Carthay Circle Restaurant at Disney California Adventure beckons park visitors from the moment they step through the turnstiles. With its white spire soaring into the blue California sky, its historical connections to the Walt Disney Company of yesteryear (the original Carthay Circle Theater was the site of the Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs movie premiere) and its gorgeous Art Deco styling, stepping through its doors is alluring whether you’re a foodie, a Disney history fan, or both.
I happen to be both, and knew from the moment I started planning my Disneyland vacation that Carthay Circle had to be a centerpiece of the trip. There was just one problem–the reviews of the entrees seemed so mixed. And the entrees themselves didn’t thrill me.
Consider the lunch entrees at Carthay Circle. A steak salad. Ravioli. Fried shrimp. A $22 burger. Granted, all of these are served with gourmet flourish: the fried shrimp are tempura-style, and come with black rice stir fry and Red Thai curry. The burger… well, the burger has house-made pickles on the side. But while all of these things might be delicious, none of them are particularly unusual or innovative. I felt like I could get any of those things within a few blocks’ walk of my apartment.
The appetizer section of the menu, on the other hand, looked worth the price of park admission for this foodie. Fried biscuits stuffed with white cheddar and bacon! Duck wings doused in soy, lime, and Sriracha! Even the pot stickers with gingered pork and mango-lemongrass voodoo sauce sound like a new take on a favorite stand-by. It looked like we could easily lunch on appetizers only at Carthay Circle Restaurant, and be very happy with that decision. We’d sample the best the chef had to offer, like a flight of fine foods.
Our minds made up, we made an (unnecessary) lunch reservation for Carthay Circle Restaurant. And after working up on appetite running back and forth between Paradise Pier and Cars Land (it was one of those mornings where everything seemed to have a delayed opening), we were ready for air conditioning, comfortable chairs, and something truly delicious for lunch.
It’s a funny thing, visiting an elegant restaurant in your theme park clothes. I felt slightly out of place in the grand (but empty) main dining room, and honestly felt a little hidden in the booth we were finally given, in a side dining room bright with sunlight but low on Hollywood glamour. The service, however, was second to none. From greeter to seater to server, we were treated like royalty. And our server didn’t blink an eye when we ordered drinks, four appetizers, and a kid’s meal, but no entrees.
Signature dining calls for signature cocktails. My husband ordered the exquisite Carthay Manhattan. This gorgeous whiskey martini is made with Bulleit Rye Small Batch American Whiskey, sweet vermouth, bitters, and Carthay’s unique ice sphere. Garnished with maraschino cherries, it was one of the best Manhattans either of us have ever enjoyed.
I started with the Pimm’s Punch, which was like a strawberry lemonade with only a slight bite from the Plymouth Gin and the Pimm’s No. 1 liqueur–absolutely ideal after the hot July sunshine outside. Afterwards, while my husband stayed loyal to his Manhattans, I moved on to the Carthay Club Mojito, with local organic mint and organic agave, lime juice, and Bacardi Superior Rum. Tasty, minty, sweet, but I missed my Pimm’s Punch after a few sips; I think they could do better than Bacardi with this one.
On to the food! The star of the show was undoubtedly the Carthay Signature Fried Biscuits ($12.00). These little balls of crispiness are creamy on the inside from all that melted white cheddar, dotted with smoky bacon and spicy jalapeno. The apricot honey butter was simply gilding the lily–these biscuits might be the highlight of my vacation. Be warned, while the Carthay Circle Lounge has its own tempting appetizer menu, you can only find the biscuits in the dining room, so take the time to make that reservation!
Spice-lovers will love the Firecracker Duck Wings ($14.00). So few restaurants are willing to live up to the promise of “hot and spicy” on their menu, but Carthay Circle throws it down with a genuinely spicy Sriracha sauce on these tender little wings. My son, who is ten and just discovering the pleasure of scorching one’s tongue with spicy foods, was a little overwhelmed by the burn, and I probably downed a little more of my Pimm’s Punch than I meant to after eating one of these little firecrackers.
The Fritto Misto ($15.00) was the dark horse of the appetizer menu. Who knew “crispy calamari, green beans, red jalapeno, fennel, and lemon-red pepper aioli” was code for “delicious fried things you’ve never tasted fried before”? The calamari was first-rate, not a bit chewy, but it was the other delicious fried things that astonished us. Fried lemon wedges, anyone? The delicate tempura breading was crispy without being greasy, and accented the bold flavors of the calamari and vegetables.
Perhaps the only thing we ordered without jalapenos involved, the steamed pot stickers with gingered pork ($14.00) offered a welcome cool-down for burned taste buds. Nothing out of the ordinary, but by no means a let-down, the pot stickers in their fragrant mango-lemongrass sauce were a hit with everyone, including my son, who was alternating between the appetizers and his kid’s meal of tacos.
As for the tacos, well, he loved them and at $10 with a drink included, it’s hard to go wrong with kids and tacos, especially in southern California.
My only regret with the meal had been that we’d been sat in a relatively nondescript dining room. After we’d finished, I decided to explore, and since there were only a few other diners, no one had a problem with that. I roamed the restaurant, taking in the historical photos and archival pieces that line the walls, and then found myself on a sunny porch while the Newsboys and Mickey Mouse put on a show in the circle just below. It was a delightful ending to one of the best dining experiences I’ve ever enjoyed, whether in a theme park or not.
Next time you’re in Disney California Adventure, consider making a meal out of appetizers from Carthay Circle! (Or just order the fried biscuits. Either way, you’ll be happy.)