Orlando's Best Restaurants: Top-Tier Tables to Lauded Local Faves
By A.D. Thompson
Orlando Local Expert
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 authentic barbecue at Orlando favorites like 4Rivers Smokehouse or quirky, off-the-path roadhouses like Yellow Dog Eats 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 favorite pho houses – Pho 88. 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….
Visitors to Orlando, particularly those who fancy themselves gourmands, really shouldn't leave town without trying at least one of our exceptional Vietnamese restaurants. And yes, there are many. Why did we choose Pho 88 and not one of the others? It's well-located in funky Mills 50 -- close to bars, shops and ground-zero and our very own "Little Saigon" district. It's clean and expeditious; the food comes quickly. Service is generally a well-oiled machine. The portions are hefty. And oh, boy, is it good, from steaming fish pots to spicy stir-frys to noodle-laden bowls of the soup for which it is named. It's also very reasonably priced. How many "best of" city restaurants can say that? ((407) 897-3488)
4Rivers' Winter Park location (not its original outpost; its success quickly outgrew that venue) is its flagship -- the central restaurant around which this Orlando-based, Texas-style barbecue empire operates. Brisket, ribs, pulled pork and smoked turkey are a few of its signature items. Not surprisingly, so are crowds. No one seems to mind waiting but you're welcome to opt for take-out instead. Barbecue's not a neat cuisine and even 4Rivers' sandwich menu -- the Messy Pig and its two layers of slaw, in particular -- pushes the envelope. Some fans swear by the desserts, as well. (Fried Oreos, anyone?) If you've got a sweet tooth, they are Southern-inspired and sinful as you-know-where. (407-474-8377)
So many gems of the Orlando metro's dining community are ensconced in anonymous strip-mall digs and Stefano's Trattoria is just such a jewel, this one at the intersection of Red Bug and Tuskawilla in Winter Springs. Its gracious hosts, chef/owner Stefano LaCommare and wife, Marie, greet each diner as though they are guests in their home and make no mistake -- you will leave as sated as you would have from your Sicilian grandmother's table. Hearty gnocchi and lasagna, rich sauces and an array of other crowd-pleasing favorites -- the heavenly cioppino, mussels puttanesca and tortellini di Stefano come to mind -- keep locals coming back for what so many call the best Italian in the area. ((407) 659-0101)
Yellow Dog Eats
This charming, off-the-beaten-path venue is charming and rustic, evocative of some diamond-in-the-rough surprise you'd stumble upon while road tripping. Its food is surprising, too. Sandwiches, salads, scrumptious starters and a whole lotta barbecue. A host of offerings showcase piles of YDE's signature pulled pork, including the Fire Pig (a wrap with apple wood-smoked bacon, gouda, fried onions and sriracha) and the Rufus (pork topped with thick-cut Brie, cherry ring peppers and topped with raspberry melba sauce). Ribs are available by the half-rack, as well. And YDE's house slaw is a sweet, tangy treat. Live music in the restaurant's outdoor beer garden adds ear candy to the menu. (407-296-0609)
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)
Chef's Table at the Edgewater
It should immediately be noted, the average main course price is not $56 -- that's the cost of your impeccable three-course meal. This intimate room inside the Winter Garden's historic Edgewater Hotel is a sorta-kinda best-kept-secret in Orlando. It has made everyone's list, from local publications to Zagat's Top Restaurants in America, but its size and location (out in Winter Garden; about 15 miles east of downtown Orlando) has allowed it to keep some of its clandestine buzz, despite being open several years. Menus shift with fresh ingredients but never disappoint. Chef's Table is a special-occasion delight. Turn your cell phone off; leave the kids at home. Enjoy. ((407) 230-4837)
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)
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)
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.