There’s a lot that’s debatable at Disneyland. When it comes to Disney California Adventure, reasonable minds can differ about the top attraction (Radiator Springs Racers), most delicious dessert (Choco-Smash Candy Bar), or whether the Pixar Pier and Pacific Wharf reimaginings are pointless (yes).
Other questions about DCA are more well-settled. This includes best Junkyard Jamboree song (Big Bulldozer), best character (Francisco the Cat), and which version of Soarin’ reigns supreme (Over California). To be sure, there will be some who would pick Radiator Rock, Vampire Mater, and Soarin’ Around the World–but they’re close seconds.
Likewise, there is certain to be a degree of debate about the best restaurant at DCA. Some may claim Award Wieners is truly transcendent or that Lamplight Lounge’s brunch game is unrivaled. They’re actually not wrong, but there can be only one #1. At Disney California Adventure, that is Carthay Circle Restaurant.
Without question, Carthay Circle Restaurant in Disney California Adventure is Disneyland Resort’s top in-park dining experience. This review features food photos, thoughts on value for money, and opinions on cuisine quality. It covers our most recent dinner at the table service restaurant inside Carthay Circle Theatre at DCA in 2023.
Carthay Circle Restaurant serves a modern, seasonal menu with innovative and diverse dishes that spotlight Southern California flavors and fresh, locally sourced ingredients. The restaurant is helmed by Chef Andrew Sutton, Culinary Director of the award-winning Napa Rose in Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel & Spa.
Chef Sutton has actually been such a success that he’s been elevated to Culinary Director Signature Restaurants at Disneyland Resort. This means that not only are Napa Rose and Carthay Circle Restaurant under his direction, but so too are 21 Royal and Club 33, the exclusive ‘secret society’ hidden inside New Orleans Square at Disneyland. (Okay, it’s not quite that cool–it’s basically just a glorified country club for affluent Disney fans and successful Southern California businesspeople.)
While we’re on the topic, a comparison between Carthay Circle Restaurant and Club 33 seems like as good of a place as any to start. One of my controversial takes is that Carthay Circle Restaurant is the better love letter to Walt Disney than Club 33, and it’s where I’d rather dine.
That’s right, I would rather dine at the general public restaurant on Buena Vista Street at Disney California Adventure that pays tribute to the life and early career of Walt Disney than I would the posh and private eatery above the plebs in New Orleans Square. It’s not hyperbole nor is it an attempt to be contrarian for the sake of engagement bait. Let me explain.
First, I actually prefer the Art Deco interior of Carthay Circle Restaurant to that of the private membership locale. In our New-Look Club 33 Review & Photo Tour, I described that restaurant’s interior design as “Art Nouveau Riche.” Excessive ornamentation for its own sake, flaunting its own fanciness and saying, “look at me…I’m expensive design!” From my perspective, Carthay Circle Restaurant is like The Birkin, whereas Club 33 is an ostentatious Louis Vuitton monogram handbag.
The level of detail and exquisite craftsmanship are astonishing at Carthay Circle. The finishings are exquisite and the design is cogent and cohesive, imbued with elegance and subtlety. When contrasting Carthay Circle Restaurant and Club 33, the saying “money shouts, wealth whispers” comes to mind.
It’s not just Art Deco design. Carthay Circle Restaurant abounds with tributes to Walt Disney, nods to the Walt Disney Company’s rich history, and filmmaking. Inside, it feels like an upscale old Hollywood haunt–the Beverly Hills Hotel, Chateau Marmont, or Beverly Wilshire all come to mind. It’s like what I’d imagine all of those places felt like back when they were built, new and pristine.
As history buffs are no doubt aware, Carthay Circle occupies a similar place in Los Angeles–and Disney–history. The original Carthay Circle Theatre was built in 1926, and was one of the great movie palaces of Hollywood’s golden age. It played a pivotal role in Walt Disney’s life after his arrival in Los Angeles. His first feature-length film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, premiered there in 1937, and in 1941 groundbreaking stereophonic “Fantasound” was installed for the West Coast premiere of Fantasia.
Sadly, like so many other golden age cinemas, Carthay Circle Theatre no longer exists. Walt Disney Imagineers have rebuilt it three times: as a gift shop in Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World, as this restaurant on Buena Vista Street in Disney California Adventure, and as a department store on Mickey Ave at Shanghai Disneyland (the last one is more inspired by Carthay Circle than a faithful re-creation.)
