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Café to Café


Orlando, Florida, (and surrounding area) restaurants

Options for a fun visit

When you're visiting a new area, it's good to have someone in the know help you navigate the restaurant scene. Many of our readers know Penny Rawson who for years was the restaurant reviewer for the Bellevue Journal American, had her own catering company, worked closely with David Lake at Columbia Winery, had her own culinary public relations firm, plus worked for 15 years on the fundraiser Cooking with Class. She retired to Orlando about a year ago. This was my first visit and, as you can well imagine, there was a bit of food research involved. We just can't help ourselves.

Day 1

The Coop, A Southern Affair
It's all about home-style fare from the South made from scratch daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It feels like a farmhouse kitchen with small and large wood tables and chairs. Order at the wide-open kitchen and they bring the food to your table. You grab utensils, water, condiments at a convenient station. We had breakfast there and guests appeared to be locals who make it a habit to meet there for some social time over (bountiful) favorite dishes. Breakfast house specials include a "Big Ol' Cinnamon Roll" you can make gooey for an added .50, and a fried green BLT & egg sandwich. Needless to say, biscuits are made in-house. They're known for their fried chicken, and offer Low Country Shrimp & Grits, meatloaf, chicken pot pie, a fried seafood basket and more. The Coop is a great spot for a delicious and casual meal.

Catfish and waffle, courtesy of The Coop

610 West Morse Blvd
Winter Park, FL 32789

Sushi Lola's
This Japanese and Korean restaurant has nine Korean dishes on the menu, but we went straight for the Japanese side of things. Penny has been loving their tempura-light, not greasy, with a delicious dipping sauce, so we dug into vegetable tempura (hold the broccoli-are we the only ones who dislike broccoli tempura?) and it was a great rendition. We moved into rolls next which is a big decision, with 40 on the menu. There are 25 appetizer choices, Sushi Boats for large groups, sushi combos, bento boxes, nigiri and sashimi, and noodle dishes. You could come frequently and not run out of new things to try. A somewhat open kitchen backs the room, with tables in front and large windows. It's in an unassuming small strip mall and a worthwhile find. Locals flocked in for dinner, generally around 7 p.m. Go early and there's no wait.

Rolls! Courtesy of Sushi Lola's

2902 Corrine Drive
Orlando, FL 32803

Day 2

Yak & Yeti ™ Restaurant, Disney's Animal Kingdom
There's no keeping Penny and me away from a Disney theme park if there's one nearby. They're not always foodie havens and they're always expensive. This particular restaurant is run by Landry's food-wise and operated Disney-like (pan-Asian food in Nepalese-style restaurant with every detail well-thought-out, two stories with an elevator). Landry's is not on my favorite list (Bubba Gump Shrimp? Rainforest Café? Claim Jumper? Not a fan, plus they bought McCormick & Schmick's and shut several them down, probably necessary, and Morton's and closed Seattle's location; however, they do have the Chart House, so you never know). Penny had barbecued shrimp wrapped in bacon (a "special" although it was in a smaller plastic, beautifully-colored menu, so you know it's not a one-week special…) that she liked very much. Our friend Sid had chicken tikka masala that he really liked. I went for two appetizers, both of which should be taken off the menu. Hate it when I choose badly.

Dining room, courtesy of Disney's Animal Kingdom

Yak & Yeti*
Disney's Animal Kingdom, Asia area
2901 Osceola Pkwy
Orlando, FL 32830

Spoleto Italian Kitchen

To quickly give you the idea here, it's MOD Pizza for pasta. Walk up to the counter, choose a house-designed meal OR look over the 30 Italian-inspired toppings and create your own pasta, flatbread, sandwich, or salad masterpiece. Staff tosses your choices into a pan or the stone-fired 1500° oven in front of you, and you pay at the end of the line. They say you can talk and laugh with the chefs, but honestly with 12 people behind you, no one appreciates that. They offer seasonal ingredients based on availability of local products. Choose from meats, cheese, fresh veggies, whole grains, fruits. They go for nutrient-rich and organic when possible. It was great to find a place where I could add an organic salad to my dinner. Currently there are four Florida locations and one in Irvine, California. Franchise opportunities await! It's a casual place (the one we were at was very loud inside, but there was patio seating as well) with very good food.

Fig, prosciutto, burrata, courtesy of Spoleto

Day 3

boca kitchen bar market
Another happy find-a grass-fed burger and a lettuce wall! Yes, a wall full of growing lettuce that is used on the plates. They are all over farm-to-table, basing their menu on the local food movement and sourcing ingredients from close-by farmers. Lunch offerings include salads, sandwiches, flatbreads, mussels (Penny); while dinner options include steak, short rib, pasta, pink shrimp and grits. Healthy options for kids as well. This location is in the midst of the Winter Park neighborhood, so sitting outdoors allowed us to watch people, dogs, and decide where to snack once we were through with lunch. Should feel bad, but don't. boca has three other locations in Florida.

