Underrated Counter Service Restaurants at Disney World
Walt Disney World’s most popular counter service restaurants aren’t always the best ones. To the contrary, many of the busiest dining options serve stereotypical fast food, with crowds flocking to these spots for straightforward, crowd-pleasing options.
In terms of quality, many of Walt Disney World’s better quick service eateries are among the less popular ones. For this post, we’re focusing on the WDW restaurants that are better than they’re reputation or popularity might suggest. Not all of them are unheralded or hidden gems, but they all exceed the hype.
To that end, we’ve decided to limit this post to the ‘most underrated’ restaurant in each park plus one from the resort hotels. The idea with this approach is that it gives us the truly overlooked options as compared to their more popular counterparts. For Walt Disney World fans who obsess over dining, a couple of these are going to be somewhat obvious, but we also have a couple of highly controversial choices, too. (Gotta keep your interest somehow!)
Yak & Yeti Local Foods Cafe – With Walt Disney World dining heavyweights Satu’li Canteen and Flame Tree BBQ in Animal Kingdom, it can be difficult to choose anything else. And, to be honest, we rarely do. Harambe Market and Pizzafari each serve a few worthwhile options, but they don’t compare with the headlining one-two punch.
Neither does Yak & Yeti Local Foods Cafe, but it is very good, and seems to be far less popular than any other restaurant at Animal Kingdom (including the irredeemable Restaurantosaurus). While we cannot speak to the quality of the “Kobe” beef offerings, the teriyaki bowl and tikka masala are both solid options.
Columbia Harbour House – It’s really difficult to call Columbia Harbour House “underrated” with a straight face. We’ve waited in lines that stretched out the day during busier lunch periods, and for a long time, it was on our Top 10 Counter Service Restaurants at Walt Disney World list.
Nevertheless, we need to pick something for Magic Kingdom, and Columbia Harbour House is much less popular than Be Our Guest Restaurant (lunch), Cosmic Ray’s Starlight Cafe, Pecos Bill Tall Tale Inn & Cafe, and so on. Every Magic Kingdom restaurant is busy because there are too few of them.
Of those, Columbia Harbour House is comparatively less busy and has standout items. Go for the Mac & Cheese if you want something decadent or the Grilled Salmon if you want a healthier change of pace. Whatever you get, take it upstairs to a table by a window. Depending upon the time and season, this can be a nice respite from the crowds.
Tangierine Cafe – Since Epcot has so many dining options, we’ll do one from World Showcase and one from Future World, starting with the former. Despite the sheer number of counter service restaurants in World Showcase–which is considered a culinary showcase, too–there are not that many good quick service options in World Showcase. That might be an unpopular opinion, but in a showdown between Animal Kingdom and Epcot, I’m taking Animal Kingdom every time.
Tangierine Cafe is one of the few exceptions (the other main one is Katsura Grill, but even that’s arguable as it can be really hit or miss). Highly regarded among Walt Disney World fans, Tangierine Cafe isn’t held in the same esteem among the park-going public, most of whom pass right by it. On days when you’ll encounter lines for Liberty Inn or Yorkshire County Fish Shop, Tangierine Cafe will be empty. You cannot go wrong with literally anything on the menu here.
Electric Umbrella – Up until this point, I feel like this list has ‘played it safe’ with pretty uncontroversial picks about which everyone can agree upon…but also picks that don’t really tell you anything you don’t already know. It’s no secret that the first three restaurants have all been part of the ‘best of’ Walt Disney World dining conversation on this blog and others. So for the next couple of picks, it’s time to go full-on contrarian mode.
Electric Umbrella has been the butt of many a joke on this blog. In part because of some atrocious meals we had back here in the mid-aughts, and in part because I’m like your dad when it comes to recycling jokes that were tired years ago. Contrary to what the now-dated jokes might suggest, we’ve actually had a few good meals at Electric Umbrella in recent years.
The Energy Salads and Flatbread are solid options, and even the dated seating area has its charms if you dine in the quieter upstairs area with a view overlooking Future World. I haven’t yet tried the Brisket Sandwich that replaced my beloved French Dip Burger, but it’s on my list, too.
ABC Commissary – I’m not sure that any Walt Disney World park has changed its counter service menus as often as Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and I’m not sure any of those restaurants have changed as much as ABC Commissary. Not all of the changes have been for the better. Actually, most haven’t.
I’m not about to claim that ABC Commissary is a “good” restaurant, but in the grand scheme of Disney’s Hollywood Studios quick service, it’s all relative. When it comes to the fast casual dinner at ABC Commissary, I think there are a few worthwhile items, and that coupled with this restaurant’s abysmal reputation elevates it to “underrated” status. If you’re thinking that this is a pretty low bar, you’re absolutely right.
Honestly, for this one, I was tempted to get “tricky” and suggest Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater. Obviously, that is not a counter service restaurant, but with several entree choices under $20 (and a few at $15), it’s the best option of the bunch. Even if all of those cheaper choices aren’t great (and they aren’t) at least you’re enjoying them in a cool, dark setting that also happens to be one of the best-themed environments in all of Walt Disney World. So, if you want my real answer here: skip all other counter service at DHS and do a cheap meal at Sci-Fi.
