If I’m being perfectly honest, I must admit that my favorite thing to eat at Disneyland is the corndog at Corn Dog Castle in the California Adventure park. So that’s where I usually start. It never takes long, however, before I’m ready to take a break from the strollers and electric scooters and sit down to a proper meal away from the chaos, preferably with a cocktail (although a milkshake will also do). Disneyland offers lots of full-service options, most of which require reservations to be made days or even weeks in advance. After repeat visits to every such restaurant inside Disneyland, California Adventure and Downtown Disney, I can confidently say these are the five best places to unwind with a good meal. You might notice that Napa Rose is conspicuously absent from the list. I dined at Napa Rose several times over the past 12 months and found the resort’s flagship restaurant to be consistently underperforming and simply not worthy of recommending this year.
1. STEAKHOUSE 55
Location: Disneyland Hotel, Downtown Disney
Quick hit: Breakfast, dinner. Full bar. American/steakhouse. Great service.
Food items: $12-$54
What to order: Prawn “cocktail,” bone-in rib-eye, 24-layer chocolate cake
What to skip: Shepherd’s pie
Review: If you’re in the mood for a superb USDA Prime steak while visiting Disneyland, this is the place to go, an old Hollywood-inspired steakhouse with old-school waiters, dirty martinis and bone-in rib-eyes. Save room for dessert; the 24-layer chocolate cake is legendary.
Reservations: Highly recommended but not always required
Need to know: The shrimp cocktail isn’t likely what you are expecting, but if you have an open mind you will probably love it.
Inside info: The adjoining bar – first-come, first-served – offers a fantastic burger but no steaks.
2. WINE COUNTRY TRATTORIA
Location: Pacific Wharf, Disney California Adventure
Quick hit: Lunch, dinner. Italian. Full bar. Wine flights. Great service.
Food items: $7-$23
What to order: Fettuccine Bolognese, tiramisu
What to skip: It’s all pretty good
Review: This is a very good Italian restaurant set beneath a canopy of grapevines overlooking the Pacific Wharf. The pastas are first-rate, especially the fettuccine Bolognese and the braised oxtail ravioli. You also can’t go wrong with the bruschetta or the shrimp and polenta. The tiramisu is fancier than most, and it is absolutely delicious. And as the name suggests, this is a place to relax and enjoy some wine, including Frank Family Vineyards chardonnay and a Lasseter Family malbec. All of the vintners have some sort of Disney connection. It can become chaotic at parade time when everyone wants a table at the edge of the patio overlooking the spectacle. The upstairs deck is reserved for nighttime “World of Color” guests, with a slightly limited version of the regular menu.
Reservations: Required, usually at least two days prior. Reservations to coincide with the daily parade or the nightly light show must be made several days or even weeks in advance.
Need to know: Most seats are on the patio, the outer edge of which offers the park’s best view of the daily parade. The indoor dining room is very limited and far less atmospheric.
Inside info: Three-course menu served upstairs only on the “World of Color” dining deck.
3. CARNATION CAFE
Location: Main Street, U.S.A., Disneyland
Quick hit: Breakfast, lunch, dinner. No alcohol. American fare.
Food items: $7-$19
What to order: Buttermilk fried chicken, malts and milkshakes – especially the vanilla malt
What to skip: German chocolate cake
Review: Many people rave about the fried chicken across the street at the Plaza Inn, but the fried chicken at Carnation Cafe is far superior. The burger is very good, too, and the catch of the day is always supremely fresh. But the best reason to dine at Carnation Cafe is dessert – specifically the milkshakes and malts. This is the only place in Disneyland that sells malts, and they are pretty magical, both the chocolate and the vanilla. Meanwhile, if you see a grandfatherly chef strolling through the dining room greeting customers and chatting about the menu, that’s probably Oscar Martinez, who has been cooking at Carnation Cafe since 1967.
Reservations: Strongly recommended
Need to know: Although reservations are strongly advised, this cafe does hold some tables for walk-in customers; the wait generally is about 45 minutes.
Inside info: The sidewalk patio offers a close-up but somewhat obstructed view of the parade.
4. TORTILLA JO’S
Location: Downtown Disney
Quick hit: Breakfast, lunch, dinner. Full bar. Mexican/Tex-Mex. Happy hour.
Food items: $6-$24
What to order: Combination plates, street corn, Margaritas
What to skip: Ceviche
Review: In no way, shape or form is Tortilla Jo’s one of the finest Mexican restaurants in Orange County, but nevertheless it is probably the best restaurant in all of Downtown Disney. The combination plates are as classic as it gets, with very good crisp tacos, soulful enchiladas and a reputable chili relleno. The fajitas are exactly what you would hope they will be. More importantly, this is where to find the best Margaritas in the resort, hands down. Stay away from the ceviche, which tastes like maybe everyone else already knows to stay away from the ceviche. As is the case with most restaurants in the downtown promenade, this place could use a good scrubbing.
Reservations: Recommended for dinner but usually not required at lunch. Best to call ahead anyway because the restaurant is sometimes rented out for private events.
Need to know: The patio offers a partial view of the fireworks.
Inside info: One of the best things on the menu is the street corn, sold only during happy hour (3-5 p.m.), but if you show up a little late, you can sometimes still get the corn if you ask nicely.
Location: Downtown Disney
Quick hit: Breakfast, lunch, dinner. Full bar. Spanish/American. Fireworks view.
Food items: $9-$40
What to order: Tuna crudo, chicken paella, suckling pig
What to skip: Desserts
Review: The kitchen got a desperately needed refresh last summer when a new chef came onboard and upgraded the menu. Start with the sushi-grade raw tuna served with watermelon radishes, cucumbers and olives. The Spanish tortilla frites are also great, but just know that a Spanish tortilla has nothing in common with a Mexican tortilla. These frites are big, fat, puffy contraptions, and they are delicious. The paellas are fantastic, too, especially the one with chicken and chorizo. The suckling pig is essentially a big slab of pork belly – rich, fatty and decadent. The burger here is more or less the same as what’s served at Uva Bar downstairs and always excellent. Prime rib won’t disappoint, either. Desserts are the only letdown. They’re too fancy for their own good. Avoid the “red velvet” cake like the plague.
Need to know: If you order only one cocktail, make it the Paloma: tequila, grapefruit, lime and soda.
Inside info: Check the fireworks schedule, then book your table and request the patio for a great view of the pyrotechnics.
This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register and Coast magazine. To view more of my work for the Register, check out the archives. I also invite you to follow me and join the conversation on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.