The beauty of the interior of Carthay Circle Restaurant at DCA cannot be overstated. Servers are willing to take guests on tours of the restaurant, and we strongly encourage you to take advantage of this. Imagineering went all out to make this something special, and Carthay Circle Restaurant is remarkably nice.
From deep, rich wood paneling to photos of Walt Disney on the walls to a gorgeous vaulted ceiling with art inspired by Snow White, there’s no question that Carthay Circle Restaurant is a fine dining experience. For serious Disney fans, it will feel like more than just a restaurant.
The only it thing it lacks as compared to Club 33 is the exclusivity. Part of the reason that’s a ‘bucket list’ experience for so many fans is because gaining entry requires more than making a dining reservation. I’m betting that my “Carthay Circle is a better love letter to Walt Disney than Club 33” take would be far less controversial if both were easy to book by the general public.
People want what they can’t have, and those who are among the privileged few overvalue what separates them from the masses. It seems that’s just human nature…but it doesn’t mean the more exclusive thing is superior. (Not to mention, our last experience at Club 33 cost over triple the amount of this dinner at Carthay!)
But I digress. This is a review of Carthay Circle Restaurant and not a comparison to a private membership club. The practical reality is that most Disney diehards will jump at the chance at dining at Club 33 (and for good reason–it’s a worthy bucket list entry!) and those who don’t have the opportunity have no use for the pros & cons of each. It’s Carthay Circle Restaurant by default.
The more useful comparison would be Napa Rose v. Carthay Circle Restaurant. Normally, the former would win as our #1 fine dining experience at Disneyland Resort. However, between our own firsthand experiences and reader reports, Napa Rose hasn’t been quite the same since reopening. We’ll give it another chance soon, as Carthay also wasn’t firing on all cylinders the first time we returned. Fortunately, after a couple more visits–to the outdoor Carthay Circle Lounge – Alfresco Dining and the regular restaurant–we’re happy to report that it’s back to normal!
With that look around and rambling preface out of the way, let’s dig into our latest dinner at Carthay Circle Restaurant…
We began by ordering the Mediterranean Spiced Lamb Kofta: Tomato Chutney, Tzatziki, and Warm Garlic Naan Bread as an appetizer.
This is a newer menu item, and it’s one that checks a few boxes: meat, dip, and bread. We have no complaints with this. The kofta was relatively straightforward–minced lamb and a sufficient amount of herb. The meat wasn’t particularly gamey and was otherwise well-prepared, juicy and tasty. With that said, nothing here really stood out; it was all good, but nothing wowed or was in any way memorable. For the price, we expected a bit more. Still a good dish for sharing and with a nice variety of components.
For an additional starter, we ordered the Warm Cheddar Parker House Rolls: Calabrian Chili-Pine Nut Romesco Butter.
In a world where the Carthay Circle Fried Biscuits never existed, these house rolls would be pretty good. However, those glorious breaded balls stuffed with cheddar, bacon, and a touch of jalapeno were previously a signature menu item that we’d order every single visit, and they never disappointed.
By contrast, the Warm Cheddar Parker House Rolls are rather pedestrian. They are high quality and the cheese and pine nut butter pair well, but this is still just bread. It’s the kind of thing that, frankly, we’d expect to be served as a standard bread service at a restaurant of this caliber.
Accordingly, we don’t recommend either one of these starters. It’s not that these were bad appetizers, they just didn’t reach the standards of Carthay Circle Restaurant or their own price points. (With that said, we don’t not recommend them, either. Our position on both is one of indifference or neutrality, essentially.)
For our first entree, we chose the Sautéed Fish of the Day: Thai Red Curry Broth, Buckwheat Soba Noodles, Fresh Herbs.
This is where Carthay Circle Restaurant really flexed its muscles as restaurant with innovative Southern California flair. The fusion of coastal and Asian flavors certainly impressed both of us. The tuna was tender and refreshing, with the expected meatiness and a rich and buttery quality that was balanced against the bit of texture on the outside. A really delicious fish with a robust flavor that didn’t need any assistance from the accompaniments.
