Carthay Circle Restaurant in Disney California Adventure is Disneyland Resort’s top in-park dining experience. This review covers our experiences at both the bar & lounge and the table service restaurant located in Carthay Circle Theatre. Carthay Circle Restaurant’s menu consists of trendy modern cuisine with a diverse range of flavors and locally sourced ingredients. Many items on the menu are flavors of Southern California, but it’s not an overly “California” menu. Inside, it feels like an upscale old Hollywood place. Sort of like the Hollywood Tower Hotel, except without the lightning and stuff (although I did half expect to find Rod Serling inside).
Being an upscale restaurant inside a theme park is a tough balancing act–upscale dining requires a certain menu, level of service, and ambiance, whereas theme parks are bustling places often filled with sweaty tourists. Nailing the ambiance thus becomes a bit of a challenge, as the restaurant’s clientele is not typical of what you’d find in a comparable SoCal restaurant. In this sense, Carthay Circle Restaurant was a bit of a gamble for Disney. Napa Rose in Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel has proven quite popular, but it benefits from locals being able to visit without paying park admission.
By contrast, Carthay Circle Restaurant caters only to the theme park crowd, and has to compete with attractions for the attention of this crowd. Unlike other restaurants that have gone “extinct” at Disney California Adventure in the past, Carthay Circle Restaurant is located prominently in Disney California Adventure’s wienie, making it more difficult for Disney to just shutter. On top of that, much of the dedicated Annual Passholder base at Disneyland was a bit perturbed when Carthay Circle Theatre was announced as the home of a restaurant and two lounges rather than an actual attraction. In other words, Carthay Circle Restaurant has had a lot of pressure on it since even before it opened to really offer an incredible experience.
As with all things related to the re-launch of Disney California Adventure, Disney has been touting the restaurant and its chefs Andrew Sutton and Gloria Tae, both of whom helped make Napa Rose one of the premier SoCal restaurants. They personally crafted the menu for Carthay Circle Restaurant, which is quite unlike anything seen before in a Disneyland Resort theme park restaurant (excepting the exclusive Club 33), and is arguably more ambitious than The Hollywood Brown Derby at Disney’s Hollywood Studios or Monsieur Paul at Epcot. This menu had us convinced that we’d need to experience the restaurant on its opening day (June 15, 2012).
Carthay Circle Lounge Review
With our friends Kate and Henry Work, we visited Carthay Circle Lounge that day as soon as it opened to be among the first to experience that. That was our first glimpse inside the “Theatre,” and it was beyond impressive. Disney spared no expense when it came to the design of Carthay Circle Theatre, and it showed even in the lounge.
Unlike most lounges at Disneyland (or Walt Disney World, for that matter), the menu of Carthay Circle Lounge was unique! I’ve offered my share of criticism for the uninspired “Generic DisneyParks® Drink Menu®,” as I call it, so it was great to see Disney starting to go in the other direction with their lounge menus–first with Trader Sam’s, and now with Carthay Circle Lounge. The great thing about being at this lounge on opening day for “rope drop” was that it was pretty empty (most guests were racing around Cars Land) and team behind the lounge was largely present. In fact, there were probably more suits in the lounge than there were guests.
We had the chance to talk to one of the people responsible for the drink menu at Carthay Circle Lounge (among a few other places at different Disney restaurants around the globe), and he indicated that a lot of thought had been put into it–both to make it as authentic to the theme as possible and to make it appeal to guests–and they were working on going this direction with more menus, as there was a cultural tide towards engaging drinks, and because Trader Sam’s had proven successful. Interesting stuff, and hopefully this trend continues.
What he had said about the menu was absolutely true. We sampled several drinks (you know…for the sake of research), and every single one had an exceptional recipe and was very well-made. Over the course of the next few days we stopped in the Carthay Circle Lounge a few times, with our favorite drinks being the Carthay Manhattan and the Carthay Club Mojito. The only drink that was “a bit much” was the Aviator Cocktail, which was mixed incredibly strong. But better strong than watered down and sugary (as is endemic of most Disney drinks). We didn’t have a single drink that could be described as glorified sugar water with some booze splashed in. The drinks were all brilliant, and for this alone, the Lounge receives high marks.
However, even on days that were not busy (as was the case each time we were there), service was inefficient. Some growing pains were to be expected since it was the opening weekend, but many of the servers plodded around like they had no idea that they should be taking drink orders. There were difficulties with the custom ice (oh yes, Carthay Circle Lounge has custom ice…and you haven’t truly lived until you’ve had some custom ice!) press, and it seemed like the staff had very little clue how they should handle actual customers. They expertly prepared the drinks, so I presume that most attention during training was devoted to this, while actual service was entirely glossed over. Normally I don’t comment much on service in these reviews since it varies so much from person to person, but in this case, there was a system-wide failure. That said, I’d rather have perfect drinks and poor service than poor drinks and perfect service, and, as mentioned, it was opening weekend.
Esteemed Carthay Circle Lounge expert James Hilger commented to us that service has been good recently, and that the Lounge hit its groove after the first few months. Most others who responded to our inquiry seemed to agree with this, although some noted some inconsistencies or poor service. Regardless, the quality of drinks and the ambiance at the lounge are both so exceptional that it’s well worth visiting, even if you happen to get unlucky and have poor service.
Carthay Circle Restaurant Review
Our first (and only) meal at the actual Carthay Circle Restaurant was also on June 15, 2012. The first decision we had to make was whether to eat in the luxurious and ornately designed inside dining rooms, or on the terrace with a view of Buena Vista Street. We ultimately opted for the terrace so that we could gaze out at the amazing street and watch Disneyland’s Magical! summer fireworks show near the conclusion of our meal.
