Orlando. You hear the word and you’re probably thinking one of two things: home of the Mouse, or home of Florida Man. For some of us, being Mickey’s East Coast vacation destination is more than enough of a draw, but for others, it might take a little more convincing. If the last time you visited the city was for a sweaty, blistery, family vacation, beset by sudden thunderstorms and plagued by uninspired theme park food, give me a chance to convince you that it’s time to give Orlando a second look.
In fact, it’s especially because of the food (and drinks) that Orlando deserves a spot on your 2017 travel itinerary. Orlando? For the food? Really? Let’s walk to find a hotel (we gotta burn some calories to make room for the incoming ones):
WHERE TO SLEEP
Look, we’re going to be doing a lot of eating on this trip. What does that mean? For me, it means I need a place to stay that also gives me ample opportunities to cook. Does that sound crazy? Let me explain. There comes a certain point on go-go-go, food-centric vacations where, despite loving dining in restaurant after restaurant, I just can’t stomach it anymore. Not for every single meal. Call it restaurant fatigue syndrome. Sometimes I want to go home, pull on some pajama pants, cook something up, and watch tv. I’ve spent all day walking, adventuring, and exploring, and I’ve got to recharge for the next foray into the parks.
To be clear, I still want a good meal, but I want it in the relaxed privacy of my own home away from home. This is really hard to do in the average hotel, where you might get a mini-fridge, a small coffee machine, and those little plastic-wrapped styrofoam cups. Not exactly an inspiring culinary setup.
My last trip to the park, I got a room at TownePlace Suites Orlando at Flamingo Crossings — right at the Western Entrance of Disney World. Each room comes with a fully equipped kitchen, meaning you get a real adult-sized refrigerator, a stovetop, microwave, dishwasher, and enough real tableware to open up an Orlando pop-up restaurant. You could host a dinner party in these rooms. Missing something? A rice cooker? A crockpot? A blender? TownePlace Suite’s “Something Borrowed” program means you can call down to the front desk and get it (this is true of just about anything you could want to make your stay more comfortable, and isn’t restricted to cooking amenities, so if you didn’t want to pack a noise machine or a fan in your luggage, you’re covered there as well). More into barbecue? There are outdoor grills where you can practice your pit-mastery.
Want to sleep in and hit the parks later but don’t want to miss out on Mickey waffles? You can make them at the hotel.
The other thing I really need on a food trip is a good gym (it doesn’t hurt to have a gym habit when you write about food). Generally, gym habits on vacation are an exercise in purgatorial madness. Here I am, in a beautiful, sunny, tropical location, and I’m electively choosing to seal myself up in a small, mostly featureless drab box stocked with a few treadmills, a single bench, and a few hand weights? This pressure was eased at TownePlace. The gym has floor-to-ceiling windows — which look out onto a Disney-designed pool area — and there’s enough room for 46 people to work out without feeling cramped, so there’s none of that awkwardness when you discover the one machine you want to use is occupied by someone who looks like they intend to complete an indoor-marathon.
All right, calories burned? Good and hungry? Let’s check out what Orlando has on the menu.
WHERE TO PARTY: DISNEY WORLD
Epcot International Food & Wine Festival — We’ve discussed in the past how Disney theme parks have battled a long and often unfair reputation (especially of late) as a place where culinary excellence and creativity have gone to die. This is a reputation that has largely been dispelled, and it’s impossible to overstate the role that the Epcot Food & Wine Festival has had in winning back the palates of foodie Floridians and vacationers alike. I would go to Orlando on the strength on this event alone.
