Unheralded Dining Gems: Kona Cafe

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It has been said that in life, the only things that are certain are death and taxes. In Walt Disney World planning, the only things that can be certain are a need to make advance dining reservations 180 days out, and that park hours will change at least once while you’re planning your trip. Not quite as certain or as succinct as the “death and taxes” catchphrase, but I think it’s fairly apt. Given this certainty, where do you get reservations if you book a trip inside of 3 months, when some of the most popular restaurants are booked solid? Chef Mickey’s? Not a chance. Le Cellier? Le No-Way-Jose! Cinderella’s Royal Table? Sorry, this glass slipper doesn’t fit! You could just go the increasingly popular route of winging it and hoping for the best, which is a strategy that many are reporting surprising success utilizing, or you could make reservations for some of Walt Disney World’s more unheralded restaurants.

Kona Cafe certainly fits the bill in this “unheralded” category. Despite being located in what is undeniably the best resort on Disney property (I would append “in my opinion” to that, but I think it has been scientifically proven by…some scientists…that the Polynesian is the best Walt Disney World resort), it’s fairly easy to secure reservations at Kona Cafe. Perhaps it is the subdued and unassuming theming or its proximity to the popular ‘Ohana, but for whatever reason, reservations are not especially difficult to come by for Kona Cafe.

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Its location is a big plus. Located right in the lobby of the Polynesian, it’s fairly easily to access from the Magic Kingdom, so you can easily visit before a day in the park or catch the monorail during the late afternoon or early evening for respite from the heavy crowds on a busy summer day. Come early or stay late for a Lapu Lapu and relax on the beach to enjoy the sunset. Now that’s something you can’t do when dining at Chef Mickey’s, Cinderella’s Royal Table, or Le Cellier!

Once the sun sets or you’ve reached the bottom of your pre-dinner drink, head inside for a relaxing meal. And what a meal. I don’t know what influenced me to order the New York strip the first time I dined at Kona Cafe—what island makes a good steak!?!—but whatever influenced me, I thank. That steak is everything a steak should be: lean yet flavorful, hearty, and tender. Honestly, I can’t go on with the superlatives for fear I will head to the airport today for WDW. The pineapple teriyaki glaze adds the perfect island flare, and adds an interesting twist to what would otherwise be an unadventurous menu item. The steak was perfect. That steak often haunts–yes, haunts–my dreams, as I chase after it; always, of course, awakening right as I catch the elusive cut of meat. It’s probably just as well that I wake up, as I’d rather not chew my pillow or arm in my sleep!  In addition to the steak, the mashed Yukon potatoes, in all of their buttery glory, make an excellent side. These mashed potatoes and the stir-fried broccoli compliment the dish quite well.

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Overall, Kona’s dinner menu is fairly strong. A bit more mundane than the highly adventurous (and even more underrated) Sanaa Restaurant, most of the dishes contain some unique component to tempt the guest’s palate. Whether that be spicy guava-passion fruit or pineapple relish, each dish seems to have something. None of these options are unique or daring enough to scare off the more conventional eaters, so it appears Kona Cafe has struck the perfect balance in its cuisine.

Since first going to Kona Cafe, I think I’ve concocted a bit of a rivalry between it and Le Cellier. Invariably, when someone I know mentions Le Cellier and its succulent meats, I turn my nose up and say, “Phhh, any experienced Disney fan knows that Disney’s actual ‘Best Kept Secret’ is that Kona Cafe serves the superior cuts of meat!” Not that Le Cellier is not a great restaurant in its own right, but I find Kona Cafe superior in pretty much every regard (except in pre-dinner breads and desserts). Kona is more versatile, serving a delicious breakfast and dinner with a wide range of menu choices, Kona is easier to book, and Kona offers a better ambiance.

Speaking of breakfast, the breakfast at Kona Cafe is not to be missed. With the exception of a couple buffets, we generally find the breakfast offerings at the few Walt Disney World restaurants that actually serve breakfast to be very underwhelming. Not Kona Cafe. Arguably the best breakfast on property, Kona Cafe has several great breakfast menu choices, including the Disney-fan favorite, the Tonga Toast. Equal parts sourdough bread, bananas, cinnamon, and awesome, Tonga Toast is like little culinary angels dancing on your taste buds. Top it with some strawberry sauce and you’re in for a real treat. It’s definitely not to be missed.

So, the next time you find yourself without an ADR at the last minute and wanting to try one of the best restaurants on property, inquire into Kona Cafe. You won’t be sorry you did. But keep this information to yourself. We don’t want this little secret getting out!

Have you tried Kona Cafe before? Love it? Hate it? Share your thoughts on Kona, and any other “unheralded dining gems” you may have, in the comments!

