AOL PICK from our Editors
The words “Orlando” and “great dining” aren’t often used together, but the fact is Orlando has undergone a culinary transformation fueled by visitor’s dollars and—odd as it sounds—Disney. Two decades ago, Walt Disney World
hired a master chef, Dieter Hannig, who made a career of hiring and training the best culinary talent he could find. Hannig resigned from Disney last year leaving behind restaurants such as Victoria & Albert’s, California Kitchen, Sanaa and Jiko, a few of the best Orlando restaurants that would be standouts anywhere. Young chefs who’ve worked in these kitchens have found their way “off property” and into kitchens throughout the metro area, sparking a wave of inventive new eateries. Disney and Universal Resort have also brought in celebrity chefs including Wolfgang Puck, Emeril Lagasse, Todd English and Melissa Kelly to open satellite venues. Add that to the area’s burgeoning ethnic dining scene—Florida Cracker, soul food, Asian and Caribbean—and you have tasty choices in a range of styles and prices. This list just scratches the surface. There are many others including Hue, The Boheme, Emeril’s Tchoup Chop, Seasons 52, Donna Scalla’s La Luce, the Bull and Bear, Blue Zoo and Capitol Grille, rounding out the list of the best Orlando restaurants that also serve excellent meals.
Neighborhood: Winter Park Price: Expensive
In addition to the “satellite” restaurants of high-profile chefs, Orlando has more than a few excellent home-grown restaurants. One of these is Luma on Park, the province of Chef Brandon McGlamery. The style is Modern American; simple foods made with fresh locally sourced ingredients and runs the gamut from oh-so-good pizza Margherita with heirloom tomatoes and grilled radicchio to seared local flounder with black lentils and ambrosia apple marmalade to a carbonara with house-made pappardelle pasta, organic eggs and 24-hour roast pork. The Modern-themed street-level space opens onto Winter Park’s fashionable Park Avenue. There are outdoor tables, a stylish bar with high tops and an intimate dining room that merges with the open kitchen, making it one of our picks for the best Orlando restaurant. It’s not uncommon to see McGlamery at the counter between the kitchen and dining room shucking artichokes or prepping vegetables.
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Neighborhood: Southwest Price: Expensive
One of the “satellite” restaurants that’s taken its own tack, Primo is owned and operated by Chef Melissa Kelly and Price Kushner, who also own and operate the original Primo in Rockland, ME. The food has a Mediterranean slant with an emphasis on the freshest seasonal ingredients—some of them grown on premises in Primo’s own organic gardens. A typical dinner might include warm goat cheese flan with wood- and herb-roasted tomatoes, braised Guinea hen and squash ravioli with Hen of the Woods mushrooms and cippolini onions, and wood-grilled New York Strip Steak with horseradish potato cake and a salad of spicy cress and roast beets. There’s also an outstanding wine list. Primo is one of the best places to eat in Orlando, located in a modern but classic space inside the JW Marriott Orlando Grande Lakes hotel about 15 minutes from the theme parks. Kelly, a James Beard Foundation winner, cooked with the legendary Alice Waters at Chez Panisse and the influences are obvious. Primo is decidedly more casual than Victoria & Albert’s but don't show up in jeans
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Neighborhood: Lake Buena Vista Price: Expensive
This is hands down, the best fine dining restaurant in Orlando. Captained by multi-time James Beard nominee Chef Scott Hunnel, V&A received the AAA 5 Diamond Award for the tenth consecutive year this spring. The emphasis is on the best seasonal foods sourced from around the world: Japanese Wagyu beef, cold-smoked Maine lobster and Niman Ranch lamb. These are presented on both prix fixe and a la carte menus with sophisticated wine pairings, such as sake-soy marinated king salmon with bok choy and soy beans served with a Marcel Diess Pinot Blanc Bergheim from Alsace. Named for the longest-reigning British queen and her consort, everything about Victoria & Albert’s is elegant, from the exquisitely turned-out Queen Victoria Room with its wood paneling and oil paintings to the style of service, provided by servers in 19th Century garb. Men are expected to wear a jacket and slacks (tie optional), ladies should wear a cocktail or other nice dress or dressy pantsuit. Children under 10 are not served at Victoria & Albert’s and reservations are strongly suggested. Expect to spend $100 per person, plus tax and gratuity, minimum—more if you order the prix fixe, Chef’s Table or wine pairings—but it is so worth it.
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Neighborhood: Mills 50 Price: Moderate
It’s hard to categorize Funky Monkey Wine Company. The original Funky Monkey in the Mills 50 district is a small, intimate space with dark wood floors and an overstuffed attic kind of décor. The menu combines Modern American with superb sushi and seafood and a terrific wine list. Standards include ostrich with a sauce made from blackberries, blueberries, pears, brandy, butter and shallots that’s been reduced to near-marmalade consistency; bacon-wrapped pork tenderloin with soy-ginger glaze; and drunken jumbo scallops served with Maine lobster mashed potatoes. Then there are the sushi rolls. The Fire Monkey combines an Ahi tuna and cucumber filling with a dusting of jalapeno-and habanero-soaked masago (smelt fish eggs).
