Chefs de France, located in the French pavilion in Epcot, is consistently one of the best restaurants in all the Walt Disney World theme parks. Located in a well-lit, cheerful space, it’s the first thing you see when you round the corner and cross the bridge from Great Britain. There are fun “street” performers just outside and plenty of people watching. Once inside, you’ll be seated in either the main dining room with a view of the walkway around the World Showcase Lagoon or in the smaller, rectangular shaped room with big glass windows that overlook the fountain and other shops. Either view makes for great people watching. Happily, there’s only a small portion of the restaurant that doesn’t afford nice outdoor views. Designed to look like a French bistro with shades of yellow and blue accented with iron, it’s more homey than posh, but the rooms are some of the prettiest in Disney World. The whole place just feels “French” right down to the smallish bathrooms that resemble the type you’d find in a neighborhood Parisian restaurant. It’s fine for a family or for a casual date night.
One consistent thread you’ll find running through all World Showcase restaurants is that the menus are very accessible. This is, depending on your point of view, either good or bad. While they do venture into traditional fare, some of which may be unfamiliar to some Americans, most of what’s available is a variation of something you’re familiar with. I know that some people complain that there isn’t enough authenticity in the World Showcase, but I think they do a good job of giving guests a reasonably authentic experience while also ensuring that there’s something for everyone. On the menu at Chef’s, you’ll find escargot, something Americans tend to think of as quintessentially French, and you’ll find items that you’d see in any French restaurant, but you’ll also find a good steak and at lunch, a burger that’s one of the best you’ll find in the parks.
One thing I don’t like about buffets and restaurants that turn out a high volume of meals every day is that sometimes the meal seems devoid of the human touch. They can still be good, don’t get me wrong, but there’s something missing. Without getting too esoteric, there’s a certain something that happens when a chef is in contact with the food he’s making, when he knows his ingredients and is taking the time to season and taste what he’s serving. I’m not sure how many guests Chefs serves a day, but they somehow make each meal seem like it was made in smaller batches, much like you’d find in a neighborhood restaurant in Paris. One of my favorite dishes at Chef’s, the roast chicken, really does taste like it was made by one cook in a small kitchen. You can almost see him, shouting at his sous chef to bring more chopped onions and flirting with the lone waitress as she takes away your order. That’s an accomplishment given the sheer volume of guests who eat here daily.
Over several meals at Chefs, all of them enjoyable, I’ve developed a few opinions about the menu. Given a choice, I’d choose dinner rather than lunch. There’s a good burger on the lunch menu that I highly recommend and the beef short ribs on a cold day make for a delicious treat. Unfortunately, the prix fixe menu, which you’ll likely order from if you’re on the Disney dining plan, is so cheese-centric that after the second course you can start to feel a bit, how shall I put it? Bloated. Don’t get me wrong, I like my dairy. It’s practically a religion around our house. And the food was good. It’s just that I’d like to see them offer a lunch menu that ‘s a bit lighter, especially given the hot, humid weather outside.
The French onion soup, offered at both lunch and dinner, melds beef broth and onions in a way that lets both of them shine and then covers it with gruyere cheese. It’s a soup that, in less skilled hands, can be bland and soggy, but Chefs gets it right. It’s consistently mentioned as a guest favorite. The lobster bisque is also a good choice, tasting fresh and just the slightest bit sweet from the lobster itself but not too fishy; I’ve known seafood haters who order this every time. Appetizers also include a cheese plate and a pate and coldcut sampler, as well as one or two types of flatbreads. The salads are a nice choice too, which fresh mixed greens dressed in a light vinaigrette; you can order other dressings as well, so don’t hesitate to ask if you prefer something different.
I could go on all day about dinner at Chefs. It’s one of my favorite places to eat in Disney World and that includes Disney’s signature restaurants, of which I’m a huge fan. Even if the food weren’t good, the atmosphere is so cheerful that you can’t help but enjoy yourself. But the food, well the food is pretty good. I generally loathe macaroni and cheese, but Chefs’ grown-up version, gratin de macaroni, is both familiar and decadent, made with cream and gruyere.
The steak is good. It’s not the best steak on property but you won’t be disappointed either. It comes with crispy fries served in a metal cone, so it looks extra fun. You can substitute the fries for another vegatable. I frequently order the roasted chicken, which is one of my favorite dishes at Disney World. There are other meat and pasta dishes available. Check here for current menus.
Desserts are definitely worth a try. I like the crème brulee, which has a light vanilla flavor and is served with a Madeleine, those addictive little cookies beloved by Proust. The mango sorbet is a nice choice for those looking to cut back on calories. If it’s available when you visit, the crepes with caramel and apples are worth every calorie and may find you having an embarrassing internal debate over whether or not it’s okay to pick up your plate and lick it. Well, I mean it is your vacation.
The kids’ menu has ice cream or chocolate chip cookies. Both are good, but not quite up to what is offered on the adults’ menu.
A word about the bread. One of the things that the French do really well is bread. In fact, I’d venture to say it’s probably harder to find substandard bread in France than it is to find good quality bread, which is just about everywhere. So it pains me to say that in this respect, Chefs falls short. At best you’ll be served a crusty roll with just a little bit of flavor. At worst, a round, flavorless, doughy ball. Either one will be accompanied by a hard pat of butter. Good bread can be hard to find at Disney World but in the French pavilion? That’s practically criminal.
There’s plenty for vegetarians to be happy about here. If you don’t see anything on the menu, make note when making your reservations that you’d like a vegetarian entrée and let the chef surprise you. If you’re following a gluten-free diet, you’ll be happy to know that the delicious macaroni and cheese can be made with gluten-free pasta. As with any dietary requests, you’ll want to make your needs known ahead of time. Here are some tips on how to do that here and here.
Service here passes what I call the “Disney friendly” test. I know that we Americans like to tease about the French. We’re self-conscious about using our high school French for fear that they will mock us. We worry that the French think we’re frumpy or maybe we think that they take themselves a little too seriously. And then we go to France and find out that, shockingly, they’re just like us. Okay, they’re just like us with better cheese and bread. But otherwise, a lot like us. And that shows at Chef’s, where you will find the same friendly service you’ll find anywhere at Disney World.
Speaking of service, while you’re there, you may also get a visit at your table from Remy, the rat from Ratatouille, who visits guests from his perch on a cart wheeled around by a very funny waiter. In my experience, the cast member who pushes Remy around is very good at knowing who to joke with and who to leave to his bowl of hot steaming onion soup. Now you, like me, may have some misgivings about being visited during dinner by a audio-animatronic rat. I mean, who wants to be reminded of rats while you eat? But Remy is cute and funny enough that you’ll soon forget. It’s one of my favorite character experiences in a Disney restaurant. Sorry princesses, but that rat has star power. Remy isn’t always available, so ask while you make your reservations.
Chef’s manages to feel like a neighborhood restaurant in the middle of a very busy theme park. Ducking in on a hot day or sitting down for a cozy winter meal, you feel more relaxed than you would in busier settings. The surroundings are casual enough that you don’t have to worry about bringing the kids but it still manages to be date-night friendly. Most importantly, the food is really does make it a special occasion. Check it out on your next visit.
Chef’s costs one-table service credit if you’re on the dining plan. It isn’t as popular as some World Showcase restaurants, so you can probably get a reservation at about 45-days out. I’ve had luck with walk-ups as well. As with all Disney dining reservations, the earlier you call, the better. Chef’s participates in the Candlelight Processional dinner package.