I knew from experience that the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror — and its sudden 13-story drop — is best done before lunch.
What I had forgotten from our previous visit to Orlando nearly a decade ago was the terror of the lines, especially at theme-park restaurants where the quality of the food can be less than thrilling and a reservation isn't always the FastPass you'd expect.
"Thank you for checking in — your table should be ready in 20 to 25 minutes," said a host at the '50's Prime Time Cafe, where the waiting area was strewn with dozens of other sweaty, exhausted and famished families waiting for the chance to dig into retro plates of meat loaf, pot roast, and iceberg lettuce salads. In the Florida heat, that cold-weather comfort meal for which we'd made internet reservations several months earlier was suddenly the last thing I wanted.
"Do we have to eat here?" my 16-year-old son groaned, reading my mind.
When my now-teenage kids were little, we just stuck it out and stayed. But Orlando's independent restaurant scene has blossomed with so many intriguing options over the last 15 years — and an increasing spotlight on local ingredients, vibrantly emerging neighborhoods, and diverse international flavors — that there are an array of quality choices within 20 to 30 minutes of Disney's gates. It was my personal side mission on this family vacation to find some of the best. So we got into the air-conditioned rental car and headed north to find one of our best meals of the trip.
When Kathleen Blake came to Orlando in 2003 to open a branch of Maine's beloved farm-to-table Italian restaurant Primo, few women owned culinary businesses in the area, she said, and most of Florida's famed produce was being shipped out of state. As the chef-owner of the Rusty Spoon in the historic Church Street District downtown for the last seven years, Blake is not just one of more than 60 female entrepreneurs now energizing Orlando's food revival — she's become a leader in channeling the homegrown bounty of the small farmer boom that's flourished with local chefs in mind as shipping became more expensive in the post-9/11 era.
A fine-ground rice meal from the Congaree & Penn rice farm crusted beautiful local oysters that sat in warm shells dabbed with creamy rémoulade. A Floridian catch of the day — usually trigger fish or grouper — pairs with a dilled Cajun aioli for a perfect fish sandwich. Blake's talent for pasta was evident in the wide noodles that tangled in an intense, dark broth steeped with local wild mushrooms. Luscious heirloom tomatoes over milky sweet burrata are a snowbird's delight in winter. ("When you have amazing tomatoes in July up north," she says, "we've got nothing.")
But the Rusty Spoon's burger is a year-round winner. Known as the "55," it's ground from a whole cow the restaurant buys from a local meat share, then stuffed with Gruyère and bacon, and served on a soft roll with harissa aioli and house-made pickles. Follow that with a knockout dessert of her grown-up s'more, its boozy chocolate brick topped with caramel cracklins' and torched peaks of homemade marshmallow fluff, and we needed a nap before returning to the rides.
The Rusty Spoon, 55 W. Church St., Orlando, 407-401-8811; therustyspoon.com
If you collect recommendations from friends who are locals, many of the places are likely to be in Winter Park, the historic enclave of wealth just north of Orlando with lakeside mansions, a well-regarded art museum (the Morse), the manicured campus of Rollins College, and a quaint downtown district with redbrick streets, boutiques, and a fast-expanding roster of ambitious restaurants.
The Ravenous Pig, launched by James and Julie Petrakis in 2007, was a trendsetter in tapping local farms and set a tone of casual style with an ambitious Southern gastropub vibe fueled by a love of meats, whiskey, and craft beer. Don't miss the house charcuterie platter (sourced from their nearby sandwich-charcuterie shop, Swine & Sons), which included unusual finds like venison salami and good duck ham. A soulful ragù of lamb and mushrooms paired well with fresh tagliatelle, while crisp nuggets of guanciale sparked agnolotti pillows stuffed with ricotta. Even the desserts pay porcine homage, with sugar-dusted beignets tied up in curlicue "pig tails" so cute they practically squealed.
But there was no upstaging the main event: a massive porterhouse of smoked pork that arrived on a plank with mustard BBQ sauce and onion rings.
