At first glance?and for that matter at second and third glance?Orlando would
appear to be the world nucleus of the fast food industry. On seemingly
every thoroughfare, in and around every theme park, mall and neon
neighborhood, they are there, locked in a burger-to-burger face-off,
vying for attention with millions in marketing dollars. From chintz
to cheeseburgers, they await the weary who want a quick meal that
will challenge neither belly nor budget.
It would, at first glance, seem that way, but thankfully, it is
While there are few who would argue that Orlando is one of the
great culinary centers of the hemisphere, it has come a long,
long way since its earliest days when gourmet food meant barbecue
on a china plate. Lured, however, by the phenomenal success of
this theme park capital of the Sunshine State, some of the worlds
top chefs have whisked their names into Orlandos gourmet roster,
among them Los Angeles' Wolfgang Puck and Louisianas Emeril Lagasse.
Ample ingredients for success It also helps that Central Florida
is indeed central to many of the ingredients needed to whip up
fine dining. While the regions famed citrus groves have shrunk
in the face of determined development and urban sprawl, Orlando
is still surrounded by vast groves whose several varieties of
oranges and grapefruits, limes, lemons and kumquats play an intriguing
part in sauces, garnishes and a bevy of tropical drinks.
Amid the enormous hype that surrounds the regions tourist attractions
lie hundreds of thousands of acres that have long made Central
Florida the winter vegetable capital of Florida. Tiny Zellwood,
just nine miles from Orlando, considers itself the winter vegetable
capital of the nation and tosses an annual party each May to celebrate
its harvest of radishes and carrots, cauliflower and corn.
Sugar cane that grows in the region surrounding giant Lake Okeechobee,
just south of Orlando, has made many a millionaire in the region
and finds its way into coconut patties and elaborate desserts.
Kissimmee, Walt Disney Worlds tourism bedroom community, has long
been a cowboy town, populated by wranglers who keep the regions
cattle herds in line. Florida is, surprisingly, among the top
cattle-producing states in the nation.
Add to that the seafood-laden waters of the Gulf of Mexico and
the Atlantic Ocean, both about equidistant from Orlando, where
snapper, grouper, dolphin?no, not the bottlenosed, performer variety?lobster,
shrimp, stone crabs and pompano play.
All those indigenous ingredients mean that chefs here have all
the makings to create top-quality cuisine, and in recent years
they have been doing just that.
Diverse population adds spice Toss into that mix a community whose
prosperity has lured hundreds of thousands of every nationality?from
Asian to European, Caribbean, Polynesian, Latin American, and
Canadian?bringing with them the spices and flavors, the pois and
the polentas of their native lands. So prolific, in fact, are
the ethnic restaurants of the region that the telephone books
Yellow Pages features a list of restaurants by nationality, helping
you narrow the choices.
Orlandos vast numbers of large hotels have created some outstanding
dining rooms, and each of the two major parks?Walt Disney World
and Universal Studios?has a resident super-chef, Wolfgang Puck
at WDW and Emeril Lagasse at Universal.
Special spots Two stand-outs among the masses are Maison et Jardin
and Chalet Suzanne. Maison et Jardin is an Altamonte Springs dining
institution that occupies a sprawling antique mansion snuggled
into a grove of massive oaks. Known by locals who aren't much
on foreign languages as the "Mason jar," the restaurant glows
with candlelights and offers sound American fare in an elegant
atmosphere. The eccentric Chalet Suzanne Country Inn and Restaurant
showcases the founders hodge-podge of antiques and collectibles,
which provide handsome adornment and ensures that no two plates
or chairs are the same. One of the regions award-winningest dining
spots?its romaine soup traveled to the moon with the astronauts?lovely
Chalet Suzanne is set in an orange grove overlooking a tiny lake
and serves multi-course lunches and legendary dinners.
Mortons of Chicago may have gotten its start up there in the Windy
City, but its an institution now in Orlando; here its outfitted
in dark woods and crisp white linen and serves up top-notch steaks.
If you're traveling with children?or want to tap a little of
the child that lurks in all of us'themed dinner entertainment
is an intriguing option. At these events, the food is basic American
fare but the entertainment is lots of whimsical fun. You can read
more about the themed evenings?which range from pirates to Wild
West shoot-outs, Englands King Henry and thoroughbred horses,
under the Entertainment Guide.
Sea World not only offers you a look at fiercesome sharks, sweet
Shamu the kissing whale and cuddly penguins but you can also wiggle
and sway with talented Polynesian dancers at the attractions nightly
Polynesian Luau, capped by a Samoan fire dance.
Walt Disney World rolls out its characters from Chip 'n Dale to
Mickey and Minnie at numerous dining opportunities from early
morn on through the day and also features a variety of revues,
complete with uncomplicated dining, at various locations within
Winter Park has earned its dining stars as the home of a number
of outstanding restaurants including Park Plaza Gardens, where
you dine on a carefully orchestrated array of selections, amid
greenery under a glass roof; Park Avenue Grill, a casual spot
featuring seafood and beef specialities; and Nicole St. Pierre,
once the stained glass window-bedecked Le Cordon Bleu in Winter
Park, now occupying similarly lovely quarters in nearby Maitland.
An hours drive or so west toward Tampa will bring you to another
unusual dining spot in the farming village of Thonotosassa: Branch
Ranch. A working ranch thats now also working at the restaurant
business, this spot serves family-style dinners'that means the
food comes out of the kitchen and onto your table in big bowls
just like at Grandmas house. You dine on wooden tables in a high-ceiling
barn of a place with a massive fireplace and plenty of farm memorabilia
and chintz. Hearty home-cookin' American style is the lure here
at Branch Ranch, where the prices are moderate but the portions
are definitely not. Loosen that belt a notch!
Many are the chic and trendy newcomers to Orlandos roster of 3,800
restaurants, so go browse among the bites at the Wcities Dining
Guide for a culinary tour of Central Florida.