“Farm-Fresh Food with a Vision.” This is a quote from Disney World’s website used to describe the flagship restaurant of Epcot’s The Land pavilion, The Garden Grill. For decades, The Land has proven unique among Disney pavilions in not just providing guests with unique dining but making us stop and think about what we eat and where it comes from.
Through its thirty-year evolution from “The Good Turn Restaurant” to “Chip n’ Dale’s Harvest Feast”, The Garden Grill has carried this torch as a mainstay for sustainable comfort food and farm-fresh eating. However, recent changes have raised a worrisome question…
Is there actually any “garden” left in The Garden Grill?
Though resort literature still touts the Garden Grill as a healthy, sustainable dining experience, something has shifted at Epcot’s rotating restaurant. Gone is the educational vision. Gone is the farm fresh element. Remarkable food has been replaced with heaping skillets of cafeteria starches and gravy-drowned meat, and the worst part is that the prices have not adjusted with the change.
This article is part review and part lament, exploring just why it appears Epcot’s Garden Grill has lost its sustainable soul.
A step back in time…
I was just a kid when we first ate at The Garden Grill, easily one of my favorite meals every Disney World visit. The rotating restaurant was enough of an experience itself with the novelty of its changing scenery, but the food stood out on a level all its own. Baskets of warm bread and butter preceded bowls of fresh green salad harvested from the greenhouse downstairs. I remember the cucumbers in particular—juicy, crispy, and big as footballs.
Steaming baskets of sustainable fried catfish kicked off the main feast —not particularly healthy, but oh-so-tasty and unique in demonstrating The Land’s educational vision. From a kid’s perspective, it was fascinating to learn that fish could be “farmed”. Next came plates of succulent chicken or turkey, rich marinated flank steak, creamy mashed potatoes, and mouth-watering vegetables. The menu varied each time, but the result was always a stunning family feast.
Finally, the meal would end with hot steaming cobbler for the adults and—a personal favorite— gummy worms and cookie dirt in chocolate pudding for the kids.
Was it healthy? Not really, but it was rich, sustainable, delicious, and an excellent value both for the price and the character dining experience (particularly considering The Garden Grill is one of the only locations in Epcot to see Mickey Mouse).
If the restaurant didn’t impress us enough, in 2014 we visited with two family members who were vegan (some of our favorite recommendations can be found in our recent article about vegan dining at Disney). We were concerned the meal would prove a poor value for them, but the incredible vegan spread the chef produced left everyone at the table salivating-- a massive platter of roasted veggies, healthy grains, and grilled tofu that proved to be even more delicious than the meat-eaters' version. It was such an impressive experience, it became one of our number one recommendations for guests with special diets visiting Epcot.
We came back in February 2017 expecting that not much would have changed. We were wrong.
A moment of silence for sustainability…
I want to emphasize that through this entire experience, the hosts, servers, and management remained a highlight. If nothing else, warm hospitality and welcoming smiles remain a high point for The Garden Grill, and the characters are still as charming as ever.
We once again had two special diet visitors with us (a vegetarian and pescatarian this time), so we were given a special menu highlighting that their meal would include a few of the normal feast items along with a veggie loaf, green beans, rice pilaf, and mac n’ cheese. It didn’t quite meet the high expectations of the previous visit, but we assumed the best. When we asked about the sustainable fish, we were surprised to learn it had been removed from the menu.
This was the first of many disappointments to come. The sustainable fish-- whether catfish, mahi-mahi, or other breeds-- have been one of the best items at The Garden Grill, so it seemed odd that something so closely tied to the Living With the Land attraction would get axed. The menu still touted that many of the vegetables were grown in the greenhouse, so we expected this would be a singular issue.
From harvest feast to harvest farce…
The first of many signs that something had shifted came with the salad. The rich, delicious farmer’s salad has been replaced with a mediocre mix of lettuce and a few scattered veggies. They very well may have still come from the greenhouse downstairs, but the previously exceptional quality of the produce has diminished. Also, the egg included with the salad was frozen.
