Family-Friendly Eats Near the Parks: Safe Havens, Adventurous Options

In a city like Orlando, families on vacation have myriad options. Many are in town to visit the theme parks and while those looking to uber-capitalize on the Disney, SeaWorld or Universal experience do much of their dining in amid the attractions, many more want to branch out. For one thing, off-site dining can be far friendlier to the wallet. And it's nice to venture out into other areas of the city, even the more tourist-driven among them. It offers a break from the parks' frenetic pace. Familiar faces are always nice when you're in a strange place. You'll find a few on this list. Kobe Japanese Steakhouse, for example, serves up teppanyaki fun, its hibachi chefs with proffer surprisingly hearty fare along with some mealtime entertainment. Same goes for King's Bowl, although you'll supply your own fun as you strike-and-spare your way to 10-frame supremacy with a side of surprisingly sophisticated menu options for a bowling alley. Pointe Orlando has many options. One is Marlow's Tavern, where leveled-up pub food merges with copious kid selections and craft cocktails for moms, dads and the like. But Orlando, while chain laden, has far more than chicken nuggets and fries up its sleeve. You'll find more exotic selections in places like the Russian/Eastern Euro-infused Ararat and Mediterranean/Middle Eastern venue of Maraya at Sabrina's. 


It's no wonder Ararat Euro Food & Bistro set up shop on Univeral Blvd. It's cuisine and foodstuffs (there is a small deli/market on premises, as well) serves up homestyle cuisine from Russia, touching on other European fare as well, Armenian, Polish and German among them. If you're familiar and craving the cuisine of your homeland, or interested in branching out to taste something new, pop in to sample herring, borscht or cod liver pate. Don't be fearful! Sample! Also on the menu are delicious and more familiar dishes such as pierogi, schnitzel, cabbage rolls and more. An excellent venue to explore the bounds of a milder palate with plenty of comforting touchstones to lean on.

Many visitors to Orlando are surprised to find so many diverse, family-run restaurants in a city they many believe is comprised of nothing but chain dining options. Maraya is one of many venues that disproves this common assumption. Offering up house-made Greek, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern fare in a casual, modest setting, locals laud the eatery for succulent lamb, creamy hummus, crisp-fried kibbe and a vast selection of vegetarian and vegan options for those looking for a meal free of animal products. Lunch prices are reasonable and its location is super convenient to the Florida Mall and just a few miles from Universal Orlando Resort.

Marlow's Tavern
Photo courtesy of A.D. Thompson

Marlow's Tavern bills itself as "the 'Best of the Best' in American tavern fare. Its Pointe Orlando location is both warm and modern, with a lovely outdoor seating area that's beautiful in Orlando's best weather and heater-served on cooler nights. As long as there's no rain, it's a go. Whether you sit inside or out, you're in for leveled-up bar food. Marlow's serves pub classics with contemporary twists. The kids' menu is surprisingly sophisticated, as well. Your wee ones will delight in the 'grown-up' presentation while you enjoy something from the eatery's ample beer and cocktail menu. Lots of TVs mean you don't have to miss your favorite sporting event, either.


So, yes: it's a bowling alley. But when was the last time you went to a bowling alley where you could enjoy a few fames while dining on such delights as maple glazed sea scallops or house-smoked baby back ribs? That's what we thought. King's Bowl has retro flair, reasonable prices an ample menu and a full bar. Bring the kids! But bring them early because after 8 pm this place gets progressively more clubby (live music and DJs are not uncommon). For lunch and early dinners, though? The whole family's welcome to partake in bowling, video games, pizza, fries and milkshakes. Seriously, their menu is huge.

Floridians (and perhaps a few Canadians) know Twistee Treat. The rest of you? You're missing out, so make it a point to stop in on your next Orlando jaunt. There are several locations around the metro, Flint's serves the I-Drive area and those unfamiliar with the franchise will be immediately charmed by the little ice-cream cone stand. We're being literal as well as figurative here; the actual stand is shaped like a swirly cone of soft serve. That's what you'll find here: a creamy, dreamy answer to the Orlando heat. Sundaes and milkshakes are available, too, but there's something special about the soft ice cream and of course, its storybook edifice. It's a lake- or beach-side vacation on a wafer cone.

With locations in an abundance of states â€" the most telling being its success in Texas â€" Chuy's is a solid chain option for Tex-Mex if you're in the mood for chimis, nachos, fajitas and the like. And don't forget the margaritas. Elvis aficionados who've never been should stop by just for the theming; there's an Elvis shrine in every location. Generous portions and a casual, colorful atmosphere make Chuy's fun for groups. Orlando visitors have two options to get their queso dip fix: I-Drive or Kissimmee. Specials include Chicka-Chicka-Boom-Boom Enchiladas and Big As Yo' Face Burritos. You won't go hungry, that's for sure.

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.

Not that the theme parks don't offer up enough entertainment, but after a day spent entertaining the kids at Disney, SeaWorld or Universal, maybe you just want to kick back with a sake bomb and let someone else do the work (within reason, of course). Welcome to Kobe, where the hibachi chefs provide ample meals â€" along with a few laughs and a fiery cooking show to boot. If seared steak, shrimp and/or chicken aren't hitting your sweet spot, order from the ample sushi menu. Kobe welcomes large groups (you may end up sharing your hibachi with other diners if you're less than eight) and has a nice happy hour food and drink menu, as well.

With locations in more than 20 states nationwide, Maggiano's Little Italy has wide name recognition â€" and a solid reputation. Groups are more than welcome at its spacious, tourist-convenient Pointe Orlando location, as are parties in its private rooms, and it is most certainly kid friendly, so bring them along for fun, family-style Italian fare. Service is solid, portions are impressive (there is a family-style option, which makes dinner all the more interactive and "homey") and the food â€" especially when you take the chain-restaurant idea into consideration â€" is really quite impressive! This venue is especially well located for post-shopping or pre-drinks/evening entertainment options. Pointe Orlando has many.

Serving up tasty fast-casual eats from its comfortable Dr. Phillips digs, this cheery "paninery" does up a multitude of classic pressed sandwiches with fresh, locally made bread and house-roasted meats, which makes a big difference when it comes to taste. Vegetarians will find more than a few selections of krusty-with-a-K goodness for their diets, as well. From Philly steak to fondue turkey, Greek veggie to the sriracha-laden "Razzle Dazzle," which melds steak, provolone, strawberry jam and banana peppers for a unique fruity-tangy-creamy amalgam, â€" diners are sure to find a sandwich to suit in HK's fast-casual environs. They're pretty friendly, too!


Meet A.D. Thompson

Amy Drew has spent nearly three decades as a professional writer and roughly half her life as a Floridian. The words, she has found, come easier with bare feet and rum.

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