Dive Bars to Disney World: Toasting Orlando's Best Dens of the Drink
By A.D. Thompson
Orlando Local Expert
Ask 10 people for their idea of a great bar and odds are decent you'll get 10 different answers. Maybe more. Especially if you add the mood of the moment into the mix. Is this a first date or a night out with friends? Do you want to dress to impress, relax in your favorite, old T-shirt or don your best mouse ears? Are you leaning toward a crisp, craft-brewed cider, a peppery Cabernet with notes of vanilla or a cutting-edge craft cocktail flavored with house-made syrup? And of course, if you're planning on pairing drinks with eats or perhaps live music, that might figure into the mix, as well. Just a few questions make the possibilities seem infinite. We whittled the Orlando options down for you with a "bar salad" of sorts, a sampling of top haunts comprised of venerable old dives a la Wally's, chic hotel jazz lounges like the Grand Bohemian Orlando's Bosendorfer Lounge, intimate downtown speakeasies like Hanson's Shoe Repair and even theme-park offerings in the form of EPCOT's La Cava del Tequila, with a roster of top-shelf offerings that could put any Mexican fine-dining venue to shame. Belly up, friends, and prepare to sample some of the city's very best.
Wally's Mills Ave. Liquors
Some people call it a dive. Or a hole in the wall. But Wally's considers itself a tried-and-true neighborhood bar that's steeped in tradition. Whatever your classification, it's an undeniable institution that's been pickling the livers of Orlando's thirsty residents since 1954. Though worn and weary it may appear, its varied clientele -- on any given day your de facto drinking buds might be 25 or 65 or both -- are most often warm and welcoming. Moreover, its worldly barkeeps are renown for pouring the stiffest drinks in town. (407-896-6975)
What's black and gold and red all over? If you're in downtown Orlando and don't know the answer, the joke is on you, because you're missing out on the Bosendorfer Lounge, one of the city's sultriest locales for cool martinis and even cooler live jazz and soul. Five-star hotel bars are generally imbued with a high level of sexiness, if for nothing other than their proximity to crisp, expensive high-thread-count sheets, but the Bösendorfer Lounge -- with its sophisticated decor and warm elegance -- could easily manage this feat without the cache of a location inside Grand Bohemian Hotel Orlando. ((407) 313-9000)
Aku Aku Tiki Bar
Get ready for a time warp to Hawaiian and South Seas kitsch (and that's before you even sample the powerful punch of their rum cocktails)! Aku Aku brings tiki culture front and center in downtown Orlando with art and decor that hearkens back to its heyday of the 1940s and '50s. Potent rum punches served in delightfully themed glasses, tiki heads, coconuts and the like, might even make the drinks taste better. Not that they need any help. Festive is the order of the evening here. Bring friends for a fun night out, pull a date into one of the cozier nooks and share bowl-sized cocktails. In here, every night feels like you're on vacation. (407-839-0080)
For a pub with excessive emphasis on beer, and by excessive emphasis we mean 40 rotating taps and a massive cider selection, not to mention all the bottles of ales and Lambics and sours (oh, my!), what sets Oblivion apart from the craft-beer-driven crowd is its secondary emphasis: food. Much seems what you'd expect -- burgers, wings and the like -- but Oblivion's menu is creative, with some surprising elements (vegan "chicken" fingers tossed in the sauce of your choosing, for example). Plus, it's really, really good. Go light with a hummus trio or go for broke with the 'Murica burger, on which a hot dog, potato chips and other terrible and delicious things are layered. Just go. ((407) 802-4800)
La Cava del Tequila
For reasons that may or may not be more convincing to those among you who are parents, I have long held that bars at theme parks are a brilliant idea. This one, however, housed in the Mexico Pavilion at Epcot, qualifies as a true oasis, particularly during Orlando's hottest months. A nice selection of Mexican apps is available to pair with a surprisingly creative array of margaritas and more than 100 varieties of tequila in a cozy (read: it's on the small side) enclave made friendly by Disney cast members and even friendlier for the potent agave elixirs they serve. ((407) 842-1132)
