Fall has arrived. School is back in session. And the tourist season is settling down. This makes it the perfect time to visit Orlando, theme park capital of the world? Actually there is more going on in Orlando than just the Mouse or the movie studio and their giant lands of fun. The dining scene has started to develop its own culture, with a combination of creativity and energy. The bar scene is embracing the mixology trend head on. And some shops focus on fun once you walk through the door.
Here are some of our favorite places in Orlando. Check them out the next time you visit and bypass the lines at the parks.
Prato: Taking brick-oven pizzas to the next level, this bar and restaurant have the energy of a place where you want to be seen, but the service of a solid restaurant with creative food choices. A garden wall is full of plants and shrubs, and a glowing bar seems to run the length of this modern yet rustic restaurant (think exposed brick paired with warm wooden tables). When you enter, the music is pumping and the crowd is festive — not overly dressed, but looking sharp. The menu of house-made Italian cuisine has favorites like the Widowmaker pizza (which features a cooked egg in the center) or black pepper tagliatelle pasta, house-cured meats like the carpaccio. Nightly specials are listed on the oversized chalkboards.
Details: 124 N. Park Ave., Winter Park; 407-262-0050; www.prato-wp.com
4 Rivers Smokehouse: Any restaurant that carries a selection of classic, hard-to-find sodas has to be good. But it doesn’t stop there for this Texas-style barbecue joint that started out three years ago in a small, undersized location that could be spotted by the line of patrons waiting for hours outside the door. From the signature angus brisket to the southern short ribs, it’s no wonder it’s been voted the best place for barbecue in Central Florida. And leave room for the flavored cupcakes (like Coca-Cola or peanut butter) made in-house at the Sweet Shop. Soon to open more locations in Florida, as well as a chicken-based concept called The Coop, 4 Rivers is named after Chef John Rivers and his family. The dining room features indoor and outdoor picnic tables, as well as booth seating, and your serving tray is actually your plate, so expect portions to be large.
Details: 1600 W. Fairbanks Ave., Winter Park; 321-972-4398; 4rsmokehouse.com.
Christner’s Prime Steak and Lobster: Red leather booths. Tiffany lamps. Dark wood walls with paintings you would find in a cigar room. Vintage scotch, whiskey and wine bottles on display in glass cases. Oversized cocktails and large pours of wine by the glass. A nightly piano player at the Piano Lounge bar taking requests. Table-side magician on Saturdays who performs between courses. This is definitely old school. But the intimacy (despite its massive size) and top-class service are what keep people coming back to what was formerly known as Del Frisco’s. (The Christner family kept everything the same but changed the name when the contract with Del Frisco’s recently expired.) Otherwise diners are coming back for the prime aged steaks, which have been voted the best two years running by Orlando Magazine.
Details: 729 Lee Rd., Orlando; 407-645-4443; www.christnersprimesteakandlobster.com
Cask & Larder: Sister restaurant to the famed Ravenous Pig, this Southern cookery features a bar heavy on bourbon and whiskey as well as a microbrewery. The bar is a late-night favorite for locals and a good spot to eat small dishes like their fresh-shucked oysters, melon salad or fritters. The restaurant decor is plantation-light and mixes an open kitchen concept with a mix of tables and booths for seating. Among the favorites on the menu are the potted pimento cheese, topped with a thin layer of ham jam. A true Southern Public House.