Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort is once again welcoming guests and one of the most in-demand hotels at Walt Disney World. ‘Ohana is also back, with Advance Dining Reservations booked solid weeks in advance despite high prices and spotty quality. Meanwhile, the Poly’s best restaurant flies under the radar, with last-minute ADRs, fair prices, and delicious cuisine. Same as it ever was. Same as it ever was.
I don’t think it’ll shock some Walt Disney World fans to hear that we think Kona Cafe is the Poly’s best restaurant. While ‘Ohana has way more cachet, mainstream popularity, and name recognition, Kona Cafe is a favorite of longtime Walt Disney World fans. Part of that is due to quality and prices. If we’re being honest, part is also due to Kona Cafe being far easier to book. Many locals, Annual Passholders, and DVC members simply aren’t willing to jump through the hoops for ‘Ohana.
In some ways, Kona Cafe reminds me of the Wave (RIP), Geyser Point, Three Bridges, Sanaa, and Grand Floridian Cafe. None of those are the big name restaurants at their respective resorts. However, they tend to be more popular–and even preferred–among repeat visitors. All are “hidden gem” Walt Disney World dining options that we’d file under “real OGs know.” With that said, we’ve actually had a roller coaster relationship with Kona Cafe over the years…
Back when Le Cellier was all the rage among Walt Disney World fans–and the most difficult ADR to score–we took the position that the New York Strip Steak was actually better at the much easier-to-book Kona Cafe. During the Disney Dining Plan’s heyday, we ate at Kona every single trip. I ate that steak at least a half-dozen times, and there were several items that offered great bang for buck. Kona Cafe was also a good option out of pocket, with several more budget-friendly options.
At some point, the menu changed and became significantly more expensive. This came at a time when we were doing the Disney Dining Plan much, so Kona Cafe became a much tougher sell. Dropping over $50 per person for the meal made it easier to see Kona’s faults, like it’s relatively minimal theming and the “mall food court” vibe thanks to guests loitering around right outside tables while waiting for their ‘Ohana reservations. Now, things have come full circle again…
Our last few meals at Kona Cafe have all been spectacular, a trend that dates back before last year and has continued through the official reopening of Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort. Most recently, we dined at Kona Cafe for lunch last week while staying in one of the “Moana Makeover” guest rooms at the Poly.
Both this meal and our previous two reminded us of the Kona Cafe we fell in love with over a decade ago. A range of price points plus fun cuisine, inventive items, and comfort food. Still no Disney Dining Plan and that Teriyaki-Style New York Strip Steak is long gone, but there is plenty to love about Kona Cafe!
Let’s start with ambiance. Nothing has changed here with Kona Cafe–the seating has been more or less unchanged for years. Kona Cafe is starting to show its age with the patterns on the benches and carpet, but it’s still perfectly fine. There’s not a ton of space to work with here, so I’m not even sure what Imagineering could do to improve the theme.
Kona Cafe opens up to the second level of the lobby, offering views of the atrium. This is both an asset and liability. It’s great when uncrowded, as it gives the restaurant a light and airy atmosphere, and feel less claustrophobic and confined–avoiding the Wave’s woes. It’s unpleasant when the Poly’s upper level is packed with people waiting for ‘Ohana. Thankfully, that’s not an issue right now.
On another “right now” (August 2021) note, don’t let these photos of an empty dining room at Kona Cafe fool you. It was packed when we dined here for a late lunch, with only a couple of tables “temporarily unavailable” for health and safety. As we’ve pointed out previously, Walt Disney World is taking tables out of service based on staffing levels or lack thereof–not physical distancing.
For our most recent lunch, Kona Cafe was filling about 75% of its tables. When we walked by for breakfast, this percentage appeared lower. With Walk-Up Waitlist, Disney has the ability to scale up dynamically, so be sure to check during your stay if you’d like to dine here at the last minute. For our meal, we booked a same-day ADR. Kona Cafe is more popular right now due to lack of other options, but it’s still not nearly as difficult to book as ‘Ohana or most other restaurants.
Our meal at Kona Cafe starts with bread service, which is simply regular rolls served with plain butter.
Totally serviceable, but nothing special. “Free filler” is basically what these rolls offer.
For our appetizer, we ordered the Crispy Pork-Vegetable Pot Sticker with Soy-Vinaigrette Dressing.
No, I didn’t accidentally use a potato pancake photo…
Flipping the pancake-like food over reveals five pot stickers.
