|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
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.
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
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
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.