Yes. Orlando has theme parks. Lots of ‘em. The best in the world, some might say (we certainly would). But we’re also a city of real-live people who might spend some of our date nights drinking around the world at Epcot... but not all of them. In recent years, our foodie scene has exploded. We’ve got James Beard nominees all over town, in fact. We’ve got fancy eats and food trucks and quite frankly, we like them all. And so do our record-breaking numbers of visitors. Sure, they love our Magic Kingdom's Dole Whips as much as we do. Who wouldn't?! But we also think they'll love the barbecue at Mills 50 favorites like Pig Floyd's or the creative, top-shelf offerings at Kabooki Sushi as as much as the rest of us. On this list, you’ll find the likes of international celebrity restaurateurs such as Norman Van Aken and our own, more local variety, like K Restaurant’s Kevin Fonzo (you’d do well, perhaps ,to remember his name) and you’ll also find one of our city's finest Vietnamese venues – Saigon Noodle. Did you know that we’ve got amazing Vietnamese food in spades here in Orlando? Well, you should. Step away from the kiosk chicken tenders, tourists. Our impressive culinary scene awaits….
Pig Floyd's Urban Barbakoa
Pig Floyd's Urban Barbakoa's location amid the multicultural stretch of Mills on which it sits is ideal, and not merely for the hip vibe its confines – particularly the lovely open-air section – help breed. With Caribbean, Latin and Asian culinary influences finding its way into the menu, PF's allows lovers of traditional Southern Q and those with a hankering for flavors from far-flung places to have fun sampling the menu. Here you'll find the surprise of soy, citrus and curry along with the sweet, smoky profiles you'd expect. Succulent pork belly, tender brisket and pulled share the bill with an array of street tacos, BBQ banh mi and other intriguing selections. (407-921-1696)
So many gems of the Orlando metro's dining community are ensconced in anonymous (and ubiquitous) strip-mall digs and Stefano's Trattoria is just such a jewel, this one at the intersection of Red Bug and Tuskawilla Roads in Winter Springs. You're likely to leave as sated as you would have from your Sicilian grandmother's table. Hearty lasagna and gnocchi della nonna, tempting Stromboli and cheesy calzones, classic meat entrees including piccata, marsala and parmigiana, along with delicate dishes from the sea, like the zuppa di mare, keep locals coming back for what so many call the best Italian in the area. ((407) 659-0101)
Norman Van Aken is a culinary legend – and a proud Floridian transplant, which plays nicely into delicious and often Latin-, Caribbean- and even Key West-infused fare. Sit outside and enjoy spectacular views of lakes, gardens and the Ritz-Carlton's expansive, green golf course or dine in climate-controlled majesty – vaulted ceilings and Italianate windows help bring that outside essence in. Tapas like Key West shrimp ceviche or delicate caviar may prime your palate for creamy cracked conch chowder or rhum and pepper painted Florida black grouper. Norman's is, of course, not a one-dollar-sign venue, but for vacationers and those looking for a sumptuous meal out, few venues are as resplendent as the Ritz-Carlton, and few restaurants could match it as well as Norman's. (407-393-4333)
Bull & Bear Steakhouse
Living up to its New York namesake's reputation, Orlando's version of Bull & Bear pulls out the stops with attentive service and a traditional, club-like steakhouse atmosphere with contemporary touches. Portions are hearty, beef is top-quality and the menu offers both traditional favorites and refreshing surprises; sometimes a melding of the two. Popular favorites include the Bull & Bear Shellfish Platter (the crab cocktail is a standout) and the formidable, Fred Flintstone-sized Tomahawk, a blockbuster, bone-in, 36-ounce cut of dry-aged Certified Angus Beef that is carved tableside and dressed with the velvety drippings of a beef-tallow candle. (407-597-5500)
A sleek and intimate interior belies a strip-mall exterior on busy Colonial Drive near the Fashion Square Mall. It's a relatively new Orlando favorite for sushi and Asian fusion, with artful and generous presentation and a soothing, cosmopolitan vibe. Creative rolls – many of them tempura, watch the calories! – are a big draw but before you go completely roll-overboard (who doesn't?!) consider Kabooki's delicate, nigiri and sashimi selections, as well. Plump, fresh cuts of melt-in-your-mouth fish are served like culinary fine art that is, in fact, too lovely to gaze upon too long. Take a picture before you scarf. I mean, savor. ((407) 228-3839)
Shish.Co Mezze & Grill
The best restaurants are not always the fanciest restaurants. In fact, sometimes they're food stands in the middle of parking lots, as Shish.Co Mezze & Grill deftly illustrates with its mouthwatering doner bowls with pita draped beneath, unbelievable appetizers (loads of veggie options) and tantalizing Turkish coffee as dark and rich as your black, Goth soul. Savory kofte, smoky eggplant, creamy-refreshing yogurt sauce.... We could go on forever. Service is wonderful, food is fresh and delicious – so delicious in fact that you won't at all mind sitting in a parking lot. It may as well be a charming bazaar in Istanbul. (407-661-1336)
The Ravenous Pig
The Ravenous Pig was among the first businesses to begin a new phase of transformation on this stretch of Orange Avenue in 2007 – and probably among the first to bring the term "gastropub" into the local lexicon, as well. Local is king here; a rotating food and craft cocktail menu features ingredients grown, raised and made by Florida purveyors. A few dishes are mainstays, but the rest rotate – leaving diners to wonder what delights they may find when they venture in. Braised rabbit over tagliatelle? Pot-au-feu? Could be. If not, another fresh-made creation is sure to please. Come thirsty, as well. Rotating taps feature phenomenal craft beers including those of its sister restaurant's own brewmaster. (4076282333)
Mamak Asian Street Food
It's air-conditioned confines may be miles away from the sultry Southeast Asian climes in which one would enjoy the layered flavors of the Malaysian food stalls for which it is named, but Mamak Asian Street Food's plates – small and large – are an exotic journey without the plane fare. From the familiar (spring rolls, street tacos) to items the less adventurous might deem out-there (fish balls, curry gravies) its menu culls from various Asian nations creating a mix of flavors that beg to be sampled. A central location in Mills 50 makes exploration of the neighborhood a pleasant to-do, pre-dinner or post-lunch. (407-270-4688)
Intimate and chic, but hardly pretentious, the folks at Scratch makes you feel at home whether you've dropped in for a drink at the bar or to sample its sublime small plates (which you can also do at the bar). Its location on Fairbanks is just a skip from the nightlife options of Park Ave. and Hannibal Square – ambling over from either will up your evening's romantic vibe, making it feel like a random place you've decided to try after a day exploring a new city. Its wine and beer list are extensive, its wait staff knowledgeable and its seasonally rotating menu a wonderful array of tastes both traditional and exotic – and sometimes an amalgam of the two. Artful plating makes each selection almost too pretty to eat. Almost. (407-325-5165)
Oh, K...when will the love affair end? Please say never. This College Park restaurant is an across-the-board favorite for down-home burger lovers and duck confit aficionados and everyone in between. Its menu is like Forrest Gump's proverbial box of chocolates; local sourcing makes it slightly more unpredictable (in a good way). K's atmosphere is whatever you need it to be � relaxing or romantic, but maintains a comfortable, casual elegance. If you like your food with a bit of feel-good community happy, K's chef/owner, Kevin Fonzo gives back to Orlando in spades � school lunch programs, school gardening programs, even culinary instruction for youngsters, all of which has been recognized with awards that made a big enough noise here at home in Florida to be heard at the White House, where he was invited for his achievements. And if all that doesn't impress you, just try his mac and cheese. (407-872-2332)
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.
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