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I is for International: Surprising Best Bets in Orlando's Tourist Zone



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? The answer is a resounding "YES!" 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 Turkish or Ethiopian food in the heart of this tourist corridor? Such treasures occasionally surprise even Orlando natives, never mind the visitors. Alternatively, sleek, upscale, high-service eateries like Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steakhouse provide elegant oases ideal for special evenings out or business-grade meals well away from the Disney-bound hordes. And restaurants like Tapa Toro, a Spanish gem at the foot of the spectacular Orlando Eye, do up both succinct small plates for dates and succulent paella vats for family-reunion celebrations. 


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Indonesian cuisine is the star at this curiously named I-Drive venue; with Halal and other Arabian dishes permeated the menu, as well. Fans of meat-and-rice offerings will love the colorful and fragrant platters and tiny servings of sauces, all of it made for Instagram. Tasty grilled satay, tempting hearty stews and tender lamb â€" available in dumplings, pastries, over rice and other varieties are among the delights. Service here is pleasant; staffers are happy to give recommendations and explain the dishes, happy ambassadors of the region's culinary culture.

Recommended for International Drive's Best Restaurants because: Looking for something you may not find in your neighborhood? Try Indonesian food at this tucked-away, strip mall gem.

A.D.'s expert tip: Chicken sambal. Actually? Anything sambal. But if you've had it already, this is definitely a venue in which to try something (or things) new!

Read more about World's Magic Restaurant →


Q'Kenan
Photo courtesy of Q'Kenan


Though tucked into the confines of an unremarkable shopping center, for Venezuelan comfort food, Q'Kenan is tops. Cachapas, arepas and empanadas are just three of the stars on a vast menu that's drizzled with smooth crema and dressed with rice, beans and plantains (green or sweet). Unfamiliar with the cuisine? Don't be shy. Staffers are happy to walk you through the Comida Venezolana 101 crash course and breakfast, lunch or dinner. The impressive arepa menu alone, most under $5, loaded with an array of ingredients such as beans and cheese, shredded chicken, ham or pork, might make decision-making tough. If you're in a group, you'll hope it's made up of sharing types.

Recommended for International Drive's Best Restaurants because: There's loads of chains and fancy venues on I-Drive. Q'Kenan is neither. Both you and your wallet will be glad for it.

A.D.'s expert tip: Be adventurous: try something new!

Read more about Q'Kenan →




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.

Recommended for International Drive's Best Restaurants because: Offering simple, beautifully done Latin fare at affordable prices is, like its rotisserie chicken, a Pio Pio specialty.

A.D.'s expert tip: Got picky kids? My guess is that they'll find something native to love but fear not: Pio Pio's got an unremarkable children's menu so parents can enjoy the flavors of Latin America sans whining.

Read more about Pio Pio →


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Vincenzo Cucina Italiana is a hybrid of sorts, a superb restaurant that melds family-run warmth with a fine-dining vibe, making it a wonderful place for a date night, a client dinner, a post-work glass of Chianti or a special occasion dinner. You know, like Nana's birthday. Convenient for both vacationers and business travelers � but Vincenzo's tourist-friendly I-Drive location does nothing to keep the locals from returning for authentic cuisine and service that often goes above and beyond. Live music (like Sinatra, of course!) keeps things lively on busy Friday nights. A diverse menu ensures everyone in your party will find a dish to suit.

Recommended for International Drive's Best Restaurants because: Live entertainment, excellent food, warm service. It's an Italian fine-dining trifecta.

A.D.'s expert tip: Don't be lulled into carelessness by the warm bread. Save room!

Read more about Vincenzo Cucina Italiana →




It's very likely you've heard of the Del Frisco's name and there's a good reason for that. Widely known across the country for their family of eateries - Del Frisco's Grille, Sullivan's Steakhouse and this, Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steakhouse, they are â€" for sure â€" a carnivore's delight, but marked as much for their fine service and beautiful surroundings as much as for their mouthwatering meat. This DF's Double Eagle, a stone's throw from the convention center, sees plenty of business-related bar and kitchen tabs but locals, too, often make the pilgrimage to tourist-driven I-Drive just to partake of

Recommended for International Drive's Best Restaurants because: As ideal for office parties and client schmoozing as it is for anniversary dates, Del Frisco's Double Eagle is posh and stylish, decadent and delicious.