Located at Epcot’s World Showcase, the festival features 30 unique kiosks serving international small plates, as well as cocktail pairings, beers, wines, and liqueurs. Try Brazil’s crispy pork belly with black beans and tomato and wash it down with a frozen caipirinha, made with LeBlon Cachaça. Seafood more your thing? Try Australia’s grilled sweet and spicy bush berry shrimp and then make your way to Hawaii’s booth, serving up spicy tuna poke and sparkling pineapple wine. Ready for dessert? The Chocolate Studio’s Ghirardelli chocolate raspberry torte is rich and fruity, and pairs beautifully with a glass of Rosa Regale Sweet Red Sparkling Wine, which is the festival’s number one selling wine for good reason.
If the kiosks aren’t enough to occupy you (I would honestly need three days in Epcot alone to do them justice), Epcot Food & Wine features culinary demonstrations, beverage seminars, a concert series, and celebrity chef guests. It’s an increasingly popular event that offers up festival favorites (people count down to the menu reveals each year) and innovative dishes and booths. In 2017, the festival will run from August 31–November 13.
Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival Miss the Food & Wine Festival? It’s cool. March 1st brings with it the Flower & Garden Festival, which, despite the name, is essentially a springtime counterpart to fall’s main food event. Thirteen outdoor kitchens offer small plates, desserts, and cocktails which you can peruse at your leisure, while strolling through riotously colorful floral displays and topiaries.
Head to Jardin de Fiestas for tempura shrimp tacos, served with hibiscus flowers, caramelized onions and habanero sauce and cut the heat with a rose margarita. Feeling adventurous? Lotus House offers a rich Gaoli beef steamed bun, Beijing-style candied strawberries, and the Dragon Pearl cocktail, made with beer, honey, cream and tapioca pearls. Ready for dessert? Try Fleur de Lys’ Grand Marnier cocktail push-pop and the raspberry chocolate fudge macaron. Damn.
WHERE TO PARTY: OUTSIDE THE WORLD
If Disney isn’t your thing, don’t let that stop you from Orlando’s incredible food festivals. They offer something to satisfy every palate. And I mean every palate. Read on.
Downtown Food & Wine Fest — Held annually at Lake Eola Park, this festival brings together 30 of the city’s best restaurants, 50 domestic and international wines, and live entertainment. This year booths offered up such delights as pork belly bao, sugar-tossed donut holes, and award-winning tapas.
Appetite for the Arches — Ok, I know we’ve been talking about taking Orlando seriously as a culinary contender, but how can you ignore the premise of this festival? Sixteen Orlandoan chefs are challenged to create signature dishes for an upscale affair held at Orlando Marriott World Center…but they can only use McDonald’s ingredients. The same goes for the signature cocktails. Attending this event is like being front and center for one of those insane mini-challenges in Top Chef, but with the added benefit of knowing that the proceeds go to local Ronald McDonald houses. How can you not want to attend this thing?
Science of Wine — If you have kids, bring them to the Orlando Science Center by day, where they can explore innovative exhibits and ignite their creative curiosity. Join a paleontological dig, traverse Florida’s natural ecosystems (where you’ll meet some of the local wildlife), and examine the connection between art and science. When night comes along, it’s your turn to explore the museum, at an event the museum bills an “oenological odyssey.” Sample over 150 wines (actually…maybe just sip a few of those 150), attend wine seminars, enjoy snack pairings, and learn all about the science behind Bacchus’ favorite beverage.
WHERE TO DRINK
Hanson’s Shoe Repair — Why, you may well ask, am I sending you to a cobbler for a drink? Because it’s a legitimate speakeasy (minus the illegality), cobbling up beautifully crafted Prohibition-era cocktails in a cozy little space that seats only thirty. To get in, you’re going to have to message the bar over Facebook or give them a ring; if there’s room for you inside, they’ll give you the secret password, which you’ll have to use to gain entrance. Some of you may be thinking this is just a little too cute, but I’ve got to hand it to any place that’s so dedicated to its cocktail history that they extend the theming to the first moment you make contact with the bar. Once inside, the proprietors ask that you stick to “appropriate drink orders only,” which is an awesome way of saying that this is not the place to ask for a Jagerbomb. Get something lovely. Importantly, the bar isn’t exactly a fan of cell phone conversations or flash photography.
