OPINION: The best Disney World dining, part 1

·5 min read

Jul. 23—Several people have told me they are hoping to make a trip to Orlando next year, now that — as they put it — the pandemic is on the wane. They're wrong about the pandemic — ask anyone trying to run a business with a skeleton crew. But Walt Disney World and Universal Studios are open to guests, with a few restrictions that, for now, don't include masks.

One of the most pressing questions is where to eat, and every few years, I offer an update as we try new restaurants. I'm listing my top 12, but it'll come in two parts.

WDW has become not just a place for kids to immerse themselves in beloved characters and fun rides, but a destination for older folks like me who enjoy a great meal now and again. But with the best restaurants, future visitors have to remember one key element: You have to make advance reservations. WDW used to let you reserve restaurants 180 days in advance, but the pandemic trimmed that back to 60 days. And you have to be up early in the morning — before 5 a.m. CST — to snag the most coveted places. A few of our current favorites haven't yet reopened, although they might reappear on the landscape in 2022. If you're planning a trip, make sure you keep checking the website or app for news.

1. Victoria and Albert's (Grand Floridian Resort). This elegant venue, which is set to reopen July 28, is Central Florida's only AAA five-diamond restaurant. You'll pay for the privilege of eating there, so start saving your pennies. I've done an extensive review on V&A before, which is available online, but it's an experience you'll never forget. Menus change regularly, and since the restaurant is small and intimate, reservations will be required. You can get a seven-course prix fixe menu or choose a more extensive tasting menu with about 10 courses. You have to dress for dinner (cocktail outfits for women, coats for men), and when you immerse yourself in the ambiance, you'll understand why. The decor and the harp player send the complete message. The prices will probably have increased when V&A is back in business, but expect to pay $250 per person for the seven courses, plus up to $150 for wine pairings (which I recommend strongly). It's the place to go for a very special occasion. (Note: Kids under age 10 are not allowed.)

2. Chef Art Smith's Homecomin' (Disney Springs, formerly Downtown Disney). This homey restaurant is almost as tough a ticket to score as V&A. The atmosphere is rustic, the prices reasonable, and the service excellent — but what folks really show up for is the southern-soul food meld. We went for brunch, and those reservations — Saturday and Sunday only — fill up in the wink of an eye. The fried chicken is incredible, so any dish that includes it will be a winner. I suggest starting out with a "Southern Mary," a fresh take on the Bloody Mary that features black pepper vodka, bacon, friend green tomato, and pimento cheese olives. An appetizer of Church Lady Deviled Eggs will prime the pump for the main event. That could be the fried chicken and sugar doughnuts, although you can't go wrong with the Hallelujah biscuit, which is topped with that sumptuous chicken, two eggs over easy, the famous pimento cheese, bacon and gravy.

3. Space 220 (Epcot). This was new to the stellar WDW lineup this year, and we were lucky to get in. When we were there, it had only been open a few days, and it was the last day they were taking walk-ups. Not only did we get a prime time, 7:30 p.m., we got the best seats in the house: the second level, in the center. Upon entry, your group will gather around a portal, and as you gaze downward, you'll have the sensation of taking off in a rocket, with the ground rapidly receding until you go into orbit, with the Florida peninsula visible below. Then you're led through a space dock, where you'll see plants being grown in space. The restaurant is long and rather like an amphitheater, in three levels, and enormous "windows" allow you to watch shuttles, rockets, and spacewalkers floating around outside, with the Earth slowly revolving behind and below them. We happened to be there as the sun was setting, so we were able to see twilight roll over the surface of the planet. The menu is a three-course prix fixe for just under $80. For an additional fee, you can "upgrade" to lobster for your entree. Try the Celestial Cosmopolitan before you delve into a great meal.

4. California Grill (Contemporary Resort). This has always been among our top five. At the top of the resort, you get a breaktaking view of the fireworks at Magic Kingdom, and you can leave your table to take in the show off of one of the outdoor decks, cocktail in hand. This is another pricey place, but it offers treats you need to try. The signature cheeseboard is like no other; my husband usually has it for dessert, that's how good it is. The sushi is also exceptional. We can attest to the awesome pork tenderloin (a signature dish and my son's favorite), the bison, and the oak-fired beef filet. Oh, yeah — and the sushi is magnificent.

5. Shula's Steak House (The Dolphin Resort, Marriott). We wouldn't miss Shula's — not just because of the superbly aged steak, but also for the ambiance. The service is some of the best at WDW; you usually have two servers. The steak portions are so large that Chris and I usually split a cowboy ribeye, as well as a wedge salad, and we're still too full for the sublime key lime pie. Our son loves this place, too, but probably because he's a Dolphins fan, and former Coach Don Shula started this place. If you don't want steak, find another place to eat.

Next week, I'll round out the top 12, with a few more suggestions.