Orlando’s reputation as a stellar destination for theme parks is gold-plated. It offers a world class array of attractions that consistently deliver fun and excitement of the best kind.
But did you know that Orlando is also a place for foodies and gourmet restaurants? It’s true. Over the past 20 years or so, The City Beautiful has built a solid rep for fine dining, and it is now very much a destination that attracts connoisseurs and culinary aficionados alike.
That didn’t seem very likely back in the 1990s, when chain restaurants were virtually all you saw in the main tourist areas, and trying to find a fancy restaurant was akin to looking for a needle in a proverbial haystack.
Conventional wisdom said that there was no demand for fine dining in a place where people were constantly rushing from attraction to attraction, and the average pocket-book was geared towards McDonald’s more than Morton’s.
But then a funny thing happened. Disney started opening some genuine five-star restaurants – and Orlando followed suit. Now, you can’t go far without bumping into an upscale steakhouse, a celebrity chef’s latest offering, or an Asian-fusion restaurant that features an omakase menu.
So, if you’ve never thought of Orlando as somewhere you can really set your gourmet hat on, here are 11 roaring reasons why our destination is now the cat’s whiskers for purr-fect dining out.
11. Walt Disney World
The House of Mouse definitely gets lots of credit for changing the narrative about Orlando’s restaurants. The opening in 1995 of the creative California Grill at Disney’s Contemporary Resort marked a major change in thinking about theme park dining, and the rest of Central Florida really took notice.
Now, every new Disney restaurant offers something exciting and different in our culinary world, and others follow suit.
10. Morton’s Steakhouse
The late 1990s saw the arrival of one of the country’s flagship upscale brands, with Morton’s (of Chicago) opening a notable location in the Dr Phillips Plaza just off Sand Lake Road. This marked the effective start of this area being called Restaurant Row and really kicked things into a higher level for fine dining.
For fine steaks, this was also the mark of distinction. Orlando’s restaurant business was going up through the gears.
9. Restaurant Row
If Morton’s marked a turning point for a whole area of restaurant potential, a number of other businesses, and chefs, picked it up and ran with it. Ruth’s Chris Steak House joined the gang, as did Japanese-American chef Roy Yamaguchi.
Another high-quality national chain, Seasons 52, was next, closely followed by the Melting Pot, Rocco’s Tacos and Ocean Prime, and the addition of high-profile local names like Cedar’s, Amura and Urbain 40 ensured this Restaurant Highway gave Orlando real pulling power.
8. Universal Orlando
Not to be outdone by their theme park rival, Universal really raised their culinary game in 1999 with the opening of their CityWalk area, in conjunction with three all-new hotels that all boasted significant upscale dining options.
New Orleans celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse opened Emeril’s in CityWalk and the fabulous Tchoup-Chop at the Royal Pacific Resort. Famed New York steakhouse The Palm arrived at the Hard Rock Hotel and Italian specialty Bice made its debut at the Portofino Bay Hotel.
7. International Drive
Arguably the heart of tourist territory in Orlando, I-Drive had maintained a steady if unspectacular reputation for mainstream dining, but it also got with the upscale beat in the early 2000s with the opening of The Pointe shopping and dining centre, which introduced the likes of the Capital Grille (which also opened an outlet at the shiny new Mall at Millenia) and supreme seafood style of The Oceanaire. These two distinctive national brands ensured practically everywhere now had at least one high-profile well-known restaurant of excellence.
6. Rosen Hotels
Local hotelier Harris Rosen made his name with budget-priced properties that delivered a much higher level experience than their humble status proclaimed, but he definitely stepped things up with three new hotels that all featured a much fancier style, especially when it came to dining.
The Clarion Plaza (now the Rosen Plaza), Rosen Centre and Rosen Shingle Creek Resort all pushed the envelope for signature restaurants, with the latter raising the bar especially with its A Land Remembered steakhouse.
5. Gaylord Palms Resort
As if to prove Orlando didn’t have a monopoly on this burgeoning restaurant business, Kissimmee weighed in at the beginning of 2002 with the ultra-grand Gaylord Palms Resort, which boasted a dazzling array of amenities, including two more entries in the award-winning restaurant category.
Old Hickory Steakhouse quickly gained a keen following for its meat-based style, while the seafood-oriented MOOR completed a compelling one-two punch.
4. Grande Lakes Resort
It felt like Orlando had finally come of age in terms of exclusive hotel brands – and the high-class dining that went with them – when the Grande Lakes brought both the Ritz-Carlton and JW Marriott brands into town, along with celebrity chef Norman Van Aken.
And that was just the starting point. Since then, the Grande Lakes as introduced a steady stream of imaginative and high-quality dining options, like the new Michelin-rated Knife & Spoon.
3. Winter Park
Orlando’s swanky city suburb has never been short of a decent dining spot or three, but it has also raised its game in recent years, challenged by the steady march of decadent dining elsewhere in the city. Local rock-star restaurateurs James and Julie Petrakis have been at the forefront of this particular movement, creating a succession of dining delights, including their current hit the Ravenous Pig and the Disney Springs standout the Polite Pig.
Alongside them have come a string of other impressive outlets, like Prato and The Glass Knife, plus the chic Hamilton’s Kitchen at The Alfond Inn.
2. East End Market
When it comes to creativity and imagination, the 2013 opening of this neighborhood market and food hall acted as an amped-up incubator for even more individual chefs and creative visions to thrive.
Several have gone on to local prominence, while current ramen sensation Domu is ringing up new fans every day. The overall mix of tempting tastes and inventive merchants has ensured more culinary inspiration for years to come.
1. The Michelin Guide
Arguably the ultimate accolade of a city’s dining quality is to have a Michelin-starrated restaurant. As of June 2022, Orlando now has FOUR, plus another 20 that were commended by the Guide’s expert inspectors, including the Ravenous Pig, Domu, Prato and Knife & Spoon.
It was the final brick in a wall of dining delectation that has totally transformed the local culinary scene since the late 1990s.
And it is all just one more reason why our amazing destination continues to draw record numbers of visitors. It ISN’T just about the theme parks these days; it is WAY more than that. We’d also suggest it’s worth trying another of our local specialties. Like day trips and tours. We think you’ll like that, too!
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