That was offset masterfully by the thai curry broth and soba noodles. This had a light and subtle coconut flavor, which paired well with the noodles and other accompaniments.
All in all, it made for an interesting and ambitious dish, albeit a bit on the small side. More, well, everything, would’ve been nice, especially given that this is the exact same price ($50) as the much more substantial pork chop. In fairness, you don’t go to Carthay Circle Restaurant for an inexpensive meal, but the value proposition did strike me as slightly imbalanced here, especially as compared to the entrees that follow.
The next entree was the Signature Thick Cut Pork Chop: Roasted Pears, Market Cauliflower, Toasted Almonds.
There’s a reason “Signature” is right in the name of this dish. I’m not sure whether this was part of the original menu at Carthay Circle Restaurant, but it’s been around for over 5 years. It is reliably fantastic, and the entree you should order if you want to play it safe and eat a delicious and huge hunk of meat.
The problem with many pork chops is that they’re dry and one-note. That’s never been an issue with the Carthay Signature Pork Chop. I’m no professional pork chop analyst, but I think this is due to the thicker cut and exterior char. It locks the flavor inside, keeping the center moist and juicy. It’s a fantastic piece of meat, expertly prepared.
While pork chops can be fantastic, I’ve had too many that are overly dry, one-note hunks of meat. The accompaniments further enhance the overall dish and can provide added flavor, but don’t overwhelm or interfere with the natural flavor of the pork chop itself. Highly recommended.
Finally, I ordered the Tamari-Ginger Glazed Pork Shank: Himalayan Red Fried Rice, Spicy Mango Vinaigrette.
This is a recent addition to the menu at Carthay Circle Restaurant, and I was tantalized by the idea of two (2) pork entrees and zero (0) steaks. Naturally, we had to order the second pork dish for the sake of side-by-side comparison.
As with the Signature Thick Cut Pork Chop, this pork shank was absolutely fantastic. Despite both being pork, this is a fundamentally different dish. This is richer and more indulgent, with meat that was juicy, flavorful, and fall-off-the-bone tender.
The Tamari-Ginger Glazed Pork Shank would’ve been absolutely fine by itself, but the ginger glaze plus the spicy mango vinaigrette were surprisingly good additions, giving the meat light sweet, tangy and acidic quality. It’s almost impossible to articulate, but it just worked. Fried rice is always good, and that was true here, too.
When I order a pork shank, it’s usually a matter of pigging out, for lack of a better term. These are often meaty monstrosities, the kind of thing Gaston would consume a dozen of for breakfast. And while it’s true that I did have a bad case of the meat sweats after eating the better part of two colossal pork entrees (no regrets), there was much more to this one. Its flavor profile was nuanced and slightly unexpected–like a riff on a familiar favorite that elevated it to fine dining caliber. Again, highly recommended.
Sadly, we did not save room for dessert. If you’re wondering why…see above. Despite so much food, we (meaning me) entered the clean plate club at Carthay Circle Restaurant. So who needs Club 33 when you’ve got that club?!
Ultimately, our meal at Carthay Circle Restaurant got off to an underwhelming start with the appetizers and, like other restaurants around Disneyland Resort, it suffers from a menu that’s still scaled back as compared to pre-closure. Swapping out the appetizers we ordered for the biscuits–or a handful of other options previously served–would’ve made this meal perfect in every regard.
Carthay Circle Restaurant is not just the best restaurant in Disney California Adventure, but among a trio of truly elite restaurants at Disneyland Resort. There are a lot of great things to eat in the parks and resorts, but very few that qualify as fine dining that could go head-to-head with the best of Southern California’s real world culinary scene.
Carthay Circle Restaurant is on that short list, and it’s the only one that’s open to the general public and inside a theme park. Whether you’re a Disney diehard who appreciates the history of Walt Disney or simply a casual guest looking for a great meal, you cannot go wrong with Carthay Circle Restaurant. While the menu is still lacking as compared to pre-closure, it’s got much of its swagger back, and is again highly recommended.
If you’ve dined at Carthay Circle Restaurant since reopening, what did you think of the food? What about the theme and atmosphere? Do you think it’s the best restaurant at Disney California Adventure? What about in Disneyland Resort as a whole? If not, which restaurants do you prefer? Do you agree or disagree with our assessment? Any questions? Hearing your feedback–even when you disagree with us–is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!