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Posted on May 27, 2011

33 Responses to “Unheralded Dining Gems: Kona Cafe”

  • We found Kona to be a treasure – we went on a multi-family trip with my in-laws, and were ready for a break at 3pm in the MK while my wife’s brother insisted that we get into the Dumbo line so the kids could ride Dumbo. Instead, my wife and stepson got in the much-shorter monorail line. We cooled off and had some rum concoction in a whole pineapple . . . just what the Doctor ordered to bring us back to the Magic Kingdom fresh and happy!

  • Great article! You are absolutely right! Kona is wonderful! On our trip 2 weeks ago we ate there twice (breakfast and dinner). Of course I went with the Tonga Toast which was delicious and I can’t leave out the Kona coffee! If you are a coffee lover you don’t want to miss out on this treat that can’t be beat! I will vouch for the “if you find yourself without ADR”… we when one evening around 6PM and the wait was only 35 minutes which is unheard of at WDW.

    • My one (and only) complaint about Kona is that during the busier times of year, the lobby just outside of the restaurant can get crowded with people waiting for ‘Ohana. I’m betting it wasn’t bad this time of year, but sometimes it’s a bit annoying. As long as you don’t have a table right by the exterior edge of the restaurant, though, you won’t notice!

  • we have been to Kona twice. Unfortunately we had a new waitress and twelve people the first time. Not a good combo. Thankfully the manager bought us our drinks to make up for a few issues. The second time was wonderful. Agree with the steak.

  • Kona is awful, terrible, don’t anyone go.

    Cool, now it will remain MY wonderful, secret treasure that I’ve found it to be since my first visit in 1972. Our last trip I indulged in mouth watering sushi and my husband had a chicken noodle dish. He exclaimed it was the best meal he’d had at WDW, better than our meal at Narcosee’s! This from a man that likes his steak and isn’t all that fond of noodles.

    Ah, so much for swaying you against having a meal there. Enjoy.

  • The awesomeness that is Tonga Toast cannot be overstated! The Kona coffee is pretty fantastic, too. Only downside there was that my wife doesn’t drink coffee, so I had the whole French press to myself!

    • I have gone from loathing coffee to finding some of it pretty good in the last few years (law school will do that to you!), but I’ve never tried any coffee at WDW due to the horror stories I’ve heard about the dreaded Nescafe. Sounds like I should give this coffee a try!

  • Totally agree. My wife and I had a tuna steak that was cooked perfectly. And don’t forget the coffee. Even if you’re not a big coffee drinker, try it. Some of the best I tasted at WDW…really at almost any restaurant.

    By the way, I also agree with Sanaa. Best meal I had on my last trip to WDW and that was including excellent meals at Boma, Kona, Le Cellier, Sunshine Seasons, and Biergarten. Can’t wait to read your unheralded review on Sanaa.

    One last comment/question: I know that AK Lodge/Kidani Village gets some flak for being out of the way, but is there another Disney resort that has 3 excellent quality restaurants on its premises, with Sanaa, Boma, and Jiko?

    • Boma, Kona, Le Cellier, Sunshine Seasons, and Biergarten – that list looks like some pretty nice meals. For as lauded as World Showcase dining is, I think Sunshine Seasons is the star of EPCOT quick service.

      If you take the Swolphin out of the picture (since they’re not Disney owned), I think the resort with the best dining is probably the Grand Floridian: Victoria & Albert’s, Narcoossee’s, Citrico’s, and the Grand Floridian Cafe. Animal Kingdom Lodge would be my second choice if only because it has 1 more stellar restaurant than the third place choice, the Polynesian.

      As much as I hate to say it, I think the Animal Kingdom Lodge really benefits from being new. Disney hasn’t had a chance to dilute the menus at its restaurants too much yet, and consequently, they offer more unique choices. Hopefully in 10 years, it will be just as good, though!

      I will admit that AKL is not my favorite resort due to its location, but I think if we were to do a no-parks weekend trip (I doubt we’d ever actually take such a trip, but speaking theoretically), AKL would definitely be our resort of choice!

  • I know its not ‘unheralded’ but Sunshine Seasons was mentioned in the comments above and I just have to second that one. Where else can you find such tasty variety (and don’t even get me started on desserts! Oh how I want some key lime pie now!) IN a park? Perfect for us touring plan commandos who can’t bear to leave the parks. Hopefully one day I will be able to kick back and enjoy a Lapu Lapu, but until my trips become more frequent than every 2-3 years, its Sunshine Seasons for me!

  • Oh my goodness, our meal at Kona Cafe actually made us want to try out The Polynesian as a resort on our next trip to Disney. The food was outstanding, service was excellent and the general vibe of the restaurant was so appealing. I would highly recommend the fondue dessert – their macaroons are so yummy and with the chocolate it was like the best Mounds bar evah!

