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Orlando Dining

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 not.

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.

Theme dining

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 the parks.

Nearby dining

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.

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