They call it comfort food for a reason. It makes us feel good. The restaurants listed here are among the tops in town for down-homey delights, dishes you may not want to eat every day, but are guaranteed to fill the tummy and warm the soul. Lots of them offer breakfast and/or brunch. And nutritionists have long said we should make that the biggest meal of the day. Think about that if you’re feeling guilty for the warm, buttery biscuits and ladles of sausage gravy, then do an extra mile at the gym! Dixie Belle’s Café is the sort of place the servers will come to know you if you pop in regularly for country-style breakfast and lunch. McKnight’s is a go-to for soul food; steps from the Amway Center and all that downtown offers. Serving up ribs and catfish, fried pork chops and smothered turkey wings and all those soul-food sides you know and love, you’ll walk out of there – albeit slowly – with a belly full of love. On the other side of downtown near the courthouse, Leo’s Diner and its devoted local following beckons. Speaking of local, have you ever tried gator? How about turtle? Stop into the Catfish Place in St. Cloud for a sampling of fine Florida fare – all of it locally caught – and satisfy your craving for deep-fried delights.
10 Melissa's Chicken & Waffles
I'm sure if you ask some people, they'd say that deep-frying chicken, slathering it in some or other delicious goo (Buffalo sauce, country gravy, melted cheese) and then folding the whole thing up in a fresh-made waffle is a bad idea. The folks waiting at Melissa's Chicken & Waffle truck would beg to differ, of course, but they'd be happy to see one less person getting on line. Serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, largely via creative twist on this classic soul-food offering, Melissa's is comfort food on wheels, hitting up food truck events across Central Florida to the delight of people begging for excuses to fall off the diet wagon. Entrees here come with a knife and fork, but the best way to tackle most of Melissa's creation, whether laden with eggs and bacon or chicken and gravy, is to fold the whole thing up and stuff it in your waffle-hole. Grab extra napkins.
9 Hash House A Go Go
There's an old saying about eating breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper. Hash House A Go Go's policy is all King, all the time. Serving up what this San Diego-based chain calls "twisted farm food," HHAGG does up super-sized spins on Southern and Midwestern home-style favorites. Some inspirations you may know: chicken and waffles, chicken pot pie and an Indiana classic, pounded, crispy-fried pork tenderloin. Those familiar will immediately note that this one is portioned for when the monsters from "Pacific Rim" head inland to destroy Indianapolis. Open for all three squares and brunch on the weekends, just about every entree is suitable for sharing. Come seriously hungry and plan on leaving with a box or two. ((407) 370-4646)
8 The Catfish Place
Staying in business the better part of four decades is an impressive feat for any restaurant and Orlando doesn't have too many that can lay claim to such achievements. The Catfish Place is one of them. Specializing in the delectable Southern genre of fried seafood, this St. Cloud institution serves up local, wild-caught catfish from Lake Okeechobee. You'll also find familiar sides -- slaw and homemade hush puppies -- on the menu, along with a few highly Floridian items in the form of fried gator and fried turtle. Peel-and-eat shrimp (yes, you can get that fried, too), fried chicken livers and a popular appetizer -- fried lobster -- are also among the draws. (407-892-5771)
7 Leo's Diner
All the usual suspects of a breakfast/lunch joint are lined up for your inspection at Leo's, a downtown diner that's welcoming, warm and exceedingly casual. They also pile that food high because they know you love to eat. Big, classic breakfasts -- omelets, corned beef hash, French toast and gravy-smothered biscuits -- share the bill with hefty burgers and homemade comfort food. Gravy-licious sandwiches like hot open turkey, meatloaf and roast beef are available daily, not relegated to the specials menu. Lighter fare comes in the form of salads and sandwiches, but you might end up b-lining for the gooey grilled cheese just the same. ((407) 423-5367)
Just west of downtown Orlando sits the Parramore district, home of McKnight's, a polished venue serving up classic soul food dishes for lunch and dinner six days a week. McKnight's is flexible; diners with a serious craving for fried pork chops can feel free to bring along companions more in the mood for burgers or pasta -- even salad. But the soul food is really where it's at. Folks will find classic sides like collards and mac and cheese served alongside smothered turkey wings, fried catfish and ribs with some tasty surprises (curry shrimp tacos, anyone?). McKnight's is within an easy stroll to the Amway Center; you might want to check it out before a concert or a Magic game. ((407) 245-1155)
5 The Crooked Spoon
After beginning its life as an Orlando-area food truck, the Crooked Spoon's popularity began to swell and, lo and behold, it became a full-fledged restaurant in the rolling, citrus-laden hills of nearby Clermont. Serving up comfort-food favorites with a leveled-up gastropub twist. Gooey six-cheese mac and cheese is made to order, bacon-wrapped Angus meatloaf is served alongside herbed rice and the double-cut chamomile-brined pork chop is slathered in bourbon glaze and comes paired with sausage and Brussels sprout hash. This ain't your gram's country cookin', but it derives some of its best qualities from those yellowed recipe cards she used for 50 years. (352-404-7808)
4 Harry & Larry's Bar-B-Que
There's just something about beef brisket and slaw that gets the mouth watering. Or maybe you're a rib aficionado. Or have a thing for smoked turkey. The beauty of Southern barbecue is that you don't really have to choose. Just get a multi-meat plate and dig the H in. One taste of Harry & Larry's wares and you're transported back to that last roadside smoker you hit up on your way from somewhere to someplace else and the only thing you remember is trying to get one more taste of the sauce out from under your nails before resorting to that old Wet-Nap in your glove compartment. Brisket, ribs, sausage and turkey beckon. Stop in for a slab or buy it by the pound and haul it home and become the hero of dinner. ((407) 614-5950)
3 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 (which is primarily what landed it on the "Homestyle" list). 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)
2 Dixie Belle's Cafe
Lots of breakfast-lunch diners have down-homey Southern names, but the food at Dixie Belle's backs it up. If we had to narrow it down to two words, we'd use "sausage gravy," but it doesn't end there. Dixie Belle's charming, unfancy atmosphere and friendly servers will happily tell you the daily specials and have your drinks on the table in no time. If you'd care to move beyond the breakfast offerings -- it is admittedly difficult to move past the eggs and biscuits and country-fried steak -- you might give the homemade meatloaf or open-faced roast beef sandwich a try. And those daily specials? You might find Sloppy Joes on the menu. Or fried chicken. Or roast turkey with dressing. Regardless, it's bound to be a rib-sticking comfort-food classic. Come hungry. ((407) 812-7012)
1 Cask & Larder
With a rotating menu that features upscale 2.0 versions of apps like boiled peanut hummus and entrees such as fried chicken, catfish sandwiches and a succulent low country seafood boil, Cask & Larder -- which is billed as a Southern public house, gets to the home-style heart of the matter, no joke. Come at brunch and it gets even less funny (when it comes to deciding what to eat). Crawfish beignets, chicken and waffles and a stunner called the pig muffin -- which brings together sausage, egg, pimento and collards on an English muffin -- are enough to spin the head if not clog the heart. ((321) 280-4200)
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.
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