    So glad to know it wasn’t just a fluke, because we haven’t yet stopped raving about the meal we had there. :)

    • My wife had the fondue dessert a couple trips ago. I don’t recall what she thought of it. I’m sure I tasted it too, but I’m not really a big chocolate person, so I can’t really speak to its quality.

  • I couldn’t agree with you more, Kona is great and a nice dinner break from the Magic Kingdom. Last trip we walked up and had dinner at their sushi bar one night which was also fantastic. I already have my ADR for my next trip…

  • I put in for 2 ADRs for December…if I don’t get them, I’m blaming you. :P

  • So anxious to try this one….always just walked by on my last trip, and THEN found out what I was missing.

  • We love Kona Cafe too – almost as much as Sanaa! We have found that (for us) the best meals at WDW are at the less frequented restaurants – the food is more flavorful, the servers take more time with you, etc. We’ve also eaten at The Wave (party of 9 with 1/2 hr notice – no problem!), and while we found the food to be excellent (asked for more bread simply so we could eat more of the butter!), the food took a VERY long time to arrive from the kitchen. Would definitely eat there again, though.

  • I totally agree. Kona is a rare breed in WDW: excellent for all 3 meals and fairly easy to get into. So many restaurants in WDW are making their lunch and dinner menus the same, but not Kona. Every meal there has a fairly extensive, different menu. And breakfast is one of the best on property. Kona’s an excellent lunch option for MK (which generally has pitiful TS for lunch). Overall a great option for everyone. I heard a rumor that it might be turned into signature for dinner if this experiment with Le Cellier works out (Poly is only deluxe without one).

    • Interesting rumor. Given that Kona isn’t really that popular presently (not that it’s unpopular), I’d be surprised if they bumped it into the next tier. The Polynesian does have Spirit of Aloha, which is a 2 TS credit meal, even if “technically” not Signature.

      • I think the hope would be that making it Sig would make it MORE popular — or at least have the same number of people pay more. I heard same thing about Tutto and Coral Reef. It probably depends on how well Le Cellier does at the sig level.

        And come on, you know Spirit of Aloha doesn’t count as sig! IMO, Dining plan credits are not indicative of how good a place is (I like Kona over Narcossee’s for instance).

  • by Ray Horwath on May 28, 2011, at 6:07 pm EST

    Kona and Le Cellier are our 2 on property favorites. Kona is much easier to get reservations for. The food is excellent and we’ve always had outstanding service. We like it so much that we picked it for our 30th wedding anniversary dinner last year.

  • Last time I was at the World was back in 97. Hoping to get back this fall, Now, we travel a lot, and eat out probably too much. How does the food or steaks taste compared to some of the higher end chain restaurants across the country? Ruth’s Chris, Wildfire, etc.

    • I first tried Ruth’s Chris in 2006, and have thought it’s incredibly overrated. I think it’s one of those restaurants that may have been better at one time, but has lost its touch. Out of the chains we frequent around here, we think Kona compares favorably to Eddie Merlot’s and Cooper’s Hawk.

  • Don’t let everyone know about this secret restaurant! It’s definitely our favorite. Eating at Kona is our first night ritual. This year it was so great we went back another night during our stay!

  • I know I am in the minority here but I wanted to pass along my experiences about my recent visit to Kona. I had added Kona as a meal destination for my party of 10 because of the many great comments here in this post. However, my party didn’t have a “great” experience.

    First, we waited about 45 minutes past our reservation for seating. Yes, I do know it isn’t a “real” reservation, but that was 45 minutes lost to just sitting and waiting and we had not waited more than 10 minutes at all of our other table service meals during the week.

    Second, it was VERY noisy and so many people pushing and stepping over each other at this resort. We practically had to scream to talk to each other and we were sitting in the back corner away from the main thoroughfare of the second floor dining/bar/gift shop area.

    Third, the waiter was rude and condescending to the entire group. He was not friendly, we had to beg for refills, and he acted as if the dining plan folks were not worth his time. My group is a very gracious bunch and no one said anything during the meal except “thank you” to this jerk multiple times. He never once said “your welcome” and often ignored members of the party when making small requests (such as, “May I have more water please?”).

    Fourth, the food was about the worst we had all week (except for Pecos Bills and I will address that in a different post). The Lapu Lapu was watery. I have had some bar tending experience and this was by far one of the worst Polynesian drinks I have had. The steak, which many in the group ordered because of the great reviews here, was dry and tough. We raise steer so we are pretty picky about our steak, but I have to say that the so-so reviewed Sci-Fi had the best steak I have had in a restaurant in a very long time – flavorful, juicy and very tender. The Kona didn’t rank high for good steak. However, with all of this said about the food, those ordering the pork chop said it was very tasty, those experiencing the coffee said it was good, and I believe most enjoyed their dessert.

    All in all, we do not plan to revisit Kona. The noise level, unfriendly service, and not so great food has put this stop at the bottom of the list for a resort/restaurant destination of ours in the future.