Next time we’ll eat inside. It seems like the better overall experience. Plus, you can go to the terrace for the fireworks if you’re eating inside (if the terrace is open).
The beauty of the interior of Carthay Circle Restaurant cannot be overstated. Servers are willing to take guests on tours of the restaurant, and we strongly encourage you to take advantage of this. From deep, rich wood paneling to black and white 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. Disney went all out to make this something special, and for serious Disney fans, it will feel like more than a restaurant.
The level of detail and exquisite craftsmanship are astonishing, and the restaurant abounds with tributes to Walt Disney and nods to The Walt Disney Company’s past. It truly is like “Club 33, Disney California Adventure Satellite Restaurant.” The only difference is that–and this might sound like heresy to some–is that Carthay Circle Restaurant looks nicer. Those paying ridiculous annual fees (and even those who have had the privilege of dining at Club 33 and want to maintain it as something special and exclusive) are likely to disagree with this. We dined at Carthay Circle Restaurant and Club 33 on consecutive days, and there is no doubt in my mind that Carthay Circle Restaurant is the nicer looking restaurant. There are certainly more authentic items inside Club 33 and Club 33 has more actual history, but in ambiance standing on its own, Carthay Circle Restaurant wins.
We started our actual meal by ordering drinks from the downstairs lounge, which were delivered to our table upstairs shortly after we were seated. The restaurant also has its own drink options, but we had went for the drinks downstairs. Initially, we planned on only ordering a couple of appetizers for the table that the four of us would split: the Halibut Ceviche and Carthay House Biscuits. The biscuits were simply too good to only have one serving of, so we immediately ordered another basket once we tried them. Biscuits is a misnomer. These are more like breaded balls stuffed with cheddar, bacon, and just a touch of jalapeno. These have already become one of Carthay Circle Restaurant’s signature dishes (so it’s not just us) that are a must order, and we’ve heard plenty of others raving about them.
Two of us tried the Grilled Ribeye for our main courses, and two of us tried the Bacon-wrapped Shrimp. With the exception of one Grilled Rib-eye that was ever-so-slightly overcooked, all four dishes were perfect. My Ribeye was an excellent cut, cooked to perfection, and the mushrooms and blue cheese perfectly juxtaposed the flavor of the meat. Speaking only to the quality of the dish, I found this ribeye compared quite favorably to the popular Club 33 Chateaubriand and just behind the Napa Rose Filet Mignon. The Bacon-wrapped Shrimp were similarly very good. The creamy corn-salsa gave them a unique taste…and of course you can’t go wrong with bacon (it even goes with ice cream!).
We finished the meal with dessert, and even though we had already had a lot, we couldn’t resist. I tried the highly recommended Fried Banana Split Monte Cristo Sundae, and it exceeded my expectations. The emphasis was on the fried banana, with the ice cream taking a smaller role, but balancing out the banana very well. The presentation on each dessert was wonderful, and everyone else seemed to like their desserts as well. Dessert portion sizes are small, and I would not recommend them for sharing; they were all also a bit pricey.
As we finished dessert, Magical! began, and we had a clear view to it from the terrace (click here for additional photos of the fireworks from Carthay Circle Restaurant). The music was not pumped into the restaurant (understandably given the clash of themes), but it was still enjoyable to watch the fireworks from a new location. I wouldn’t consider this the best place to view the fireworks, but it probably is the best place inside Disney California Adventure. So if you don’t have a Parkhopper ticket, or don’t want to go to Disneyland for whatever reason, going out to the terrace (and guests from the main dining rooms can go out here if the terrace is open) during the fireworks is a suitable alternative.
Much like the Lounge, service was out biggest issue with Carthay Circle Restaurant. The impression we gathered from our visits is that most servers and bartenders at Carthay Circle were poached from other locations at Disneyland Resort. Besides the general building-wide confusion about what everyone should be doing, we found that some Cast Members working in Carthay Circle weren’t quite as polished and familiar with working in a fine dining establishment as others. Some servers had come from Napa Rose or Steakhouse 55, and our friends who had servers from these restaurants raved about the service (even on opening weekend), so it appears that a big part of the quality of service is where your server is “from” originally. Based upon more recent experiences of our friends on Twitter, it seems that the consensus is that service has improved a lot in recent months. This is a place where we’re absolutely willing to put our money where our mouth is–we plan on eating at Carthay Circle Restaurant soon, as we believe the service issues we had were initial hiccups.
Overall, Carthay Circle Restaurant is undeniably one of the elite Disney restaurants and Carthay Circle Lounge is one of the elite lounges. Of the restaurants we’ve experienced at Disneyland Resort, Carthay Circle Restaurant is second only to Napa Rose, and Carthay Circle Lounge is second only to Trader Sam’s. The quality and expertly-prepared cuisine and glorious drinks justify the expensive prices. It’s probably not a place where the average tourist only spending one day at Disney California Adventure will want to go, but the serious Disney fan on a 4-5 day trip or a foodie should definitely give Carthay Circle a try.
If you’ve been to Carthay Circle Restaurant recently (late 2012 or 2013), what did you think of the service? Regardless of when you’ve visited, what did you think of the food? Do you think it’s one of the best Disneyland Resort restaurants? If not, which restaurants do you prefer? Planning on going? Share your thoughts in the comments!
Read our other Disneyland Resort restaurant reviews.
Overall Score: 9/10