Here is our list of the top 10 best counter service restaurants at Walt Disney World, updated for 2013. Of Walt Disney World’s hundred-plus dining options, a lot of our favorites are the more well-known table service restaurants, but there are also some great counter service restaurants. Some of these restaurants, like Sunshine Seasons and Cosmic Ray’s, are once-per-trip restaurants for us. Others, like the ones in the resort-hotels, are a little more out of the way, but are almost alone worth a trip to the hotels.
For those unfamiliar with the term, counter service (or quick service) restaurants are Disney’s equivalent of fast food. Don’t let the negative connotation of ‘fast food’ dissuade you from trying these restaurants, as all of them have some excellent options. There are so many good counter service options that it was difficult to narrow this list down to 10. Only one World Showcase restaurant made the list, while the Magic Kingdom–a park not normally known for its food–has three restaurants on the list!
This list is based on our subjective determination of best based upon our opinion of value, quality, convenience, and theme. All participate in the Disney Dining Plan as counter service credits. Flame Tree BBQ also accepts the Tables in Wonderland card for a 20% discount, making it especially appealing to us!
Below is a brief synopsis why each restaurant is a great pick for your next quick meal at Walt Disney World. Click the restaurant name for our full review (and lots more food-photos!) of each restaurant:
10. Studio Catering Company (menu) Disney’s Hollywood Studios - This restaurant started the turn-around of Disney’s Hollywood Studios dining for us. We dined here in December 2010 and had a pretty good meal, but when we dined there in May 2011, we had an excellent meal. Everything we’ve had at Disney’s Hollywood Studios–a park notorious for its poor dining options–has been okay or good. We even like ABC Commissary, which is often panned (although Pizza Planet isn’t our favorite place in the world). My recommendation at Studio Catering Company is the Buffalo Chicken Sandwich. Get that and grab a seat close to the Honey, I Shrunk the Kids play area for the best experience. Or, during the holidays, grab food here and make the short walk over to the Streets of America and enjoy the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights for the ultimate experience!
9. Contempo Café (menu) Disney’s Contemporary Resort - Already “famous” for its cupcakes, Contempo Cafe is one of our new favorite restaurants. We have dined here several times and always come away happy. This one was significantly higher on the original version of this list, and it hasn’t done anything to cause it to fall, but it probably was overrated then based largely upon that cupcake. It is a very solid restaurant, but there is no themed ambiance here to speak of, and Captain Cook’s (a seemingly odd comparison, but there are some similarities) is the much better stop on the monorail loop. The Herb-marinated Chicken Sandwich is absolutely to die-for. The dressing on it is out of this world. The flatbreads are also good, but the important thing to remember here? Save room for dessert!
8. Be Our Guest Restaurant (menu) Magic Kingdom - Given the insane amount of hype surrounding Be Our Guest Restaurant, some people might be surprised to not find this restaurant at the top of the list. Yes, the theming and attention to detail are great here (just don’t eat in the mess hall–I mean ballroom), and the food is ambitious for a locale in Fantasyland, but it ultimately is just not as good as other restaurants ranking above it. Add to that inflated prices and extremely long lines to get inside for lunch, and you have a restaurant that we view as good, but overrated. Disney fans love new things so the initial praise isn’t surprising, but we expect the luster to wear off after a couple years. We actually prefer Gaston’s Tavern for what it is, but the limited menu precludes it from making this list.
7. Cosmic Ray’s Starlight Cafe (menu) Magic Kingdom - Regular readers of this blog may recall that this was once my top counter service restaurant at Walt Disney World, and the original version of this list ranked it at #3 overall. Cosmic Ray’s will always hold a special place in my heart, but over the years, some of the luster has worn off. I still think Cosmic Ray’s is underrated in comparison to popular sentiment, but I think it is due for a refresh. I love the toppings bar, and I feel that Sonny Eclipse is the epitome of the “Disney Details” that make Walt Disney World special. The menu here has had its ups and downs, but looking at this list as objectively as possible, it’s hard to put Cosmic Ray’s in the top 5. It’s still my sentimental favorite and a place I think most kids (or kids at heart) will love, but the food isn’t as good as the top two restaurants on the list. The odd “bay” system also complicates dining here for families, and during busy seasons and prime dining hours, the place is a madhouse.
