If you’ve ever spent any time strolling along Disney’s BoardWalk or Crescent Lake area, you’ve probably seen my next dining location along the way. Located on the Atlantic Dance Hall end of the BoardWalk, just adjacent to the resort’s merchandise locations, Big River Grille & Brewing Works offers standard family restaurant fare (think: burgers, steaks, salads) with a view of Crescent Lake and the surrounding resorts. I dropped in recently for a quick lunch and then returned a few days later for dinner to see if this restaurant was worth adding to my regular Disney dining rotation.
Both of my visits to Big River Grille were on a whim – I didn’t make a reservation prior to arriving, either on OpenTable or the My Disney Experience app, but it didn’t matter. I was quick to be seated inside both times (choosing the comfort of air conditioning inside over the humidity on the outdoor patio), and my first impression of the restaurant was definitely that of substance over style – inside here, there’s very little theming or space, with tables pretty close together and almost no decoration. If the weather allows, I’d certainly request outdoor seating – far less cramped, less noisy at peak dining times, and with a really fantastic view for lake- and people-watching. Servers were all very prompt in greeting me and offering a few recommendations from the extensive beer and bar menu – one of their biggest draws for diners – and their food menu. It’s also worth noting here that Big River Grille itself is a chain restaurant popular outside of Walt Disney World, which servers said helps to draw in repeat visitors due to familiarity.
My first visit, for lunch, was after a few hours park-hopping at neighboring Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios, desperately in need of a quick meal, but wanting to try something different. I can’t pass up the opportunity to try any restaurant’s take on a burger, so I knew I had to give the Hickory Bacon Burger ($12.99) – served with smoked cheddar cheese, bacon, and rocket red barbecue sauce alongside kettle potato chips – a chance. I was amazed at how (dare I say) cheap the sandwiches on the menu here are – the most expensive options (the Kobe burger and the Mahi sandwich) top out at $14.50, only a few dollars more than what you’d encounter at many quick service restaurants around Walt Disney World. I was also surprised at just how fast the kitchen and service were at Big River – less than ten minutes after ordering, I had a perfectly-cooked-to-temp medium rare burger in front of me. The meat wasn’t super high quality (certainly not as good as what you’ll find across the lake at Crew’s Cup Lounge), and a tad greasy, but it was tasty, topped with crispy bacon and a really fantastic sweet and savory barbecue sauce that I found myself dipping the plain kettle chips into for a bit of added flavor. The burger didn’t blow my mind as being the best thing I’d ever tasted, but it was of a reasonable quality for the price and definitely better than any of the quick-service alternatives available at neighboring park restaurants (Electric Umbrella’s French dip burger has nothing on Big River’s burgers). Because I’m also a sucker for chocolate cake, I couldn’t pass up trying the Chocolate Confusion ($6.50), listed on the menu as chocolate mousse layered between oreo brownie cake with chocolate icing and chocolate chips. Overall, this dish disappointed a bit – it’s really just a plain ol’ piece of chocolate cake drizzled in chocolate sauce. It was a bit like eating a jar of frosting with a side of cake; definitely too rich to finish on your own (especially after a heavy meal). Unless you’re on the Deluxe Dining Plan, I’d steer clear of dessert here and save your sweets for a snack afterwards.
Start to finish, my lunch only took about 40 minutes – a definite benefit if you’re on a strict timeline for touring. I was honestly a bit surprised – speedy service, decent food, at a reasonable price seemed a little unexpected for this location, as I’ve never heard very many recommendations for it from friends. Not wanting to unfairly judge the restaurant based on one dish and what could’ve been a fluke for quick service, I headed back a few days later during the slightly-busier dinner hours to sample a few more dishes with a friend. This time, I knew I’d probably skip dessert, so we started off with a bite from the appetizer menu – the chicken quesadilla ($11.50) filled with pulled ancho chicken, peppers, onions, tomatoes, and pepper jack cheese served with guacamole and sour cream. Our server was nice enough to split the dish for us before it arrived at the table, so we both ended up with two pretty substantial pieces of quesadilla and our own sides of guacamole and sour cream. Reasonably spicy from the pepper jack cheese and the ancho marinade for the chicken, I was impressed at the crispy exterior and just how filled-to-the-brim it was with veggies and cheese. This made for a great appetizer to share, but it could also easily make for a great small meal.
For entrees, our server mentioned a few of the favorites of both the house and patrons, with the flame-grilled meatloaf sticking out as their best-selling item, and the hazelnut crusted chicken as one of her personal favorites. The rest of the menu seemed pretty standard – ribs, steaks, and a few seafood and pasta dishes (much like what you’d find at your neighborhood family restaurant/bar/grill), so we went for these two dishes, as they stuck out a bit more from the rest. We were also offered the option to add sautéed onions and/or mushrooms to the meatloaf for $1 each (this was also an option for any of the burgers), and we went for it just to see how they’d come out. My first taste was of the hazelnut crusted chicken ($17.50), served (like most of the rest of the entrees) with garlic mashed potatoes and vegetables (steamed green beans, carrots, and wax beans – that appears to be the standard veggie option here most days), and, special to this dish, a sun-dried cherry sauce. The chicken itself had a crispy, crunchy coating (hazelnuts on top, breading around the rest of the piece), and was still pretty juicy on the inside, not at all dried out or overdone. The cherry sauce was unexpectedly creamy, and only slightly sweet (thankfully), but I could’ve used a bit more of it drizzled over the boring steamed vegetables and the glutinous only-slightly-garlicky smashed potatoes. The chicken was definitely the winner on this plate, with the sides just existing to fill you up once you were done with the tasty main centerpiece. The meatloaf dish was more to my liking – flame grilled meatloaf ($16.99) made with ground beef and Italian pork sausage, topped with brown gravy and served with (you guessed it!) garlic mashed potatoes and vegetables. This dish is very heavy on the pork sausage flavor, with fennel and sage pretty prevalent in taste, and the sautéed mushrooms and onions we added to the dish only further complemented the savory pork flavor. The garlic mashed potatoes on this plate were slightly better than what I got with the chicken – less gummy, and they paired well with the brown gravy flecked with herbs. This dish reminded me a bit of the meatloaf I sampled at Wolfgang Puck’s Grand Café not too long ago; though Big River’s is not quite as tasty, it is a much larger portion for a cheaper price.
Once again, service and kitchen speed were astonishingly fast – we received an appetizer and two entrees in just under 35 minutes, with a slightly busier restaurant than my first meal here and a nearly-full patio by the time we left. The food was nothing to run back to as soon as possible after either visit, but service was attentive and friendly, and without any planning or breaking the bank, I’d had two reasonable meals here. For families with relatively picky eaters, this would be a good option to find something for everyone, due to the large and varied menu. Overall, Big River Grille is a safe choice for a respectable meal around Disney’s BoardWalk if you are in search of a quick bite to eat without an Advanced Dining Reservation.