Now, I know the Garden Grill is a high-volume restaurant. My own husband worked in high-volume fine dining, but in what situation do you need to be keeping hard boiled eggs so long that they need to be frozen at a restaurant known for farm fresh food?
The main meal sparked an immediate reaction of raised brows. Across the board, the entire spread had taken an unprecedented shift to the mediocre. The flank steak and chicken have been replaced with gravy smothered turkey breast, pot roast, and Italian sausage of passable quality. The rest of the plate was entirely made up of starches: mashed potatoes, corn on the cob, and spongy stuffing that all carried the distinct flavor and texture not of being farm-fresh (or even freshly made) but of being mass-produced, frozen, and reheated from a package.
For the vegetarians, things crossed from disappointing to dismal. They received the same parade of starches along with a tomato sauce smeared mystery cube that made up the veggie loaf. It wasn’t awful but not exactly appetizing either. Paired with this was a giant pile of oil-soaked sweet potato fries, and… worst of all… a small cup of mac n’ cheese that might have come out of a Kraft instant-mac box, dotted with goldfish crackers. While this might have been an adorable addition to a children’s meal, it felt like salt on the wound for a meal that cost nearly $50 a person. The shortbread dessert at the end also fell short of expectation, carrying the same distinct “squeezed-from-a-bag” taste.
Where have all the farmers gone?
We were flabbergasted by the utter absence of anything farm fresh in the meal. Even on the vegetarian plate, I don’t think we ever saw so much as a green bean beyond the mashed potatoes and corn, both of which may have been worthy of a spot in a Hungry Man frozen dinner but certainly not at a flagship restaurant in Walt Disney World. While the restaurant wasn’t necessarily the healthiest choice in the past, it did at least have some healthy options. Those appeared to be gone as well.
With the salad failing to make the cut, it truly made us question if there’s really any garden left in The Garden Grill. While we generally try not to complain, we ended up cordially raising our concerns to the server, particularly regarding the vegetarian meal. The chef came out and was polite but ended up misinterpreting our complaint by suggesting he could make something off-menu or bring us up something from Sunshine Seasons. We were basically told that plenty of people like the new menu and that, while they were willing to accommodate us, they had no issue assuming the meal they served was adequate for the average guest for the price. The vegetarians in our party were a bit embarrassed about the whole thing and ended up just opting to leave it be. We piddled through the meal, but there was no getting around it: it was terrible, nowhere near the previous quality of this formerly excellent restaurant.
Steakhouse prices for a Sizzler-quality supper…
If the waning of the restaurant’s farm-friendly vision wasn’t bad enough, prices have stayed at the $40-$50 a person range, just as it was when The Garden Grill wowed guests with stunning spreads of fresh vegetables, marinated steak, and hot cobblers. For a company that makes two billion dollars a year in profits, it didn’t just feel like a bad value. It felt insulting, particularly knowing just how insanely good this restaurant had been not five years previous.
The strange shift in quality at The Garden Grill carries the distinct funk of the ever-shifting world of Disney budget cuts and price increases. While this is only conjecture, it seems obvious that somewhere in upper management, the call was made to adjust to a menu that would be cheap to produce, easy to replicate, and would maximize profits while minimizing costs. While this is good business to a point, it could be argued Disney has made the questionable jump from good business to taking advantage of guests.
Indeed, after we paid the bill and were heading out, something happened that I have never seen in thirty years visiting Disney World: the manager came out and gave us a full refund, a set of Fastpasses for Soarin’, and offered to comp a meal at Sunshine Seasons for our vegetarian guests after listening to the same concerns I’ve listed in this article. I would emphasize not expecting this sort of thing if you have a bad dining experience—Disney’s guest service is amazing, but they usually find other ways to accommodate disappointed diners. I don’t know whether this was Disney going above and beyond or whether it was because one of our party members let it slip that I’m a writer, but it was the one gesture that left me hope that at least someone is listening at the Garden Grill.
For now, we’ve decided to consign the Garden Grill to our own list of Disney lost legends: the farm-fresh, sustainable rotating restaurant that appears to be on its dying breath.