Here is our list of the top 10 best counter service restaurants at Walt Disney World, updated for 2014. 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. A couple of these (notable, Flame Tree BBQ) also accept the Tables in Wonderland card for a 20% discount, so if you’re a Tables in Wonderland cardholder, make sure to keep that in mind!
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. 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 very 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.
9. Columbia Harbour House (menu) Magic Kingdom - Columbia Harbour House has fallen a bit on this list. While we still love it thanks to its solid menu and very relaxed upstairs seating, but it is worth noting that every single good-to-great option is seafood, so in terms of variety it does poorly. 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. If you’re a seafood fan, Columbia Harbour House could leapfrog several restaurants on this list.
8. 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, I’ve come to understand some of the complaints. I still think Cosmic Ray’s is underrated in view of popular sentiment from Disney fans, and it has seen a partial menu refresh, but it’s due for more. There are several good menu items, but just as many that can be described as ordinary. I love the toppings bar, and I feel that Sonny Eclipse is the epitome of the “Disney Details” that make Walt Disney World special. 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 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.
7. The Mara (menu) Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge - The Mara is exactly what you’d expect from a counter service restaurant at Animal Kingdom Lodge: full of unique and adventurous options, at least in terms of counter service dining. The plus side is that it also serves less-adventurous options, like the Pepperoni Flatbread. I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve had here, but I can’t point to any entree that blows me away, which causes it to fall to #7. We’ve yet to try the salmon, BBQ chicken flatbread, or rotisserie chicken, so maybe those will be the entrees that put this over the top for us. The big draw here is the Zebra Domes found in the coolers; make sure to get an order of them to split.
6. Captain Cook’s (menu) Disney’s Polynesian Resort - Two words: Dole Whip. Make that four words: self serve Dole Whip. Need I say more? Actually, yes, as the self-service Dole Whip is far from the biggest draw here. The menu at Captain Cook’s is also incredibly varied and made-to-order. Thanks to great and made-to-order lunch and dinner options including some unique cupcakes, plus Tonga Toast for breakfast, Captain Cook’s ranks very highly. 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.
5. 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).
4. 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 limited menu for non-carnivores causes Flame Tree BBQ to fall to number 4.
3. Pepper Market (menu) Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort - Pepper Market has had a bit of an identity crisis the last few years, going from a la carte to buffet back to a la carte market style ordering. If you’re a huge, value-focused eater, the change away from buffet is probably disappointing. However, we feel this has improved food quality. Portion sizes are still more than ample for most appetites, and the sheer amount of variety here is insane. The new rib entree is the highlight of the menu, and they give Flame Tree BBQ a run for their money, and the Aztec Burger is also a great, unique option that seems of far better quality than any other counter service burger at Walt Disney World. Add to that a variety of good Mexican food, other international options, and pizza, and you have a top notch restaurant for dining.
2. Sunshine Seasons (menu) Epcot, Future World - It’s ironic that the top counter service dining option in a Walt Disney World theme park 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.
1. 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. Our most recent experience, during which we tried flatbreads and their Mahi sandwich catapulted it to the top of this list. Not only are menu items delicious and unique, but the menu is huge, offering ample variety for everyone in your group. It does lack theming, feeling a bit like a loud food court, but when the monorail zooms by overhead, you realize the Grand Canyon Concourse is all the “theming” it needs. The important thing to remember here? Save room for dessert.
If you’ve been reading this list for the past few years, you’ll notice it has really been shaken up for 2014. A few new entrants like The Mara and Pepper Market, and a brand new number 1. We spent a lot more time eating counter service in resort hotels in the last year, and a number of them trump or seriously challenge restaurants on this list. There are several that didn’t make the list that probably could, including Sassagoula Floatworks & Food Factory, Riverside Mill Food Court, Everything POP, and Old Port Royale Food Court, among others. Landscape of Flavors at Art of Animation is now the most glaring absence on the list. We’ve eaten there, but we’ve only tried two menu items, and that’s not quite enough to judge it. Do not hesitate to eat there if staying at Art of Animation or Pop Century, though. Our initial impression is that it’s shockingly good for a Value Resort food court. (Even the new End Zone Food Court at All Star Sports impressed us in a way that we absolutely did not expect.)
Earl of Sandwich and Wolfgang Puck Express are other popular omissions. 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 Les Halles 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!