Those mouth-watering highlights of “Julie & Julia” aside, French cuisine doesn’t hold quite the same twirl of utensil-dancing romanticism for me as it does the general public. The food retains outstanding craftsmanship and thrilling exotic flavors, but rarely, if ever, have I been in a position where I bust out a touchdown dance when the prospect of visiting a French restaurant is brought up. While hardly an exclusive Parisian hideaway shooing away Americans, the prospect of lunch at Epcot’s Les Chefs de France was somewhat daunting. However, for the purposes of high adventure, reservations were made, hunger was locked in, and personal prejudices were cast aside.
Perhaps the most famous of the celebrated World Showcase eating establishments, Les Chefs de France doesn’t retain a wildly challenging menu to elevate the culinary experience of a Disney theme park, but it nudges the bar far enough north to guarantee there won’t be many sweaty park guests with their incorrigible children sticking around. They can take that noise to America, with its hot dogs and funnel cakes. France is a more refined corner of the World Showcase, and its restaurant makes a vague impression of elegance, even with all the mouse ears boppin’ around.
I have to note, because of design or flat-out national pride, I was met with some attitude from the reservation check-in specialist, unfortunately named Remy. Seems being ten minutes late is akin to urinating on the flag to this fella, who offered me some serious French disdain as he walked me and my guest into the restaurant. Because dining in Epcot is serious business. For the record, the joint was maybe 2/3 full, making Remy’s pinched welcome spiel all the more baffling. I’m just glad I didn’t receive an oily backhand across the punam. Ahh, France…
Our server wasn’t invested in providing a congenial atmosphere either, leaving me to wonder if the staff was actually instructed to hose themselves down with cold water before showtime to accurately recreate the classic, world-renowned French attitude toward Americans. Silly to reflect on such a notion, but at the time, I was starting to believe furrowed-brow irritation was part of the theming.
‘Tude from the help aside, Les Chefs de France is a gorgeous restaurant, with an ethereal front dining room, allowing less socially invested guests an opportunity to stare out over the vastness of Epcot, permitted to people watch until their eyes burst. Inside, it’s a sunlit room packed with tables, allowing for a comforting bustle of conversation, with further areas of the building earmarked for more intimate arrangements, or perhaps a sense of Parisian realism cartoon reminders of Epcot tend to obliterate. Like a majority of the World Showcase restaurants, Les Chefs de France does a wonderful job taking diners into a French headspace, creating a plausible atmosphere to help sell the experience.
The menu selections are limited, but cover a range of French-infused offerings. There’s nothing confusingly Gallic, but familiar dishes given a proper cultural swirly. I ordered the Gratin de Macaroni with gruyere cheese, and, because I’m basically a culture caveman, I immediately thought of this when I read the ingredients:
Turns out The Guyver and gruyere are two different things. I need to get out of the house more often.
The impulse is to wave off the entree as straightforward mac and cheese, but the dish retains more character than the average orange slop of comfort food, with the pasta bathing in a bubbling bath of cheese and cream, supplying a smoothly satisfying taste while making my arteries panic. It’s bowl of tender, creamy bites, providing an interesting off-ramp to anyone who’s grown up with classic mac and cheese. It’s a tangy bridge built between rube expectation and French ingredient habits, finding a nice middle ground to work with. Though one does feel like a fool when ordering it, it’s actually quite a significant dish.
My dining companion enjoyed the Crepe Basquaise, which layers strips of chicken into a crepe heavily populated with peppers and onions. It’s a spicier concoction than I was anticipating, trading in taste-bud reserve for a distinctive un-French kick, meshed well with the tender crepe shell.
For dessert, we selected the Chocolate Mousse Cake, though somewhat fearful that we would receive a frustratingly bland slice of the all-purpose Disney cake; a frosted piece of sweet the restaurants all appear to share. Mercifully, the cake wasn’t familiar. A moist, dense, chocolaty bit of heaven, the cake supplied the knockout punch the meal needed. Again, perhaps not the most authentically French finishing move I could think of, but when cake is done proper, there’s just no room for evil in the world.
In a sign that possibly my fears of slack Euro authenticity were unfounded, we were seated next to an elderly French couple, who happily gobbled up the food and carried on with surrounding tables as if seated in Paris, two wine bottles into the afternoon. A friendly, forward couple (they asked a nearby lady for her age, which resulted in the longest pause I’ve ever witnessed from a human being before answering), the pair seemed perfectly tickled inside their home country, dragging smiles out from the wait staff and adding immensely to the atmosphere. They didn’t care about the tourists or the view of Spaceship Earth outside of the window. These two were in France as far as they were concerned.
I was happy to join them in the fantasy.