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Dining That's Universal. Diverse Options Abound at CityWalk, the Parks & Beyond



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 something more 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 tapas-driven menus like that of the Strong Water Tavern at the Loews Sapphire Falls Resort, family-friendly, pub-like surrounds like those at Finnegan’s Bar & Grill or painstakingly themed wonderlands like Three Broomsticks at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Hogsmeade, you're in for some stellar choices.


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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. 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 is what fans of Orchid Court appreciate most.

Recommended for Universal's Best Restaurants because: Many people are surprised when they discover Orchid Court Lounge & Sushi Bar, an exotic and sophisticated venue hidden away inside a theme-park property.

A.D.'s expert tip: Visiting with a big group? Go for one of their beautifully presented sushi "boats," the Bora Bora or Tahitian Long variety.

Read more about Orchid Court Lounge & Sushi Bar →


Searching for your lost shaker of salt? Or perhaps a version of this classic cocktail that comes on the rocks and salt-free? Either, or, no matter, and you can pair it with a Cheeseburger in Paradise, too. Margaritaville is just what you'd expect from the likes of Jimmy Buffett, with a soundtrack and a vibe to match the casual, let's-have-boat-drinks-in-the-islands experience. So if you're in the market for some coastal pub grub and a rum punch amid a colorful, jovial atmosphere, you have found your place at Universal CityWalk for sure. Especially if you count yourself among the Parrothead Nation.

Read more about Jimmy Buffett's® Margaritaville® Orlando →




Its exterior calls to mind ancient Greece, the Kraken, "Clash of the Titans," and the menu does include Mediterranean influence, but so, too, will diners find fare that touches the cuisine of Asia and items far more homespun. Mythos is an unexpected eatery amid the thrill rides of Islands of Adventure, and fans find it an elegant and relaxing respite from the heat with above-average food for a theme park restaurant. A selection of appetizers could suit your group's flair for sampling (they'll run you $6-10 a pop); in fact, the Mezze Platter may best suit the atmosphere this grotto-like venue invokes.

Recommended for Universal's Best Restaurants because: Its grand facade is decidedly "theme park," but its food is surprisingly upmarket for the location. Solid "in-park" selectin for a Universal date night.

A.D.'s expert tip: If you lean cold, either hit Mythos before the water rides or dry off before you come to dine.

Read more about Mythos Restaurant →


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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.

Recommended for Universal's Best Restaurants because: The Palm is easily one of Universal's most upscale dining venues and budget-wise an undeniable splurge. One your inner raging carnivore will doubtless appreciate.

A.D.'s expert tip: Velvet Sessions, held on the last Thursday of the month, are how the Hard Rock does cocktail parties. Past performers include ABC, Foreigner and Joan Jett. Pair it with dinner at The Palm for an unforgettable date night.

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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.

Recommended for Universal's Best Restaurants because: For Potter fans, Three Broomsticks will be especially magical. Sit a spell and be as charmed by its authenticity as was Ron by Madam Rosmerta.

A.D.'s expert tip: At the back of Three Broomsticks is nestled the infamous Hog's Head pub, serving an array of refreshing ales. Looking for high-demand Butterbeer? They serve that here, too, and shhh ... there's hardly ever a line!

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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 â€" roasted beet salad or classic Caesar, for example, are available as well.

Recommended for Universal's Best Restaurants because: Vivo is a chic, new, full-service venue that's ushering in Universal's new era of finer (and "funner") dining at CityWalk.

A.D.'s expert tip: Visiting Universal in the evening? Vivo opens at 4 p.m. which makes it ideal for a refreshing and relaxing Bellini before hitting the parks.

Read more about Vivo Italian Kitchen →




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 â€" 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.

Recommended for Universal's Best Restaurants because: Finnegan's is a friendly full-service option with good food and prices quite reasonable for its theme park location. And they pour a lovely Black Velvet.

A.D.'s expert tip: Finnegan's closing time is dictated by the park's - and is generally 60 to 90 minutes prior. During special events, such as Halloween Horror Nights, they might even be open past midnight.

Read more about Finnegan's Bar & Grill →




Steampunk fantasy and SERIOUSLY HUGE MILKSHAKES, await at this towering eatery and candy outpost at Universal CityWalk. Serving lunch and dinner and loads and loads of dessert, Toothsome is a wondrous Wonka-like factory of family fun. The massive menu incorporates a wide range of fare, much of it pub-like (burgers, Philly cheesesteak rolls, an interesting appetizer called "Totchos, a tater tots/nachos hybrid) but the dessert menu...? Just wow. Order the Red Velvet milkshake, for example, and you'll get an entire wedge of cake garnishing your massive frosty glass.

Recommended for Universal's Best Restaurants because: The food here is no slouch, but it's the dessert and atmosphere that earns this place a nod. Milkshakes are an absolute MUST.

A.D.'s expert tip: If you really want to enjoy dessert here, eat light. Or don't eat anything BUT dessert! Also, order milkshakes early on busy days, there is often a wait.

Read more about The Toothsome Chocolate Emporium & Savory Feast Kitchen →




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.

Recommended for Universal's Best Restaurants because: It's fun and lively, creative and cool, and satisfies a host of cravings for those traveling in diverse and/or picky groups. Burgushi? Just say yes.

A.D.'s expert tip: Can't get a table? Consider eating at the bar. The full menu is available and staffers are affable and gifted in the realm of the craft cocktail.

Read more about The Cowfish →




Strong drinks and small plates are the order of the day at this Caribbean rum bar/restaurant at the lovely Loews Sapphire Falls Resort. Tasty tapas make sharing fun and the servers (and rum captains) really know their stuff. Mexican tapas and Cuban ropa vieja, Jamaican curried goat and Colombian empanadas, Bahamian fish cakes and Puerto Rican papa rellena ... and that's just a few options from which to choose. Make your visit to the Strong Water Tavern a longer one. Enjoy pre-dinner beverages, a nice selection of dishes and do save room for dessert! The salted caramel, toffee and fig bread pudding â€" served with rum raisin ice cream â€" is simply heavenly.

Recommended for Universal's Best Restaurants because: Tasty tapas and ridiculously good rum make for fine dining that can be romantic, family-centric or business-friendly. A gem that hides in plain sight.

A.D.'s expert tip: You can use the Universal CityWalk water taxi to access Sapphire Falls if you decide to visit Strong Water after a day at the parks. No need to move your car.

Read more about Strong Water Tavern →


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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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