For nearly three decades Scott Joseph has covered Orlando’s dining scene as the restaurant critic for the Orlando Sentinel and now behind the popular food blog, scottjosephorlando.com. In the ‘90s, he was the one to coin Sand Lake Road “Restaurant Row,” which is known nationally today as a dining destination. Scott has reviewed literally thousands of restaurants in Orlando, and we guess has popped a few Tums as well.
What was Orlando’s dining scene like in 1988? When I moved here we had a reputation of being a chain-restaurant town. Of course we had independent restaurants but we didn’t have a lot of them.
What changed? A couple of things began to change that. One was that Walt Disney World hired someone named Dieter Hannig as the Food and Beverage director. He came up with the idea of allowing the chefs of their signature restaurants—Flying Fish, Victoria & Albert’s and California Grill—to treat the restaurant like they owned it. Before that, if the chefs wanted to change the menu, it had to go to committee. He said, 'If you have good scallops coming in and want to do a chef’s special, do it.' That allowed them the creativity. Something else happened. I call it the Food-Network Syndrome. The public became more educated about food, how it’s properly prepared, what makes good food. They started to demand more. Also, with Orlando Sentinel hiring a restaurant critic, it helped. In order for things to get better, you have to tell them what’s wrong.
Is the 'Food-Network Syndrome' here to stay? I don’t see the shows going away. I see them expanding. We already have so many copy-cats and knocks-offs for the food shows. People love food, and I don’t see that changing.
What was your reaction to Orlando being recognized by Wine Enthusiast as a top 10 wine travel destination? Well, not only did they mention Orlando but the New York Times named us among the 52 places to visit in 2015, specifically mentioning the culinary scene. Orlando was just one of two or three where they named the city and not the region. That was huge. That was a really big deal. The Wine Enthusiast was significant because we are not a wine-producing region. And I’ll tell you this. Back in 2009, New York City got its fourth master sommelier. There are three levels of sommeliers. It is really, really difficult to get to that master level. The article that I wrote responding to that said ‘congratulations you just got caught up with Orlando.’ We already had four in 2008.
Do people still have a misperception about Orlando? The perception that people have about Orlando and they stay in the attraction area, is they walk over from their hotel and see Olive Garden and Red Lobster and Bubba Gump and think that’s all we have. It’s just like Times Square. But in New York, they get out of Times Square and do something else. Visitors have to get downtown, to College Park and Winter Park and find the good restaurants that we have. I would put Orlando’s restaurants up against the best in Paris, San Francisco and New Orleans.
How are hotel restaurants changing? This is something that’s been happening over the last couple of decades worldwide in major cities. The hotel restaurant used to be very utilitarian, for people who didn’t want to venture out of the hotel for breakfast, lunch and dinner and who didn’t have the resources to find anything else. People started becoming more aware of their food. If they were meeting clients, they wanted a nicer atmosphere, to impress them with a better bottle of wine. Hotel restaurants have stepped up their game. We see that on International Drive. A lot of the best restaurants there are in the hotels.
What is the best theme-park dining experience? Definitely the chef’s table at Victoria & Albert’s because I don’t think there’s any place more special than that. It’s not a dinner for the faint of heart. You get there around 6 and you don’t leave until 10:30. It’s a marathon.
Inside the theme parks, is there one item you just have to get? I love the food at Monsieur Paul at the France Pavilion at Epcot—the Soupe aux Truffes V.G.E. It’s the soup Paul Bocuse made for the French president. Many people don’t realize when they are dining there, it’s owned by one of the most famous chefs in the world. Paul Bocuse is 88 or 89 now but in the 1940s, he had done something that no other chef had done before: He put his name on the door. He was our first celebrity chef.
My Perfect Day: Restaurant Critic Scott Joseph
I love going up to the Winter Park Farmers Market. And I’d have coffee at Barnie’s and get whatever is strong and rich.
We’d go downtown for lunch at Rusty Spoon and see the downtown area. The menu changes all the time. Kathleen Blake is one of our most talented chefs in town. She’s one of the early adapters of farm-to-table. Her menu really describes her dedication to what’s fresh and what’s available.
In the afternoon, I’d go up to Winter Park and do the Winter Park boat tour. And then we’d stroll along Park Avenue and choose from among the restaurants there. Now there is a greater concentration of good restaurants on Park Avenue than on Restaurant Row.
I love the White Linen at Luma on Park … it’s two parts Hendrick's gin, 1 part St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur, and 1 part sweet and sour and 1 part white cranberry.