Orlando hasn't always embraced its Southern locale in the culinary world. As a destination that attracts millions of families, snow birds and international travelers, when it came to feeding the masses, it often took a bland, meat-and-potatoes approach. But in the past few years, celebrity chefs and locally owned eateries have shaken up the scene. The city's chefs have adopted the farm-to-table movement, and with that, its Southern roots. Lucky for me, a born and bred Alabamian, I can have my fill of down-home, comfort food, but with a modern, Florida twist. For those of you who have always wondered about the South's obsession with fried okra and grits, here's your chance to try some of the very best around. Here are some worthy plates for the Southern palate.
Ravenous Pig/Cask & Larder/Polite Pig
Husband-and-wife team James and Julie Petrakis got the momentum going in 2012 when they opened Cask & Larder in Winter Park and took Southern cookin' to a whole 'nother level. They've moved Cask & Larder to the airport and operate Ravenous Pig in Winter Park and soon to be the Polite Pig at Disney Springs. On the menu, you'll find wonderful specialties like hot biscuits with pepper jelly and ham, rabbit and dumplings, shrimp and grits, freshly shucked oysters and "fixins" like okra and green tomatoes with chow chow. 565 W. Fairbanks Ave., Winter Park, 321.280.4200; the Orlando International Airport Terminal 2; and coming soon to Disney Springs
Art Smith's Homecoming
You think Oprah's former chef and Florida country boy knows how to cook? You betcha he does. Art Smith has recently opened Homecoming at Disney Springs, featuring old family recipes and moonshine cocktails. You can't go wrong with the fried catfish, iron skillet sweet potatoes, cheddar cheese drop biscuits and amazing homemade desserts even better than mama's. 1486 Buena Vista Drive
Helmed by award-winning Chef John Rivers known for his barbecue, The COOP is a fast-casual restaurant serving up comfort food classics made from scratch daily. Signature dishes include Southern fried chicken and waffles and Lowcountry shrimp and grits and a wide selection of house-made desserts including The COOP moonpie. For breakfast, a line winds around outside for specialties like the tamale pancake topped with pulled pork or the caramelized-croissant French toast served with the housemade bourbon maple syrup. 610 W. Morse Blvd., Winter Park, 407.843.2667
Holler & Dash
Chef Brandon Frohne has been perfecting the Southern biscuit since he was 12-years-old. He's been charged with launching a brand-new concept from the parent-company Cracker Barrel. Holler & Dash has opened a hip, Southern fast-casual restaurant in Nashville, Birmingham and now Celebration. Come in for all-day breakfast with biscuits loaded with creative toppings like fried goat cheese and kale, pork and blackberry jam, hot chicken and pickles, and country ham and apple butter. The beignets with chocolate coffee dipping sauce are also tempting, or for something a bit heathier, don't miss the drunken tomatoes. 6278 W. Irlo Bronson Memorial Highway, Celebration. 321.204.1445.
Highball & Harvest
This fresh concept from the Ritz-Carlton presents farm-to-table cuisine in a relaxed, yet upscale, atmosphere. Guests can expect handcrafted cocktails and Southern-inspired comfort food like beef jerky, pork and hash and the shrimp and grits pictured here. For dessert, guests can order hot doughnuts, served in a brown paper bag with their own tube of Nutella. Nothing too ritzy, just plain good. 412 Central Florida Parkway, 407.206.2400
Visitors to Orlando can get a little taste of Nashville at Tin Roof, which sits right at the feet of the Coca-Cola Orlando Eye, the 400-foot observation wheel on I-Drive. Diners can enjoy the famous Nashville hot chicken topped with potato salad on a sandwich or the Hoe Cake Pile Up, pictured here, with buttermilk pancakes, barbecue brisket and slaw. Sides include creamy grits, mac-and-cheese and turnip greens, and live music is played nightly. 8371 International Drive, 407.270.7926.
Chef Greg Richie opened a Southern contemporary restaurant in the quaint neighborhood of Thornton Park a few years back, and it has taken off. His menu includes farm-fresh ingredients like heirloom tomatoes, turnip greens and black-eyed peas, but as the name implies, he gives them a contemporary flavor. Richie, acclaimed chef of Magnolias in Charleston and the Abbey in Atlanta, serves small plates of duck confit with boiled peanuts, crisped oysters and turnip soup, and entrées like Korean fried chicken and smoked Florida Cobia. Be sure to save room for dessert. 629 E. Central Blvd., 407.849.1800