Do your taste buds determine your vacation itinerary? If so, you may have dismissed Orlando as just a burgers-and-fries kind of town. True, the theme parks do serve up classic American fare, but elsewhere there are serious chefs committed to seeking out fine ingredients and preparing dishes with care. Not surprisingly, you often get more than a meal: Many restaurants invite performers to enhance the experience. You might find your kids—or yourself—high-kicking with an Irish dancer or joining a Zorba-style conga line. Here are 9 of Orlando’s most satisfying dining spots, from budget-friendly to worth a splurge—and none require paying a theme park admission.
STYLISH FAMILY DINING
With its grand design and exhibition kitchen, Luma on Park is one of the area’s most stylish restaurants. The menu features chef Brandon McGlamery’s cutting-edge creations, made with locally sourced ingredients. Families can book parties in the Cellar, a private downstairs room that was once a bank vault. You can have sofas, tables and chairs set up for as many as four dozen. The high-tech A/V equipment is handy for showing, say, reminiscences of Grandpa’s life. The kitchen crew will create a menu to fit your style and budget, offering such dishes as filet mignon with butternut-chipotle corn cake and duck confit with red wine-rhubarb jam.
GOOD TIMES, GOOD FOOD
The food at Taverna Opa is exceptional, beginning with the garlicky hummus that diners prepare themselves with a wooden mortar and pestle. To the sounds of upbeat Greek music, folks take time out from feasting on lemony grilled chicken and creamy moussaka to toss white paper napkins into the air while shouting “Opa!” (a Greek expression of joy). Keep an eye out for the belly-dancing lesson given by a pro in sequined attire. And then the Zorba-style conga line starts, and diners of all ages weave around the communal tables. Soon you’ll be clapping enthusiastically as a belly dancer stands on a table, wiggles her navel and performs a startling fire-swallowing act.
COMFORT FOOD 2.0
Orlando gastronomes vie for tables at the Ravenous Pig, a semi-casual “gastropub” where everything is expertly prepared, often with local ingredients. Families in the know stop in for lunch, when kids feel more comfortable and the prices are lower (most dishes are around $15). The ham and cheese sandwich will be the most amazing you’ve ever had; the meat began in the Pig kitchen as a whole hog. The Italian sandwich? Those salamis were tenderly cured in-house. Order comfort food like shrimp and grits or one of the city’s best burgers, served with a side of fries with truffle salt. End the meal with “pig tails,” piping-hot curly doughnuts tossed with cinnamon sugar and drizzled with chocolate-espresso sauce.
On street corners in Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong, “hawkers” sell savory snacks—pork dumplings, skewered chicken with peanut sauce, char siu pork and stir-fried egg noodles. In Orlando’s Mills 50 district, the restaurant Hawkers sells dozens of these authentic dishes, plus a few Americanized ones. Some recipes have been passed down through the families of the young Asian-American owners. The place is bare-bones yet stylish (in a minimalist way), and the small plates are meant to be shared. Don’t miss the five-spice fish, green-papaya salad, basil fried rice or roti flatbread with curry sauce. Also worth the trip: General Tso wings, roast-duck lettuce wraps and beef lo mein. Did we mention the extensive beer menu?
THE ROAD TO FLAMINGO
Just a few miles east of the main park entrance, Homestead and Florida City are agricultural communities surrounded by bean, squash and tomato fields, orchid growers and roadside farm stands. The best known stand, Robert Is Here, specializes in tropical fruits. Fortify yourself for the journey ahead with milkshakes made with Key lime, mango, passion fruit, coconut, papaya, banana and more.
Each region of the South has a version of barbecue—except Florida, which churns out copycats. Orlando’s John Rivers has turned that replication into an art form at 4Rivers Smokehouse, serving a Texas-style brisket, Memphis-esque pulled pork and other Dixie treats. Rivers opened his first restaurant just a few years ago (there are three locations in the area now), and his food brought the town together—in line, waiting for his smoked treasures. Items on the menu: brisket and pork as well as a burnt end sandwich and bacon-wrapped jalapeños.