Once the dust settles on all of the projects at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, hopefully park management gets serious about offering quality, consistent counter service menus. Without question, this is the weakest Walt Disney World park in that regard.
Roaring Fork – There are so many options that could qualify for the resorts that I really should’ve broken this down by resort tier. However, this is already really long, so I’ll just say quickly that almost every Value Resort has surprisingly good food court options, Sassagoula Floatworks & Food Factory has great ‘Southern Classics’ (plus beignets!), and pretty much every dining option in the Magic Kingdom area is good (while every option in the Crescent Lake area is bad).
Sweeping generalizations aside, my favorite under-the-radar counter service restaurant at the resorts is Roaring Fork. After its refurbishment last year, the menu was expanded and (in my opinion) significantly improved, with a number of items you cannot find elsewhere. Grab the Gourmet Grilled Cheese, a cupcake, and head out to the waterfront for an enjoyable meal in a great natural setting.
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Which underrated counter service restaurant is your favorite at Walt Disney World? Any stereotypically bad locations that have a standout menu item or two? Do you agree or disagree with our list? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!
2 worst meals we’ve had in WDW were both at ABC Commissary — 10 years apart! I don’t know that we’ll give them a 3rd chance. Completely agree with your other choices.
Being from the northeast and Italian heritage I love a good Italian dinner. That being said they are hated to come by in Florida or anywhere down South. But I have to say Mana Melrose in Hollywood Studios is really good. I know it’s not quick service but with the fantastic dining package you can’t go wrong. Just don’t drink the sangria and go out in the hot July sun like I did. It doesn’t end well.
I’d add Contempo Cafe to the list, especially as an alternative to Magic Kingdom restaurants:
– only an eight minute walk from the Magic Kingdom gates
– rarely crowded, and never as much as the MK restaurants
– typically a well maintained area, if low on theme
– wide range of diverse choices
If I had to pick a second counter service restaurant at Epcot, I’d rather go with sandwiches from one of the bakeries as my Hot Take choice. Of Kringla Bakeri og Kafe or
Les Halles Boulangerie-Patisserie, I’ll go with Norway because they usually have shorter lines.
(Unless the Croque Glace at L’Artisan des Glaces counts as a sandwich. It has bread!)
Tangierine Cafe is one of my favorite stops in all of WDW!
When I visited last summer I tried ABC Commissary and wasn’t really impressed. Maybe it was my choice of item (I got the chicken sandwich) but I didn’t really find the food all that great. But I did enjoy the décor and ambience
Of all the dining I have tried, I rate Via Napoli dead last, and Roaring Fork not much better.
Alright. Never thought I would say this, but you’ve convinced me to give Electric Umbrella a try.
We eat at Electric Umbrella at least once each trip. It is nothing fantastic, food is good but nothing that will wow you. It is air conditioned, plenty of seating and free refills on drink.
Nice to see Roaring Fork on your list. Bananas Foster French Toast !!!!!
I totally agree with Harbour House and Tangierine as MK and Epcot picks.
Columbia and Roaring Forks are two solid underrated options.
Yak & Yeti is a great call. We’ve eaten there on our last few trips, and it’s so cheap compared to most Disney fare. It’s definitely one of our favorites for a quick meal.
The standout counter service place for me is still The Mara, which has a lot of connections with the Roaring Fork. It’s one of the reasons we keep staying at the Animal Kingdom Lodge. The food quality is high, the price is reasonable, and it’s super convenient. I’d have a hard time even at some deluxes without this good of an option.
I love the Mara, but it seems like every time we eat there, the menu changes like a week later (hyperbole, but only slightly). We really need to get back and try some of the new items, as the menu has expanded a bit since our last visit.
We stayed at AKL last week and looked in at MAra, but didn’t eat there. It looked and smelled good and the variety/prices seemed quite good.
Happy to see Roaring Fork on here. We’re staying at WL for the first time in Jan and will definitely be giving it a try.
We recently got caught in HS without a reservation and chose to just get a cheese and charcuterie board with a beer flight for lunch. It was a bit overpriced (shocker), but we won’t hesitate to choose that in the future over any counter service at HS. It was good, and it was a nice atmosphere. I’m sure that will not be the case after late fall of 2019 though.
“I’m sure that will not be the case after late fall of 2019 though.”
Yeah. That whole area is either going to be a queue, or so chaotic it’s not even worth bothering with.
“irredeemable Restaurantosaurus”?? It has air conditioning and free refills! That’s abotu it, but those at least are redeeming qualities. 🙂
Ad sadly, I think if you shipped restaurantosaurus over to DHS, it might be the best QS place there. It’s depressing that AK has so many good choices while DHS struggles to find one.
We haven’t eaten an Epcot QS meal that wasn’t Tangereine Cafe or Sunshine Seasons in a long time (though I want to try Japan some day) Epcot might not have a deep QS roster, but with those two it doesn’t need to.
“It has air conditioning and free refills!”
Two very fair points!
If you don’t enjoy the theming at Restaurantosaurus, I’m sorry for both of you! ;-D
A respectful request, Tom: when mentioning resort dining (i.e. Roaring Fork) please include the name of the related resort. I’ve set foot on all of the properties, but often can’t recall which eating establishment is at which, resort and it can be a convoluted process to track them down using the phone app.
Thanks, as always, for your useful tips!