Wine Enthusiast named it one of the year’s 10 Best Wine Travel Destinations. The New York Times listed it at number 13 in its 52 places to go in 2015 travel article, citing a dynamic food scene and exciting restaurants. And one of those restaurants won a Best New Restaurant in America designation by Esquire magazine’s Food & Drink Awards.
Suddenly, it seems, Orlando and Central Florida have a creative culinary community with respected and well-qualified chefs and restaurants that are worthy of international attention.
But it didn’t happened suddenly. It has been a steady progression from the days of so-so to the current vibrant food and wine scene with a growing list of critically acclaimed independent restaurants and classically trained chefs, five of whom were nominated this year for prestigious James Beard Awards.
It isn’t just that the restaurants have gotten better, though certainly they have. It is also the result of a dining public—locals and visitors alike—becoming more food-savvy and demanding better. With that came diversification. It shouldn’t be surprising that the top travel destination in the world should have restaurants that serve the cuisines from myriad countries and cultures. There are the more well-known cuisines—dozens of Thai, Indian and Korean restaurants, and more sushi bars than you could shake a chopstick at. But there are also the less familiar and specialized cuisines. You can get Malaysian at Mamak, Polish from Polonia and Scandanavian from the SwedeDish Food Truck. (By the way, according to Business Insider, Orlando has more food trucks per capita than any other city in the country.)
From Africa, you can experience Nile Ethiopian Cuisine on the aptly named International Drive or Flavors Nigerian near downtown Orlando. There are several Spanish-themed restaurants, including two that specialize in the foods of the Basque region: Txokos Basque Kitchen at the East End Market from Beard-nominee Henry Salgado, and Capa, led by chef Tim Dacey, at the recently opened five-star Four Seasons Resort.
Of course, most people who visit a new place like to sample the indigenous local cuisine. That’s something of a problem for Florida because it doesn’t really have one. Few Central Floridians consider themselves Southerners. Most will tell you, you have to drive north in order to reach the South.
Still, there has been a surge of restaurants that offer if not traditional Southern cuisine then a stylized, updated version. Soco, for example, a new restaurant in downtown Orlando’s Thornton Park neighborhood. It’s name is short for Southern contemporary, and its chef/partner Greg Richie, who formerly cooked for celebrity chefs Roy Yamaguchi and Emeril Lagasse, both with restaurants in Orlando, presents such things as chicken and dumplings that are actually lobster-stuffed ravioli with carved chicken breast, and hot-smoked Florida cobia with a buttermilk potato cake. Highball & Harvest at the Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes also serves a modern Southern menu with chef de cuisine Mark Jeffers serving crab cakes atop fried green tomatoes, blackened local grouper with hominy ragout and shrimp & grits featuring Canaveral Red Shrimp.
Cask & Larder, the Winter Park restaurant that earned that “Best New Restaurant in America” award from Esquire, also features a menu with a distinct Southern accent. There husband and wife chef team James and Julie Petrakis, multiple Beard Award nominees, skip the chicken and offer boar & dumplings, along with a country ham sampler and a Low Country boil, served with beer brewed on the premises.
One need only take a quick look at a map of Florida to be reminded that it has the Gulf of Mexico on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other, and both have a bounty of fresh fish and seafood. Twenty years or so ago, as odd as it seems now, precious little of that fresh fish found its way to Orlando restaurant tables. Instead it was whisked off to other parts of the country. But as Central Florida chefs started to pay more attention to the quality of their ingredients, local catches of tuna, swordfish, scallops, shrimp and other seafood began making the short drive from the docks to Orlando-area kitchens. It’s featured on many of the best menus in town, and not necessarily those that identify as seafood restaurants. You’ll find sesame-crusted swordfish next to the Egg Cascarecce Bolognese and Snake River Farms flank steak at Luma on Park, where James Beard Award nominee Brandon McGlamery has a special affinity for fish, and tuna steaks sharing grill space at Charley’s Steak House on International Drive and in Kissimmee.
The chefs also had a relatively recent revelation that Florida has a year-round growing season. So the buzzphrase “farm to table” usually designates a short distance. Kathleen Blake, another Beard nominee and the chef and owner of downtown’s The Rusty Spoon, features locally grown eggplant, squash, watermelon and other produce. When you’re dining around town, look for names like Lake Meadow Naturals, Tomazin Farms, Waterkist, Cahaba Farms, Pero Family Farms and B&W Quality Growers, among others, and keep an eye out for dishes that feature Zellwood corn or Plant City strawberries.
Kevin Fonzo goes the hyperlocal route at College Park’s K restaurant. Set in an old house, K’s backyard has a garden that turns out produce used for his popular fried green tomatoes, as well as most of the herbs the Beard-nominated chef uses.
The collective restaurants of the Ritz-Carlton and JW Marriott hotels at the Grande Lakes Resort go a little bigger but just as hyperlocal with the 7,000-square-foot, on-property Whisper Creek Farm, the inspiration for one of the area’s newest restaurants, Whisper Creek Farm: The Kitchen.
So perhaps Orlando does have an identifiable cuisine. It’s fresh, it’s local, it’s creative—and it’s finally getting noticed.