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Neighborhood: Lake Buena Vista Price: Moderate
Believe it or not, Orlando has authentic Irish pubs. A favorite appetizer consists of Georges Bank scallops (flown in fresh daily) coated in a light tempura batter and fried to tender, juicy perfection, then speared on forks and served in a special rack that holds them upright like seafood lollipops. There are sophisticated versions of traditional Irish entrées as well: pork loin stuffed with homemade sausage meat accented with honey soy glaze; apricot and almond banger (pork sausage with mashed potatoes, Shiitake mushrooms and apricot chutney); sirloin steaks and excellent Guinness-glazed ribs. The restaurant is enormous and located in the former carousel building at Pleasure Island. Just under the dome is a stage where Irish dance champion and former Riverdance performer Danielle Fitzpatrick kicks it to tunes from a Celtic/country band.
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Neighborhood: Winter Park Price: Moderate
Local, independent and wonderful, The Ravenous Pig is owned and operated by chefs James and Julie Petrakis. TRP bills itself as an American Gastropub—casual but upscale cuisine—and the menu is inventive: lobster tacos with cilantro and cabbage slaw, house-made prosciutto, shrimp and grits with green tomato chutney, potato-crusted blue nose bass. Barely three years old, TRP has created standards that could cause a diner revolt if they’re ever taken off the menu: house-made Gruyere biscuits with smoked sea salt butter, smoked pig sandwich with taleggio and grilled red onion, house-made soft pretzels, steak frites and the garlic-truffle fries. TRP makes a lot of its own foodstuffs—cured meats, pastas, bread, desserts. The restaurant is in a streetside space fronting Orange Avenue in Winter Park, and is bifurcated—a pub side and a dining side—though full menus are served in both. There are monthly suckling pig roasts and a focused but excellent selection of wine and micro-brewed beers.
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Neighborhood: Casselberry Price: Moderate
Spanish is Orlando’s second language and Cuban food is it’s second cuisine (even though the largest group of Hispanics in the area are from Puerto Rico, but that’s another story). There are several excellent Cuban restaurants—Numero Uno downtown, Padrino’s Cuban Bistro in Dr. Phillips and Rolando’s in the northern suburb of Casselberry. Located in a nice but not imposing space on State Road 436 (aka Semoran Blvd.), Rolando’s food is first rate. The menu hits all the highlights: bistec empanizado (pounded skirt steak, battered and fried and served with onions and lime wedges), ropa vieja (stewed shredded beef), pernil de cerdo asado (tender roast pork), red snapper, paella Valenciana, pollo asado (roast chicken), mofongo (plantains mashed with garlic) and of course black beans and rice. Rolando is one of the best Orlando restaurants and a must-try for out-of-this-world cuisine you're sure to only find here.
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Neighborhood: Winter Park Price: Budget
Tucked in among the chic charcuteries and nouevelle nosh houses in Winter Park, Palmano's has been quietly expanding its little island of sanity at the corner of New England and Park Ave. What started as a small place for coffee and salad in the al fresco tented courtyard has evolved into a full-blown coffee-bean-roasting wine-tasting restaurant. The charm of Palmano’s has always been the courtyard. There's a big canopy with tables underneath along with a few stations on the covered walkway around the little plaza. Salads and sandwiches are the strong suit here. The paninis are very, very good, and the lunch caesar has enough crunchy green stuff for even a big appetite plus you can layer on some chicken if you like. There are daily specials including, on Sundays, a Tuscan Brunch: all you can eat meats, cheeses, breads fruit and hardboiled eggs plus a glass of prosecco for $9.95.
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Neighborhood: South Orlando Price: Budget
You’re in the South, so you should experience what real barbecue tastes like. Sonny’s is a small chain, founded in Gainesville by Sonny Tillman in 1968. It spread like wildfire across the Southeast with several outposts in Orlando. Sonny’s serves real, pit-smoked meats in a family-style setting. They make their own sauces (which they also sell) to accompany slow-smoked sliced or pulled pork, beef and ribs. There are plenty of options for anyone daft enough not to like smoked pig including burgers, steaks and a bountiful salad bar. Moderate prices and all-you-can-eat specials make it some of the best affordable food in town.
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Neighborhood: International Drive Price: Budget
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It’s loud, it’s crowded and it’s funky, but Café Tu Tu Tango on International Drive also has good food at a good price. The menu goes beyond ordinary “fusion” nearly into “confusion,” offering everything from pork Ossa Bucco to jerk chicken to tuna nachos. It’s a fun place to eat; the plates are small tapas-style portions intended to be ordered en masse and shared by the table. The atmosphere is kind of studied Bohemian, with original art created by local artists for sale. One of the top Orlando restaurants for a truly unique dining experience.
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