Alright, no one's going to argue that Orlando's I-Drive is ground zero for the city's zillion or so annual tourists, but with what seems like a zillion or so restaurants to match, is it possible to find an ethnic culinary gem amid the chain buffets and ubiquitous pancake houses? Indeed. In fact, if you dig a little deeper you might come to the conclusion that they named it INTERNATIONAL Drive for a reason. Did you ever imagine you'd find authentic Japanese or Uzbek or Ethiopian food in the heart of this tourist corridor? Such treasures surprise many an Orlando native, never mind the visitors. Of course, "chain" doesn't have to be a dirty word. There's something to be said for the fun and familiar when it comes to quality dining, especially if you're traveling with a diverse or picky group. Venues like Fogo de Chao offer fine food in lovely surroundings with the family-friendliness and ease of an all-you-can-eat buffet. Hotel-ensconced eateries like Napa and Jack's Place provide elegant oases ideal for special evenings out, well away from the Disney-bound hordes. And restaurants like Hash House A Go Go serve up mammoth proportions of comfort-food twists so epic they were made to be shared. Submitted herein, a list to serve myriad palates and price points!
10 Pio Pio
What's the burning question on the minds of Pio Pio patrons, you wonder? Perhaps it's how they serve such generous portions in the tourist zone for such reasonable prices. Perhaps, if they're locals, it's a disbelief that it's taken them so long either to find the comfort food their abuela used to make or how they haven't sampled Latin staples such as maduros, empanadas, or grilled skirt steak before stumbling onto this unassuming, family-friendly little place. Maybe they're just wondering what the secret ingredients are for Pio Pio's signature rotisserie chicken marinade. All are valid. But don't think too hard. Just eat. ((407) 248-6424)
9 Hanamizuki Japanese Restaurant
Let the fact that Hanamizuki's website is in Japanese clue you in: this I-Drive dining experience may be atypical compared with Japanese restaurants you've frequented in the past. And that's definitely not a bad thing. Hanamizuki serves sushi to be sure, but you may want to save that for another venue and treat your palate to something new and adventurous amid this restaurant's traditional Kyoto-style menu. Ramen is a lunchtime favorite here -- be aware: it is not available at dinnertime -- locals travel from well outside the tourist zone for their Japanese noodle soup fix, bowls laden with noodles and perhaps pork and boiled eggs depending on your selection, all quite elegantly served. The tableside hot stone grill makes for an interesting presentation, as well. Lots of vegetarian options for the herbivore in your group. ((407) 363-7200)
Whether or not you're staying at the Peabody Orlando, you may be looking to "duck" in for an audience with its most famous permanent residents: the ducks. And whether you're showing up for the 11 am procession to the fountain, the 5 pm reverse journey back to the elevators or you're just looking for a wonderful farm-to-fork lunch or dinner option, Napa makes an excellent choice. This stylish venue offers up Northern California-style fare -- its menu is sustainable, organic and locally sourced whenever possible -- paired with lovely views of the pool. There are myriad vegan and gluten-free options, as well. (4073134570)
7 Big Italy
"Another strip-mall offering on I-Drive?" you sigh. Think again. Inside its unremarkable confines lurks a locally lauded, reasonably priced and very family-friendly venue serving quality pizzas, pastas and other Italian fare as affably as any higher-rent restaurant. This is Big Italy, so bring your group -- even big ones, they can accommodate -- and mangia. Yes, the menu is big, too. Really big. In fact, it may take a few minutes for everyone to decide, but the upside is that there's certainly something for everyone in your party. And of course, wine and appetizers will make the task seem far less daunting. ((407) 345-5566)
6 Jack's Place
Sure, there are some notable steakhouse venues on and around International Drive but Jack's Place, a hidden gem tucked away inside the Rosen Plaza Hotel, is one where you'll spend less time fighting the hordes for a table and enjoy great service and fine food to boot. Prime steaks, fresh seafood and other traditional offerings by Executive Chef Michael McMullen tempt diners with a desire for a special night out amid a quirky gallery of celebrity-autographed caricatures done by Jack Rosen (father of Harris, president of Rosen Hotels & Resorts) for whom this restaurant is named. It's a nice option for a special-occasion date night. (407-996-1787)
5 Taverna Opa Orlando
Consistently ranked as a Greek favorite in the City Beautiful, Taverna Opa is something of an all-encompassing experience, as diners are immersed in authentic, satisfying Mediterranean fare -- along with a steady stream of flying napkins and Ouzo shots. Nighttime brings out the DJ and the alluring belly dancers (they often play with fire, so watch those napkins) who somehow manage to encourage even the shyest of patrons to join in traditional Greek line dancing, sometimes even on the table tops. Pointe Orlando is arguably the I-Drive ground zero for tourism but that doesn't stop locals from getting in on the fun. (4073518660)
4 Atlas House
Diners who discover this unassuming, family-run restaurant are consistently delighted to have unearthed such delights in the form of Uzbek cuisine. "Uzbek," you say? Indeed. It is the cuisine of Uzbekistan, where meaty dumplings and kababs are staples and wonderful meat-and-rice dishes may have you out looking for an Uzbek cookbook following your meal. Vegetarians, too, will find eggplant rolls, dumplings stuffed with squash and light, refreshing morchovcha -- a wonderful carrot-based salad -- to tempt their palates. Prices here are very reasonable, families are very welcome. For most people, Atlas House will provide a culinary adventure. Aren't you overdue for one? ((407)778-4816)
3 Fogo de Chão
Fogo De Chao, the well-known Brazilian steakhouse chain, could be described as something of an upscale all-you-can-eat option. Offering the I-Drive crowd -- and a preponderance of locals keen on churrascaria, the Brazilian tradition wherein roaming "gauchos" present and slice a vast array of pit-roasted meats tableside -- a dining experience that allows them to pace their meal as they wish, using a two-sided disc to signal when they're ready for more. The eatery's "salad bar," which is laden with far, far more than veggies, helps round out the meal with side dishes. Fogo de Chao is pay one price. Half price for kids and free for those ages 6 and under. ((407) 370-0711)
2 Nile Ethiopian Restaurant
The Nile ain't just a river in Egypt, as the saying goes (sort of). In Orlando, it's one of a handful of independent restaurants amid I-Drive's sea of chain offerings, one serving up authentic Ethiopian fare in traditional style. What does this mean? For starters, no utensils. Getting the food to your face requires the use of injera, a spongy, tasty, vaguely crepe-like bread. Tear a piece off and simply scoop up the lentils, stewed chicken, seasoned beef or whatever other selections intrigued you and enjoy. Nile offers some wonderful selections for vegetarians, too, making it an excellent choice for everyone in the group. ((407) 354-0026)
1 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)
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 (SeaWorld’s Manta is her current favorite), 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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