Universal Dining? You Bet Your Butterbeer It Is
By A.D. Thompson
Orlando Local Expert
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, or a beautiful waterfront where you can steal away from the theme-park fray for a glass of wine and some live jazz, Universal’s got ‘em. And just about everything else. Read on for some stellar choices.
The Thirsty Fish
This lovely lounge's prime location on the waterfront of the Loews Portofino Bay Hotel at Universal Orlando more than makes up for its limited, if tasty, selection of "piccolo morsi" (small bites). Add to that mix live jazz -- on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights -- and you've found the ideal place to relax, nosh, imbibe and bask in the Orlando version of this picturesque Italian harbor town. While certainly romantic, the Thirsty Fish is a wonderful location to gather an adults-only group of likeminded travelers and sample an array of wines and bubblies by the glass or bottle. Cent'anni! ((407) 503-1000)
The Leaky Cauldron
Potter fans will marvel as they step inside the "thousand-year-old" edifice that is the Leaky Cauldron, an iconic location from the beloved books and films. Hungry patrons who've never read a word of it will likely enjoy it just the same. Serving British-style fare that includes bangers and mash, Toad in the Hole, fisherman's pie and the like (not to mention some pretty decadent desserts; chocolate clotted cream, anyone?), the Leaky Cauldron is a delight for the imagination. And the growling belly, as well. Feel like being a looky-loo? Pop in for a quick Butterbeer and gawk to your heart's content. (407-224-4233)
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)
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)
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)
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?
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)
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)
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)
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.