Hanson's Shoe Repair
With room for perhaps 30 patrons at a time in its cozy and beautifully restored nook -- which boasts a lovely enclosed patch of rooftop for outdoor imbibing, occasional live music and (va-va-voom) burlesque -- it's a space that back in the late 1800s was, in fact, an actual cobbler's shop. These days, Hanson's Shoe Repair is a modern-day speakeasy in a romantic upstairs enclave on Pine Street. Call a number and they'll text you a password if they've got space. Hanson's serves an array of Prohibition-era-inspired cocktails with a focus on quality bourbon. They do a mean champagne cocktail, as well. ((407) 476-9446)
This is the stuff of Gen-X fantasy: Craft brews and video games in one cozy place. Oh, and art. Which classes the place up amid the comforting retro pings and memorable jingles of arcade classics like Donkey Kong, Missile Command, Centipede and Space Invaders. Of course, local art and IPAs weren't things most of us considered while waiting to play the lone Ms. Pac-Man game at the roller rink in 1982 (or toughing out our addictions with inferior Atari graphics in the musty confines of our parents semi-finished basements). But we're all grown up now. Things have like, totally changed. ((407) 796-2522)
Step back in time inside the Courtesy, a downtown haunt that hearkens back to the era of Prohibition. Lovingly hand-crafted cocktails abound -- from classics like the daiquiri and Manhattan to new spins on the old-fashioned. Events and specials abound and Happy Hour -- Monday through Friday from 5 to a very generous 8 p.m. -- features a homespun craft punch that goes for $4 a glass until it runs out. The mixologists here are no joke, oft called-upon to craft liquid creations for the highest of high-end foodie dinners and events. Pop in and test out their skills. You may sign up for a class. ((407) 450-2041)
Redlight Redlight Beer Parlour
With wide-open digs in Audubon Park, Redlight Redlight is the bar of choice for many of Orlando's craftiest craft brew aficionados and 2015 marks its 10-year anniversary. Redlight's ridiculously ample beer list might feel overwhelming to some, but staffers are always happy to help. Belly up and order your favorite or sample, sample, sample. With more than 250 bottles -- including vintage selections -- 23 rotating drafts and two beer engines for cask-conditioned ales, it's like you died and went to hop heaven. Regular events, from Orlando City soccer watch parties to expert-led food pairings, level up the always casual and often educational experience. (407-893-9832)
The Imperial at Washburn Imports (Orlando)
Located amid Orange Avenue's hip strip of Ivanhoe Village, the Imperial Wine Bar & Beer Garden should really be on everyone's list. Why? If you've ever pondered the potential joys of having a bar inside your favorite store, you won't ask. This unique haunt, nestled inside Washburn Imports (a phenomenal home furnishings showcase with pieces from the far-flung corners of the world) seems decorated for Bacchus himself. And yes, everything is for sale. Pull up a stool fashioned from centuries-old railroad ties or some such thing and enjoy the wine and microbrews. With a new chef on board, the Imperial's full menu provides excellent pairings for hungry patrons. And let's face it: Ii you're going take anything home against your better judgment while under the influence, it may as well be a gorgeous $1,500 reclaimed-wood bookcase. ((407) 228-4992)
About A.D. Thompson
A.D. Thompson has spent more than 20 years as a professional writer and roughly 15 as a Floridian. The words, she has found, come easier with bare feet and rum. A roller coaster enthusiast, A.D. readily admits there is fun to be had amid the madness of the theme parks, but has found there is magic, as well, in the outer-lying reaches of Mickey’s long shadow. She is delighted to share with you the spoils of her adopted city. Visit her colorful compendium at www.amydrewthompson.com.
Read more about A.D. Thompson here.