BEYOND THE IRISH PUB
Immerse yourself in the Emerald Isle at Raglan Road, an upscale Irish restaurant. Irish dancers do fancy footwork onstage while folk bands belt out spirited ditties. The menu, developed by Irish celebrity chef Kevin Dundon, is a mix of uptown Gaelic classics, such as shepherd’s pie made with Angus beef, and contemporary creations like a tangy asparagus and goat cheese tart with garden peas and arugula. The bar serves up craft beers, Irish imports and 36 whiskeys. Try a flight of brews from four Irish provinces or three single malts.
Back on the road to Flamingo, you’ll find that just about any of the ponds, depending on the season and time of day, are good for birding and for launching a canoe into the park’s watery trails. You can rent canoes at the marina at Flamingo, which also has kayaks, skiffs, houseboats, bicycles and big-boat tours.
Since the lodge was destroyed, Flamingo has become far quieter than it once was. But campers and day visitors still come here for the marina store and a small café—and views out onto Florida Bay that will have you dreaming of losing yourself among the islands.
TREKKING THE TAMIAMI TRAIL
Officially it’s U.S. 41; “Tamiami” comes from the two cities it connects, Tampa and Miami. The highway isn’t within the park boundaries, but you’ll see plenty of airboats and alligators along the 70 miles that run from the Florida Turnpike in the east to the turnoff for Everglades City in the west. And you’ll get a glimpse of the old ways (beadwork and basket weaving) and new (casino gambling) of the area’s original inhabitants, the Miccosukee Indians. The casino, where limos are pulled up out front, is six miles west of the turnpike at the Miccosukee Resort. If you drive 15 miles more to mile marker 70, you’ll find the Miccosukee Indian Museum and the tribe’s airboat rides. The restaurant here serves both American and Native American standards, including hamburgers and fry bread.
TAKE A CULINARY SAFARI
Boma is tucked away inside a hotel in the far reaches of the Walt Disney World® Resort. This casual buffet restaurant weaves the flavors of Africa into foods that Americans know and love. You’ll taste a variety of dishes, like tamarind-flavored beef, pistachio-crusted fish and “Durban-style” chicken seasoned with garlic and spices. Try the different hummuses (flavored with kalamatas or red pepper), the watermelon-rind salad and the zebra dome dessert (a dome-shaped mousse striped with dark and white ganache). Follow dinner with a stroll around the property, where you may spot zebras, giraffes and gazelles on the private savannah.
TRICKS AND TREATS
You’ll feel anticipation in the air as you’re ushered into Del Frisco’s Prime Steak & Lobster. You’re here for dinner, sure, but also for an evening of surprises. On certain Fridays, the steakhouse—a family-owned cousin of the Del Frisco’s chain—hosts a combination magic show and four-course meal in its dark-wood-and-quilted-red-leather space. Before and after your salad, shrimp appetizer, steak or salmon entrée and chocolate mousse, you’ll be mesmerized by the antics of Kostya Kimlat, a Ukrainian-born master of sleight of hand. Maybe Kimlat will correctly guess where you hope to vacation next, or find your name jotted on a hidden playing card.
Luma on Park: 290 Park Ave S., Winter Park; 1.407.599.4111; lumaonpark.com
Taverna Opa: 9101 International Dr., Orlando; 1.407.351.8660; opaorlando.com
Ravenous Pig: 1234 N. Orange Ave., Winter Park; 1.407.628.2333; theravenouspig.com
Hawkers: 1103 Mills Ave., Orlando; 1.407.237.0606; hawkersstreetfare.com
4Rivers Smokehouse: 2103 W. Fairbanks Ave., Winter Park; 1047 S. Dillard St., Winter Garden; 1869 W. State Rd. 434, Longwood; 1.407.474.8377; 4rsmokehouse.com
Raglan Road: Downtown Disney® Area, 1640 E. Buena Vista Dr., Lake Buena Vista; 1.407.938.0300; raglanroad.com
Boma: Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge, 2901 Osceola Pkwy., Lake Buena Vista; 1.407.939.3463; disneyworld.com/dining
Del Frisco’s Prime Steak & Lobster: 729 Lee Rd., Orlando; 1.407.645.4443; magicshoworlando.com
NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.