These are truly some of the best pot stickers we’ve ever had. In our ‘Ohana Family-Style Dinner Review, the pork dumplings are one of the few things we praised. These are even better. The filling between the two is very similar, but what puts these over the top is the crisp texture and the creamy dressing. savory and fantastic.
Speaking of ‘Ohana, you can order versions of all that restaurant’s best dishes at Kona Cafe. If you were to order these pot stickers, the glazed chicken wings, our final entree, and the bread pudding (off menu), it would set you back $55–or exactly the price of dinner at ‘Ohana for one–and would be enough food for two people.
Unfortunately for those who hate themselves and/or want to punish their stomachs, ‘Ohana’s infamous seafood casserole cannot be ordered at Kona Cafe. If that’s a problem, you could always purchase a can of Campbell’s condensed cream soup and combine that with some frozen shrimp or a rubber toy. Or you could order one of Kona Cafe’s many seafood appetizers or entrees that are actually delicious.
Speaking of which, back when we were only dining outdoors, we did Kona Cafe To-Go and ordered the Lobster and Crab Macaroni & Cheese.
This is filling and fantastic. Rich and heavy, with an abundance of lobster and crab meat and mix of quality cheeses. We both loved this, and would highly recommend this appetizer. It’s fairly priced especially given how much seafood is in it.
We also ordered the Steak Salad: Sunny-side Up Egg, Kona House Vinaigrette, Sweet Bell Peppers, Kale and Arugula Blend.
I don’t even remember why we ordered this. Wanting to eat healthy? In any case, what you see is what you get. This salad is not noteworthy nor is it recommended.
Turning back to this lunch at Kona Cafe, we ordered the Duck Fried Rice with Leg Confit: Crispy Duck Spring Roll, Shiitake Mushrooms, Togarashi, Grilled Bok Choy.
There actually are differences between the lunch and dinner menus at Kona Cafe, and both entrees we ordered are lunch-only. They are replaced by the Asian-marinated Airline Chicken and Kona-braised Short Rib for dinner.
At $32, the Duck Fried Rice is the most expensive item on the lunch menu.
It is worth every penny. The duck leg was tender and delicious on its own and the duck spring roll was tasty, but it’s the duck fried rice itself that was star. Savory and delicious, this was a huge and meaty portion of fried rice. That photo makes it look smaller, but we could only finish half–and it was perfect for leftovers. Highly recommended.
Finally, the Kona Chicken Stir-fry: Yakisoba Noodles, Napa Cabbage, Carrots, Teriyaki Sauce.
Upon tasting these, Sarah’s immediate reaction was, “these are better than the ‘Ohana noodles.” She’s right. Like those, these noodles have a nice balance of savory and sweet flavors, with a good elastic consistency, chewiness, and thickness. The rest of the stir-fry gave them a better exterior texture, too. Again, we could only finish half. The only downside of this dish is that our smaller piece of chicken (the one to the right) was dry. Otherwise, absolutely fantastic and highly recommended (but not quite as much as the duck fried rice), especially to ‘Ohana noodle diehards.
Ultimately, this just scratches the surface on why we are back to loving Kona Cafe. If anything, I feel like we’re underselling it with this review. We had another meal here shortly after the last big menu overhaul and it was likewise delicious–I can’t locate those photos, but we found the sushi surprisingly good. We’d also like to try the dashi bowls, poke bowls, and more–next time! (Additionally, Kona Cafe’s breakfast is great.)
With that said, we can still understand why Kona Cafe is less popular with casual Walt Disney World visitors than ‘Ohana. While we would take the cuisine and prices at Kona Cafe any day over ‘Ohana, there’s absolutely something to be said for the atmosphere and views of Magic Kingdom at ‘Ohana. Kona Cafe definitely lags in those regards, making it far less memorable as a dining experience. If the complete package and making memories matters more and you don’t mind overpaying, ‘Ohana remains the superior option. For food, Kona Cafe is the far superior choice.
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Have you dined at Kona Cafe? Any favorite appetizers, entrees, or desserts? Tried the ‘Ohana menu items (or their close counterparts) served at Kona Cafe? Will you be booking an Advance Dining Reservation for lunch or dinner here? What did you think? Worthwhile for the food, atmosphere, or for both? Do you agree or disagree with our assessment? Other thoughts or concerns? Any questions we can help you answer? 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!