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.


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.

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.

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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


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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