In our world of 24/7 availability and exhibitionist-food-photography (I’m not judging, I do it too), there’s something kind of liberating at a bar that forces you to live in the moment. Specifically, a moment in the past, when the bar could be raided at any moment by the law. Fortunately for the curious, Hanson’s maintains an Instagram profile that allows us a little window into their boozy, delicious underworld.
Herman’s Loan Office — Does this name sound eerily in keeping with the aforementioned bar? It should. Run by the same folks, and maintaining the same dedication to producing quality craft cocktails, Herman’s is the bar that doesn’t require a password. Kick back classily by the fireplace, and enjoy a beverage, delicately and expertly made, by a bartender that knows his way around a bottle of bitters and premium spirits.
The Courtesy — Any cocktail connoisseur owes it to themselves to check out The Courtesy, and anyone who isn’t yet a cocktail aficionado may well be set on their way to become one after imbibing at this bar. A constantly changing signature menu reflects seasonal changes and bartender inspirations and classics are crafted expertly. If you’re an adventurous drinker, you’ll be pleased to find the bar offers eight absinthes, and mixes up beverages with ingredients as disparate and thrilling as dandelion and eucalyptus tincture, saffron dust, infused rose petals, and Scarlet Ibis rum. If that’s not enough of a draw, the bar also hosts “Directors Dram” nights, playing several feature films by a single director, and then pairing specialty cocktails with them. As a huge fan of Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element, I could not be more thrilled at the existence of the “Multipass.”
WHERE TO EAT
The Ravenous Pig — Love great food? Love to travel? Recognized nationally and by locals, this dynamic gastropub should absolutely be on your radar. Say what you will about Florida — and many people do — there are people in the state doing it right, and the Petrakises are two of them. The Ravenous Pig has garnered multiple James Beard Award Nominations, accolades from Food & Wine, Saveur, Southern Living, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times. I love what this restaurant does with sustainable sourcing and seasonal menus — it’s the kind of conscientious and flavor-forward work that draws me to an establishment and keeps me coming back.
Hawkers Asian Street Fare — Head out to Orlando’s Little Saigon with an an empty stomach. Hawkers takes its inspiration from open air street markets and food carts found in Asian cities, from Bangkok to Beijing, focusing on small, shareable plates made with fresh, locally-sourced ingredients. This is the kind of place to go with a crowd, order expansively, and share. Cover your table with wok-fired green beans, crispy cod with black bean sauce, curry mashed potatoes, basil fried rice, Malaysian prawn mee. This is the kind of place you can take that person who never knows what they want to eat, can’t ever make a decision, but also thinks you’re wrong when you finally do decide.
There’s something for everyone, including the indecisive.
K Restaurant — When it comes to a menu, there are two things I’m a sucker for: perfectly executed gnocchi, and an over-the-top dessert. If I sit down at a restaurant and have thee opportunity to order either, I’m going to be stoked. Throw in a wrap-around porch so I can dine outside, and I’m in heaven. K Restaurant has it all, and we haven’t even gotten to the sustainably-sourced seafood (a pet passion of mine), the onsite herb and vegetable garden, and the seasonally (sometimes daily!) changing menu. But what really puts this place on the map for me is Chef/Owner Kevin Fonzo’s obviously passionate connection to his city and community. From 2010 to 2011, Chef Fonzo was working at Orlando Junior Academy to produce healthy, delicious lunches for the students, while developing a sustainable program that could continue to be run by school staff. Today he continues to volunteer as an instructor, utilizing cooking as a means to bring together the practical applications of chemistry, math, biology, artistry, and life skills.
That’s 2017 Orlando for you. It’s all about the eating, drinking, and festivals. It’s under the radar but just barely — celebrating food culture in and outside of Disney World. And only a fool would fail to recognize that it’s a legit food destination.