6. Roaring Fork (menu) Disney’s Wilderness Lodge - The Roast Beef and Blue Cheese Sandwich (pictured above) is the stuff of legends. The bread is soft and has good flavor, the roast beef is moist and tender, and the blue cheese dressing…oh my. Plus, the homemade potato chips! This is the only thing I’ve ever eaten here, and quite frankly, I never expect to eat anything else. The fresh-tossed Territory Salad, Tuna Sandwich, and flatbreads all have looked good, but I never plan on deviating from this sandwich. Sarah is a fan of it, too. Save room for dessert, as the cupcakes here are great, too.
5. Captain Cook’s (menu) Disney’s Polynesian Resort - Two words: Dole Whip. Make that four words: self serve Dole Whip. Need I say more? Probably not. However, if that’s not enough to sell you on Captain Cook’s, the menu is also incredibly varied and made-to-order. We ate here a couple of times in 2012, and it was spectacular both times. Thanks to great and made-to-order lunch and dinner options including some unique cupcakes, plus Tonga Toast for breakfast, Captain Cook’s moves into the top 5. We highly recommend taking your food outside (the small dining area inside is often crowded, anyway) and enjoying the sights and sounds of the Polynesian while you enjoy your meal. Pure bliss.
4. Tangierine Cafe (menu) Epcot, World Showcase, Morocco - Despite some really incredible table service options, the counter service food in Epcot’s World Showcase is fairly uninspired. Tangierine Cafe is the big exception, as it offers huge portions for fair prices, and has a fairly non-traditional counter service menu. While it is somewhat adventurous, it’s still tame-enough that most tourists can find something here that they like. We usually split a meal at Tangierine Cafe because it’s that filling. It may be tempting to add the Baklava to your entree for a bargain price, but buyer beware: we find the Baklava disgusting (YMMV).
3. Columbia Harbour House (menu) Magic Kingdom - Columbia Harbour House is a new favorite of ours, thanks to its improved menu and very relaxed upstairs seating. Unlike many real world seafood restaurants, the food here isn’t 60% breading, 40% seafood. It’s a great place to escape the crowds of the Magic Kingdom. The portions of some items are small, but Columbia Harbour House largely offers great value and filling entrees.
2. Flame Tree BBQ (menu) Disney’s Animal Kingdom - If you love meat, Flame Tree BBQ might sneak into the top spot on this list for you. The 1/2 Slab of St. Louis Ribs that tops Flame Tree BBQ’s menu is the single greatest counter service option in all of Walt Disney World. Other options here sound great, but nothing tops those ribs. The details and view of Everest in the seating area make this a must-try. Only its dessert selection and menu for non-carnivores prevents Flame Tree BBQ from taking the overall #1 spot.
1. Sunshine Seasons (menu) Epcot, Future World - It’s ironic that the top counter service dining option at Walt Disney World would come from Epcot–the park known for its spectacular World Showcase dining–but not the area of the park generally considered to have amazing dining. Sunshine Seasons offers something for everyone. Delicious sandwiches, chicken, salmon, and an array of amazing desserts. The seating area leaves a little to be desired (perhaps a nice fountain in the middle, wink wink), but overall Sunshine Seasons cannot be beat.
Okay, so there are a few notable restaurants that you might think are fairly glaring omissions. First, Mara at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge. We’ve “eaten” there a few times, but only for dessert! The dessert is amazing, and I’ve heard the rest of the food is, too, but I can’t recommend a restaurant that (I feel) I haven’t adequately experienced. My bet is that it would easily make this list, but I’m not a betting man. Next, Earl of Sandwich and Wolfgang Puck Express. Both are excellent, but both are “real world” restaurants. For that reason, neither of them make the list. I also avoided bakeries, which prevented the excellent Boulangerie Patisserie, Starring Rolls, and Kringla Bakeri og Cafe from making the list. We’ll have a separate list of top bakeries soon, and expect to see all three of those at the very top of the list!
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What do you think? Have you dined at these restaurants? Did you like or dislike them? What are your top Walt Disney World counter service restaurants? Let us know in the comments!