Sidewalk seating, courtesy of boca

358 North Park Ave.
Winter Park, FL 32789



Better Than Sex
You heard me. It's a heart-to-table dessert restaurant. There are a couple of kind-of meal items like the chocolate and Brie grilled cheese with a shot of strawberry champagne soup, but as with Les Halles, why? We're all here for the sugar. The names of the desserts are almost as good (funny) as the desserts (serious): The Missionary Crisp, Man Flowers, Peanut Butter Perversion, Cookie Nookie Pie, Popcorn Pimp Cheesecake. Plus, they have rimmed drinks: chocolate rimmed or caramel dipped. And coffee drinks like The All Nighter. If you can't get there soon, just read the descriptions on the website. And then take up their offer to start a franchise. They are currently in Key West; Orlando; and Savannah, Georgia.

Cookie Nookie Pie, courtesy of Better Than Sex

Better Than Sex
1905 N Orange Ave
Orlando FL 32804

Day 4

Rose & Crown Pub, Epcot
Yes, there's more than one Disney park to visit in Orlando, so we did. As you enter the park, you can "travel around the globe, under the sea, into outer space…and beyond!" Fun stuff. But the food can mostly be found in the World Showcase: 11 countries educating your mind and stomach. For lunch we sat on the covered patio overlooking the lake and enjoyed Shepherd's Pie with lamb at a British pub. Quite good. And the staff was helpful in pairing with British beers, ciders, scotches and cocktails. Somehow it seems strange to drink at a Disney park (in my child's mind, apparently, as it stops no one), but you see no one who's had too much. The various countries' restaurants are generally staffed by young people from those countries, so you can strike up some fun conversations.

Dining room, courtesy of Rose & Crown

Rose & Crown*
200 Epcot Center Dr
Orlando, FL 32821

Les Halles Boulangerie-Patisserie, Epcot
When you're in France… (and with Penny), some kind of treat is inevitable and Les Halles has a lot to choose from. It's a traditional French bakery with macarons, éclairs, créme brûlée, croissants, a flan tart with cherries, chocolate mousse and so much more. Sure, there's ham and cheese sandwiches, quiche, and salad Niçoise, but why? We're all there for the pastries and chocolate, right? Always a good idea to go at an off time, as the line can be long and tables few.

Choices! Courtesy of Les Halles

Les Halles Boulangerie-Patisserie
200 Epcot Center Dr
Orlando, FL 32821

Coral Reef Restaurant, Epcot
If you've seen any '60s or '70s movies, you have the same desire I have to sit at a restaurant table next to a giant aquarium. Dreams do come true. This restaurant's catch is the living coral reef with 4,000 sea creatures moving about (we did not see that many but did see some pretty interesting things). There are quite a few seafood options, although I went with short ribs, as did Sid. Penny went shrimp and grits (doing a comparison with The Coop from Day 1 perhaps). It's a fairly large place, but has stadium seating, so everyone can see the fish and turtles. We were seated right at the window, so big night for us. A very fun way to end the day, plus it's located near the entrance/exit; once you're done, you're done.

Strange creature! Courtesy of my cell phone before it died

Coral Reef Restaurant*
200 Epcot Center Dr
Orlando, FL 32821

*We learned on this trip that you can make restaurant reservations at the full-service restaurants at Disney parks up to 180 days prior to your visit. It's a really good idea, as "normal" dining times see very full rooms. Plus, they're holding tables for those who've reserved. You could wait for a while. I have no idea if it's true or not, but we had reservations for Rose & Crown and Coral Reef and got excellent tables. Possibly just coincidence.

Day 5

Cubans on the Run
And we were, too. On the way to a river boat tour, we stopped and got take out, a Cubano sandwich and tamales, chicharron (seasoned fried pork) and arepas. Penny probably had leftovers for a week, okay, a day. A family business, the owner and his father-in-law opened the sandwich shop in 1993. The owner kept the shop going when his father-in-law retired six years later. In 2004, Hurricane Charlie destroyed the shop, but not the mission. They reopened with a larger dining room and kitchen and added more authentic items to the menu. This is a casual spot, very affordable, with great flavors.

Cubano sandwich, courtesy of Cubans on the Run

Cubans on the Run
2956 S US Hwy 17/92
Casselberry, FL 32707

Dixie Crossings
Opened in 1983, this is one of those spots that pulls all kind of people in because it's a casual, beach-y kind of place with tons of seafood, fried and not, along with steaks, prime rib, chicken, salad and corn fritters. They use local shrimp and fish from Port Canaveral. Wood benches and tables in one section sit 6-8 people and they were packed. Smaller tables dot the front room, plus there's a gazebo out front with a bar for events or overflow dining.

Shrimp! Courtesy of Dixie Crossings

Dixie Crossings
1475 Garden St
Titusville, FL 32796

Day 6

Lam's Garden
No time spent with Penny is complete without a dim sum extravaganza. This storefront in a strip mall draws a lot of people, all of whom seem very familiar with staff and menu. Definitely a local's place and quite good. Several items were slightly different than I'm used to from the Seattle area, but all were fun to try. Shrimp, bao, duck, calamari, so much more. Their all-day menu includes Szechuan and Hunan dishes, as well as traditional Chinese seafood, pork, beef, fowl, noodle items and "New Chef's Specials" (hard to say if this is new this year or new 10 years ago, but not really an issue) like blue crab with ginger scallion, sizzling steak with black pepper, and sliced fish with seasonal vegetable. Well worth a stop.

Dim sum items, courtesy of Lam's

Lam's Garden
2505 E Colonial Dr
Orlando, FL 32803

Connie Adams/May 2018

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