Pick a libation from the lively side barroom that has an epic collection of international whiskeys, craft cocktails (including a gimmicky bacon-infused Old Fashioned), a solid offering of wines, or one of the beers brewed in house by Cask & Larder, which was my choice. Florida has a rapidly expanding craft beer scene to explore, and the aromatic Belgian-style saison brewed here for their partnership in a downtown French brasserie, Dovecote, was the perfect place to start.
The Ravenous Pig, 565 W. Fairbanks Ave., Winter Park. 407-628-2333; theravenouspig.com
The fascinating neighborhood surrounding the intersection of Colonial and Mills Avenues just north of downtown Orlando has long been home to Vietnamese immigrants who fled there following the fall of Saigon. And "Viet Town," as restaurateur Marshall Phanthachit calls it, remains a thriving destination for pho halls, bánh mi shops, markets, and restaurants serving other Vietnamese specialties like barbecued quail.
The neighborhood has evolved in recent years to include other Asian flavors, and Phanthachit's new restaurant Sticky Rice is the area's first serving Lao cuisine. The narrow room has lively next-gen vibe, with communal wood tables, counter service, and colorful wall murals of Laos' famous three-headed elephant and the mythical serpent Naga — mimicking a tattoo across Phanthachit's back.
The service staff could have used more hands in this restaurant's early months, as our order emerged from the kitchen in a slow but chaotic parade of trays that landed frequently on the wrong table despite a straightforward number system. The kitchen's electric street-food flavors, though, are the reason I'd unquestionably come back.
Lao food — which shares similarities to Thai and Vietnamese cuisines, but often brings more fermented edge and spice — did not disappoint here with a minced chicken laab salad lit with chilies, lime, and roasted rice powder. The sausage links snapped with lemongrass savor. An intricate nam khao salad of crispy rice, a ham-like cured pork, peanuts, rice noodles, and herbs dusted with grated coconut disappeared inside the fresh crunch of lettuce wrapped bundles. The pristine khao piek sen soup also should not be missed. This seemingly simple bowl of chicken broth draws depth from cooking overnight, and with the subtle but significant touches of handmade rice noodles, cilantro and toasty fried garlic adding sparks, it was positively restorative.
Sticky Rice, 1915 E. Colonial Dr., Orlando. 321-800-6532; on Facebook.
Little Vietnam sits inside the larger Mills 50 district (also once known as "Colonial Town"), which has evolved in recent years to become a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood with an artsy, hipster edge. The existence of a "farm to taco" concept called Black Rooster Taqueria should confirm that trendy status, though my own skepticism of the overdone "farm-to-anything" craze was quickly allayed by the undeniable quality of the food. Chef John Calloway (who grew up in Flemington, N.J.) and his Colombian-born wife and partner, Juliana, learned their craft from international chef-entrepreneur Richard Sandoval, including four years cooking in Mexico.
The secret here starts from the exceptionally earthy, hand-pressed tortillas, then plays out in the light-strung casual dining space with dishes that are made fresh to order with a depth of flavors rooted in tradition.
The achiote pork cooks for 36 hours in banana leaves. The marinated carne asada is grilled and served alamabre-style for Black Rooster's signature taco, which blends the beef with Oaxaca cheese and smokey bacon. Pozole brings a big hunk of tender stewed pork in a beautiful broth studded with hominy. Fresh Florida shrimp shine in ceviche brightened with orange. Try that with a Florida beer. (Cigar City's Guayabera Citra Pale Ale worked for me.)
Yelpers will inevitably complain that these tacos are pricey. But they're actually a great value for such skillfully cooked fistfuls of flavor at less than $5 apiece. And if you've spent any time paying theme-park prices for your food, they'll feel like a bargain.
Black Rooster Taqueria, 1323 N. Mills Ave., Orlando. 407-601-0994; blackroostertaqueria.com
Orlando days demand high-energy parenting, and for that I demand frequent coffee breaks. The Joffrey's Coffee kiosks scattered throughout the Disney properties do the trick on a basic level. But if you've grown accustomed to the luxury of a third wave-style pour-over cafe specializing in direct-trade beans and delicately roasted profiles with lots of complexity, you should seek out either of Lineage's two locations. I happened into the airy Mills 50 cafe, and the hand-brewed cup of Guatemalan San Isidro there lifted me on a lovely caffeine cloud — tinted with notes of milk chocolate and strawberries — for the rest of the day.
