weakest meal we had was in Captain America’s diner which had glacially slow service and perfectly edible but distinctly mediocre burgers. But great photos on the wall, and the good Cap’n did a meet and greet right across the road.
At: Le Cellier (Canada – World Showcase, Epcot), Via Napoli (Italy – World Showcase, Epcot)
The Highlights: Disney has steadily and purposefully worked on developing World Showcase’s long-held reputation for the best food on property, and old favourite Le Cellier continues to maintain this. The perfectly cooked to order filet mignon with truffle butter sauce and mushroom risotto was incredible – and so filling (especially after starters and a warm bread basket including a delicious prezel bread stick) my husband didn’t have room to sample the maple creme brûlée for which the restaurant is well-known. It is not a cheap option, but setting is lovely and the service warm and friendly. If you finish dinner early enough you can also dart straight out for a great view of IllumiNations.
Via Napoli was heaving and very noisy, and when we were seated we were told there might be delays due to a new chef in the kitchen. However, we were actually served very promptly and the ‘large’ pizzas – served on big stands and designed to serve 2-3, but easily serving up to 4 if you’re not madly hungry – were incredibly good. The next size up is (literally) half a metre and there’s an individual option too; while the pizzas aren’t cheap, you can extract very good value through sharing.
The classic Neapolitan thin base was a great balance of chewy and crisp, and there were only a few options to choose from (though you can design your own if you’re so inclined) so they were all done really well. I was delighted to see some pizza bianca options – that is, no tomato sauce – and the Carciofi with its gorgeous artichoke topping was utterly delicious. A big house salad packed with Mediterranean leaves and veg was a great side order and I found room for one of the two sugary treats I had for the holiday, pistachio gelato which was rich and yummy with the crunch of nut pieces (ice cream is about the only weakness I have that’s worth the sugar headache). My sister tucked into fried ricotta balls dipped in chocolate sauce which she thoroughly loved.
The Downsides: People lose their minds over Le Cellier’s cheddar cheese soup; I found it pleasant enough but a bit salty and bland. Ash’s scallop starter was absolutely gorgeous, though.
At: Food carts throughout Walt Disney World, Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlour (Diagon Alley – Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Studios)
The Highlights: For me, the wonderful Mickey Pretzel (like any other soft pretzel but with ears, damnit). For Miss R, the Mickey ice cream bar she was treated to by a very kind friend. Both around the $5 mark; both worth it for the happy looks on happy faces.
The Downsides: The other sugary treat I decided to go for was Florean Fortescue‘s Sticky Toffee Pudding ice cream. And look, it was still nice ice cream. And yes, I am really, really hard to please with sugary stuff these days (it has to be SO WORTH IT). But… it was really just very sweet vanilla with cakey chunks in it. I never regretted the pistachio gelato for a second, but this? Well… meh. There are loads of other options though, and the fun of experiencing a Fortescue sundae is undeniable.
I hope that’s whet some appetites for what’s on offer in Florida’s theme parks and slightly beyond (and also convinced a few people who might have thought that all you can get is shoddy fried stuff with plastic cheese, though it’s out there if that floats your boat). Got a favourite I didn’t visit? Fill me with regret in the comments.