A.D.'s expert tip: Del Frisco's Double Eagle's stellar happy hour, Del's After Dark offers up some serious deals on sumptuous bites and drinks. Tenderloin tips on top of chateau potatoes with Bordelaise sauce for $8? Sign us up! (Try the VIP cocktail while you're at it: refreshing!)

Read more about Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steakhouse →


Okay, so maybe you like to smoke the hookah and maybe you don't. But in the ample, open-air (but covered; take that, Florida rain!) space at Cafe 34 Istanbul, the smoke may not bother you at all, especially early on. This I-Drive enclave is open 24 hours â€" yes, really â€" and the most active shisha enthusiasts come late. Or early. Depending on your perspective. The rest, and there are a lot of them, come for food so tasty and authentic that you may not get past the appetizer menu. Creamy, garlicky haydari and spicy, peppery ezme â€" along with names you may recognize (hummus, tabouli, babaganoush and more) are served alongside soft pita. Come the entree round, beef and lamb doner (it's basically a Turkish gyro) compete with kebabs and juicy, well-seasoned kofte.

Read more about Cafe 34 Istanbul →




From the folks who brought you Taverna Opa, another of our I-Drive favorites, comes Tapa Toro, a beautiful addition to the I-Drive 360 complex, where the paella pit beckons, flamenco dancers stomp and sangria â€" particularly at happy hour â€" makes the music and food even better. Open for lunch and dinner, this lovely venue makes a convenient, tasty complement to "star-gazing" at Madame Tussaud's or a circuit on the adjacent Orlando Eye. Tapas abound, so you need not come famished, though you may find yourself hanging around. Gluten-free and vegetarian options mean diverse groups can enjoy...though the croquetas â€" rife with flaky cod or savory ham â€" could sway even ardent abstainers.

Recommended for International Drive's Best Restaurants because: With a menu that's ideal for both light bites and elaborate dinners and regular live entertainment, Tapa Toro makes a diverse, engaging venue.

A.D.'s expert tip: Parking at I-Drive 360 is free and attractions are many. You could make a whole day or night of it.

Read more about Tapa Toro →




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. Diners are sure to find a sandwich to suit in HK's fast-casual environs. They're pretty friendly, too!

Recommended for International Drive's Best Restaurants because: Open for all three squares, convenient to the parks, reasonable, delicious. Hot Krust isn't ON I-Drive, but it's darn close. And darn good.

A.D.'s expert tip: Not in a sandwich mood? Try the Cactus Chili. The regulars love it! And yes, there's actually cactus in it.

Read more about Hot Krust Panini Kitchen →




Seito Sushi has earned its reputation for being a quality and creative restaurant, and the Dr. Phillips location makes for phenomenal date nights, or family or business dinners, For discriminating groups, the venue excels. Smaller parties can be accommodated in the lovely main area, however larger groups of up to 40 can enjoy intimate events in Seito's private dining room, whether for professional gatherings or special, family-related events. As always, fresh, melt-in-your-mouth cuts of fish tantalize sushi fans while traditional Japanese fare and Asian-inspired dishes tempt those less enthused by raw offerings. Seito has something for everyone in your party.

Recommended for International Drive's Best Restaurants because: Often frequented by Japanese business travelers (along with locals who appreciate its authenticity), Hanamizuki is another atypical gem amid I-Drive's tourist-driven dining options.

A.D.'s expert tip: Larger group options and buyouts are available. Call or e-mail the restaurant for details.

Read more about Seito Sushi - Sand Lake →




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.

Recommended for International Drive's Best Restaurants because: Nile's warm, welcoming atmosphere pairs beautifully with its flavorful, exotic fare. It's an Ethiopian culinary safari right on I-Drive.

A.D.'s expert tip: Come for the food, stay for the coffee. Nile's Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony, that is, where traditional methods are employed to roast the beans before your strong, delicious brew is served up. Oh, the smells...!

Read more about Nile Ethiopian Restaurant →


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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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