So, where to dine when you're at Universal? First let's get specific. For this 10Best list's purposes, Universal is defined as the entire 840-acre Universal Orlando Resort: its multiple theme parks, its on-site hotel properties and its Universal CityWalk entertainment complex. As you can imagine, choosing a dining venue in a place this vast can be daunting. Lucky for us, we live here. And we know eating at the parks isn't one-size-fits all. Some people want fine dining and others kid-friendly. And pretty much everyone likes to keep at least one eye on the budget. For enthusiasts who want to do as much as possible, sit-down meals are less of a concern than the best venues to get in, get out and get back on the roller coasters. Whether your tastes run more toward chic enclaves like Emeril's Tchoup Chop or the Orchid Court Lounge & Sushi Bar at the Loews Royal Pacific Resort, family-friendly, pub-like surrounds like those at Finnegan’s Bar & Grill, painstakingly themed wonderlands like Three Broomsticks at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Hogsmeade or the phenomenal and expansive Springfield area of Universal Studios Florida, where you can scarf a Krusty Burger and a Lard Lad Donut and then wash it down with a Duff at the open-air Duff Brewery, Universal’s got ‘em. And just about everything else. Read on for some stellar choices.
Mama Della's Ristorante
This casual eatery at the Loews Portofino Bay Hotel is quaint and a bit evocative of Nonna's house, and that's the idea. Salty-wonderful antipasto, creamy Alfredo, brisket-piled spaghetti and ricotta infused gnocchi beckon (dieters might want to stay clear, the temptation is powerful here). Hearty peasant fare in the form of cacciatore stick to the ribs. Save room and you may be in for and molten chocolate lava cake or some such confection at the meal's close. Strolling musicians sing and play, wine flows, bellies fill. Save at least a little room for the bread; they bake the garlic cloves right into it. (407-503-1432, 407-503-3463)
Orchid Court Lounge & Sushi Bar
With views of the Loews Royal Pacific pool (not too shabby) and the sensual and lovely orchid court for which it is named, the Orchid Court Lounge & Sushi Bar does double-duty as a relaxing lobby bar and surprisingly good dining venue. Triple duty, actually, if you count the continental breakfast they serve each morning. When midday rolls around, however, and the barkeeps begin churning out their signature South Seas-inspired martinis – Cherry Blossom saketini, anyone? – you'd be hard pressed to discern whether you're vacationing in Bali or in the shadow of Universal Orlando's myriad thrill rides and amusements. The lounge serves small plates but the sushi bar (try the Volcano Roll) is where the menu really shines. ((407) 503-3000)
Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner, The Kitchen is evocative – as are many things at the Hard Rock Hotel at Universal Orlando – of what us regular folks imagine we'd find in a rock star's decadent manse. Here the property's signature music memorabilia takes a decided culinary detour and while the menu is billed as "comfort food with a rock 'n' roll attitude," those traveling with children will find an array of features that make the Kitchen appealing: character dining, a kids' cooking program, magic shows and even a place where they can hang while their parents enjoy dinner one-on-one. Occasionally, guests are treated to cooking demos by visiting rock personalities. Past guest chefs include Vince Neil, Bret Michaels and Dee Snider. (407-503-7625)
Much like its grandfather, New York's famed restaurant of the same name, The Palm's walls showcase the same caricatures and cartoons made famous by its earliest regulars. Unlike its predecessor, however, this venture's location inside the Hard Rock Hotel at Universal Orlando imbues it with an added cool-factor, making it an ideal accompaniment to an evening of live music (the hotel's "Velvet Sessions," held on the last Thursday of most months, are billed as Orlando's only rock-n-roll cocktail party). The Palm's food and service uphold the New York tradition, though, and the restaurant has built a solid local following in addition to the visitors who rave and repeat-visit. Double-cut lamb rib chops and a 32-ounce N.Y. Strip (sliced tableside, serves 2-3) are among the favorites. (407-503-7256)
It is said that J.K. Rowling herself (not to mention the Harry Potter films' art director and production designer) had a hand in every facet of the recreation of her young wizard's world here at Universal Orlando, and so it's no surprise that a meal at Three Broomsticks feels eerie-wonderfully like stepping into a scene at Hogsmeade (If Hogsmeade were the sort of place with fast-casual eats for wizards and witches on the go.) The food here is adequate, a mix of British and American fare served daily at lunch and dinner, but let's face it: visitors to the Wizarding World come primarily for the thrill rides and thrilling theming. Three Broomsticks could easily teach a Hogwarts course in the latter. ((407) 363-8000)
Springfield's Fast Food Blvd.