Lineage Coffee Roasting, 1011 E. Colonial Dr. or 3201 Corinne Dr., Orlando. lineageroasting.com
If you're visiting from a city with great pizza like Philly, the notion of detouring your vacation to a pizzeria may seem like a low priority. But I'm thrilled that we made it to Pizza Bruno. Few places we visited felt like part of the fabric of an Orlando residential neighborhood quite as much as this funky, Christmas light-strung dining room at the end of a strip mall, where there's an oak-fired hearth roaring at 800 degrees and a long list of Florida brews (Central 28, M.I.A., Sailfish, Red Cypress) to sip while you wait for one of the first-come tables.
More important, owner Bruno Zacchini — who tossed pies as a kid on the boardwalk in Seaside Heights, N.J., then made his name in Orlando with a food truck — crafts top-notch Neapolitan-style pies worth the wait. His tender, high-moisture dough ferments two days for real complexity. He pulls all the mozzarella — 200 pounds of it a week — in house, and it's just as great on his Caprese salad with sweet heirloom tomatoes as it is spotted like milky clouds across the zingy tomato blush of a Margherita dusted with Pecorino.
Bruno has some creative signature pies, like the spicy sweetness of the Crimson Ghost with soppressata and honey, a clam pie dedicated to New Haven but featuring Florida middlenecks, and others with Taleggio and black pepper, or the Latin-inspired cheddar, chorizo, and lime. But there were so many other good flavors here we also wanted to try, including a kale salad with Caesar-like "Emperor's" dressing, some excellent meatballs made to his grandmother's recipe, and a thick arm of wine-braised octopus roasted to a tasty char in the wood oven over shaved fennel and citrus.
Pizza Bruno is the kind of place I wish I had in my own neighborhood at home, because it's so focused on locals that they don't even have a phone to order ahead: "Customers," Zacchini says, "need to come in and experience it."
Pizza Bruno, 3990 Curry Ford Rd., Orlando. pizzabrunofl.com
You don't need an admission ticket to Disney Springs, even if it's owned by the Big Mouse. But this sprawling outdoor mall, reinvented as a major improvement to Downtown Disney in 2015, is worth a visit if you're intrigued by what is essentially an amusement park built around star chefs, from Rick Bayless to a barbecue place from the Ravenous Pig team (the Polite Pig), and coming restaurants from Wolfgang Puck and D.C.'s José Andrés.
We couldn't resist checking up on the massive outpost from Masaharu Morimoto, whose restaurant empire began in Philly. And we couldn't miss it, either. Morimoto Asia looms like an illuminated airplane hangar over the waterway that threads this pedestrian mall from inside an industrial structure that was once a bottling plant, and then the Mannequins Dance Palace nightclub.
The pan-Asian menu is built for mass appeal, with Morimoto standards like toro tartare, sweet spare ribs, miso-glazed fish, and even a solid Peking duck. But the sushi experience here can be truly special, with a long list of rare and pristine morsels — lion fish, Japanese sea urchin, fresh abalone, kinki thornyhead, and my first taste ever of tiny "firefly" squid, swallowed whole like little mouthfuls of surf. Our server Laura was impressively informative and personal, considering the restaurant seats 600.
But it was the stunningly designed room itself that left the biggest impression, its moody dark multilevel space divided into private balcony nooks hidden by louvered shutters, a 14-seat sushi bar mezzanine, and a stylish upstairs lounge stocked with Japanese whiskey, umpteen sakes, and a 270-foot sculptural bar (one of the longest in the world) that ribbons its way down to the ground floor where we were eating. I gazed up at the dramatic chandeliers whose crystal strands dangled overhead like giant, luminescent jellyfish floating across the ceilings seemingly several stories above us. I popped another piece of sublime sushi into my mouth and knew: Theme park thrills and stellar dining can, in fact, coexist.