You're not going to lose any weight at this lauded Springfield Avenue come-to-life (fear not, there are a few lighter options amid the fry-fest) but Simpson fans will have an absolute blast navigating a food court fraught with familiar names and every cartoon delicacy you'd ever dreamed of sampling while watching "The Simpsons." You'll find Krusty Burger, of course, and Lard Lad Donuts and The Frying Dutchman – the site that spawned Homer's infamous all-you-can-eat buffet-related lawsuit. Nothing here is AYCE, of course, but it sure is fun – from Lisa's Teahouse of Horror to Cletus' Chicken Shack. And what kind of tribute would it be if you couldn't grab a Duff at Moe's Tavern?
Emeril's Tchoup Chop
Alluring decor, from water features and outdoor spaces to breathtaking mosaics, adorn this South Seas-themed eatery created by celebrity chef and restaurateur Emeril Lagasse and named in part for New Orleans' famed Tchoupitoulas Street. Located inside the Loews Royal Pacific Resort, Tchoup Chop boasts a creative menu, its dishes infused with the Asian and Polynesian flavors of the Pacific. Open for lunch and dinner daily, favorites include the Mongolian glazed slow-roasted pork belly, Chinese 5 Spice Braised Lamb Shank and Tchoup Chop-Style "Fish and Chips," which in layman's terms is tempura-fried mahi mahi. Suitable for families, groups and most certainly romantic evenings, Tchoup Chop serves fine food and more than a bit of glamour on the side. (407-503-2467)
Vivo Italian Kitchen
Sleek and contemporary on the outside, the menu at Vivo Italian Kitchen belies its traditional soul. Serving up Italian classics, this Universal CityWalk original-concept dining venue opened with fanfare in 2014, offering visitors a taste of Italy and a show of sorts. With its open kitchen, guests can watch chefs preparing fresh pasta by hand along with other favorites from the Old Country, such as linguine with clams, osso bucco, chicken Marsala. Of course, you may not feel like scarfing heavy carbonara before a ride on the Hulk. Lighter choices – roasted beet salad or classic Caesar, for example, are available as well. (407-224-2691)
Finnegan's Bar & Grill
Sit-down, full-service dining within a theme park is semi-rare. The sort you'd go out of your way to recommend, rarer still. Finnegan's is just such a place, serving up simple Irish-American fare (be sure to sample the soda bread and apple butter your server will bring) in a friendly, casual atmosphere that will whisk you out of the thrill-ride fray for a cooling respite – especially if you partake of their robust beer, beer cocktail or specialty drink menu. House favorites at Finnegan's include Irish fish and chips and the Kilkenny pot pie but the menu is large, diverse and hearty. ((407) 363-8757)
Who's up for "burgushi?" Confused? The Cowfish is a burger and sushi joint – a fun and funky one – located amid the hustle and bustle of Universal Orlando and an ideal place to grab a bite before a night out hitting the various hotspots along the colorful loop of the CityWalk complex. And as this portmanteau suggests, sometimes they merge these concepts for some creative combos you might not have conceived on your own. Case in point: the High-Class Hillbilly roll. Billed as "Southern-Style Bar-B-Q-Shi" (give them props for that; it's adorable), this burger-sushi merger features pulled pork, caramelized onion and BBQ sauce. It's potato-wrapped, flash-fried and topped with house-made bacon cole slaw and chives. Sound weird? It might be. A little. But it's also darn tasty. Tokyo traditionalists will find plenty of more familiar sushi to sate, as will burger fans. Perhaps the next town Godzilla destroys will be Kansas City. ((407) 224-3663)
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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